Topic 4 - Psychological safety and well-being - notes

In the previous topics we've looked at forms of safety and harm which have some sort of observable physical or medical effect, such as bruising, scarring or infection. In this topic we look at psychological safety, the types of harm which can be caused psychologically, the risks, how to recognise them and how to mitigate them.

Shock and withdrawal

We've already discussed shock earlier under medical safety, but it bears mentioning again here because it can be triggered psychologically. Intense emotions or pain, sudden surprise, or being overwhelmed or overstimulated by what's going on around you can trigger either physical shock---characterised by low blood pressure, fainting and being unable to stay warm---or can trigger psychological withdrawal where your mind basically withdraws into itself, closes the doors and windows and refuses to look outside.

This has ramifications for both submissives and dominants. For a submissive who experiences this it means that they no longer are able to assess their own ability to continue with what they're doing. If they're being flogged or are involved in some other intense activity when they either enter a state of shock or they psychologically withdraw due to the intensity, then it means that they'll stand there or even actively participate (in a sort of auto-pilot way) and continue to endure what's going on but without being rationally able to assess their condition and say, "stop!".

Dominants need to be careful of this and need to regularly check in with their submissive partner during the course of the activities to make sure they're still functional. Checking that their eyes are not glazed over, and that they can answer questions sensibly, are both good ways to make sure there's someone at home.

The important criteria for a dominant is be sure that their submissive partner is intellectually capable of assessing their own state of well-being and of saying, "stop!'.

Past abuse or trauma

Because of the often physically rough or even violent nature of some of BDSM, combined with its often sexual aspect, BDSM activities have the potential to awaken memories or fears associated with past assault or rape. This can happen unintentionally and when it does it can cause the person relieving the past trauma to experience extreme fear, anger or distress.

When this happens end the scene or activities as gently as possible and be prepared to offer support, a shoulder to to cry on, and someone to talk to. Don't force yourself upon your partner. Let them come to you, but be open about your availability to them.

At times like these the very human tendency to comfort and hold your suffering partner can be counter-productive. While they're dealing with memories of past physical or sexual abuse, you attempting to hug them when they're not ready for it can make things worse. Give them the distance they need, but be sure that they are constantly aware that they're not alone. You can do this by sitting near them where they can see you, keeping them company, getting them a glass of water from time to time, gently covering them with a blanket if they're cold, and talking with them when they want to.

Sometimes the people who experience these memories or relive the feelings from their past may have no prior recollection of what happened to them. The re-emergence of the memories and feelings during a scene may be as much of a surprise to them as it is to you. However, some people who have been abused in their past will consciously or unconsciously seek out BDSM precisely so they can relive the experiences. The reasons why they might do this are beyond the scope of this topic, but be aware that it can happen.

It is important that if you have any experience of abuse, whether you are a dominant or a submissive, that you should let your partner know so that it's no surprise if you experience a reaction during a scene.


One of the biggest and most useful warning signs in regards to psychological well-being in a BDSM relationship is fear.

Even if your BDSM play involves a lot of pain there shouldn't be fear. You might experience trepidation or nervousness in the face of a planned intense scene with your partner, but you shouldn't be afraid.

If you are afraid of how your partner will react to something, or if you're afraid of what's going to happen when they come home, or if you find yourself cowering when they're around, or you are afraid of saying what you think, or if you find that if instead of growing and developing in the relationship that you're actually shrinking or doing less due to fear, or if you're afraid they're going to strike out at you verbally or physically, then where you are is not a healthy place.

Find someone to talk to, an experienced counsellor would be good. It can be hard to properly evaluate your own situation when there are emotions involved, and the fact that healthy BDSM can involve pain and striking can make it hard to see the difference with unhealthy BDSM.

Also, because some of the people who get involved in BDSM do have their own abusive pasts it can be hard or impossible for them to handle abuse from their partner.

Abusers are often experts at manipulating your own insecurities and doubts against you, and you may lack the confidence or may be helpless to resist.

Do seek help.

Enabling poor behaviour

Another psychological issue which you may encounter is someone using BDSM to enable their own poor behaviour in the guise of performing "healthy" BDSM. I'd like to give two examples of this:

Firstly, through careful manipulation of their dominant partner a submissive may use BDSM to unload themselves of the burden of responsibility for themselves.

It should be no surprise that not everyone involved in BDSM is completely normal and well-balanced. Some so-called submissives will try to arrange things so their well-intentioned but inexperienced dominant takes the blame for the submissive's misbehaviours. They do this by adopting the attitude that they are 'completely under the control of their dominant' and therefore anything bad, rude, nasty or evil they do must either be their dominant's fault and that only their dominant can punish them for it. The problem is that these submissives are also typically very manipulative and manipulate their dominant into accepting what they do, or into only offering a mild verbal rebuke or a light spanking as punishment. It's common for the dominant of such a submissive to feel singularly powerless or emasculated without knowing exactly why.

Secondly, a top or dominant who has pathological anger issues or who is a misogynist (hater of women) may unhealthily express their affliction by offering intense flogging scenes to their victims. For example, a misogynist may go around looking for women to flog and when doing so is not actually healthily engaging in a mutually pleasurable scene with a willing partner, but is instead releasing and reinforcing his anger on an unsuspecting and unconsenting victim.

This latter is subtle because his victims may not even have any idea of how they were used and abused to allow the top or dominant to revisit and play out his unhealthy needs and feelings on them. While the submissive may have consented to the physical flogging, they may not have consented to being used as an outlet for unhealthy anger.

Catharsis and tears

It can be surprising when it happens, but sometimes in the middle of what seems like a perfectly good BDSM scene your partner suddenly starts crying or sobbing. If there's no yelling, panicking, screaming or fear being displayed at the same time then what you're probably seeing is catharsis. This is the spontaneous release of built-up emotional energy. It can happen with someone who normally keeps their feelings hidden or who is normally quiet and reserved. The intensity of the BDSM experience can make it impossible for them to hold the doors to their emotions closed and everything comes tumbling out.

This is a good thing.

It is an emotional release and it is one of the common motivations for people to get involved in BDSM. It is a relief for them and many people report feeling "cleansed" afterwards.

But this is a course on safety. What has catharsis to do with it? Well, during any cathartic experience your partner will be open and vulnerable to some extent. Your support would be useful. If you panic and think that something's wrong and it needs fixing then you won't be helping. Let your partner be your guide. Mostly they will cry themselves out and end up feeling a bit drained but refreshed. If it has never happened to them before be supportive. They may feel awkward or embarrassed that this has suddenly happened in the middle of a scene and they may think they've messed up. Let them know that you can always get together and play again another day. It's no one's fault. Get them a coffee.

Last modified: Monday, 10 October 2011, 4:42 PM