Nervous System / Embodiment

Jake Ernst on Connection & Routes of Safety (Episode 12)

Actionable leadership insight about Routes of Safety, big relational experiences, and healing in community.
Jake Ernst on Connection & Routes of Safety (Episode 12)
In: Nervous System / Embodiment, Routes of Safety
I don’t look at safety as a binary. It’s not like you’re either safe or unsafe. I look at it as a spectrum. We’re always moving on this scale of moving towards things that are safer or moving towards things that are safest. So it’s not to say that there’s only one safety option. The fundamental component of the Routes of Safety is that we are always safety-seeking. - Episode 12

About Jake

Jake Ernst is a therapist, writer, and speaker based in Toronto, Canada. In his work, Jake is interested in unexplored feelings, unprocessed trauma, and unmet attachment needs in childhood and adolescence as catalysts for mental unhealth and unwellness in adulthood.

Jake works with teens, young adults, and parents.

Through speaking, workshops, and writing, Jake explores the bold and vulnerable stories which are rarely told or brought to the forefront. He dives deep into the uncomfortable and seeks to expand and reimagine our understanding of how relationships, pain, trauma, and mental health impact our lives.

Pronouns: he/him

Connect with Jake

Connect on social media: INSTAGRAM // TWITTER // FACEBOOK


Podcast: This Isn’t Therapy


Episode Transcript

Liz Wiltsie: Welcome to What's Leadership? I'm Liz Wiltsie. The more I learn about leadership, the more I'm convinced there's not a one size fits all solution. So I am on my own learning journey and I invite you to join me. EbonyJanice reminds me that being open about my journey is important. Each episode features someone I admire with actionable insight to share. So please join me as I ask what's leadership?

Today I'm welcoming Jake Ernst who is a therapist, writer, and speaker based in Toronto, Canada. In his work, Jake is interested in unexplored feelings, unprocessed trauma, and unmet attachment needs in childhood and adolescents as catalysts for mental unhealth and unwellness in adulthood. Jake works with teens, young adults, and parents primarily. Through speaking, workshops, and writing Jake explorers, the bold and vulnerable stories, which are rarely told or brought to the forefront.

He dives deep into the uncomfortable and seeks to expand and reimagine our understanding of how relationships, pain, trauma, and mental health impact our lives. He also just launched a podcast called "This Isn't Therapy." And, he pioneered a framework called Routes of Safety, which has changed the way that I think about a lot of things.

And that's really why I asked him to be here, because I think there's so much to talk about. So Jake, thank you so much for being with me.

Jake Ernst: What what, this is so exciting. I'm so happy to be here.

Liz Wiltsie: So Jake, tell me, I know someone has said Routes of Safety are trauma informed, love languages.

Do you think that's accurate? Not accurate? Where are you?

Jake Ernst: Yeah. yeah, that was actually me that said that.

Liz Wiltsie: I thought someone else said it.

Jake Ernst: So that's actually the best way  I can  explain what the Routes of Safety model is by relying on kind of another well-established framework to be able to really kinda get down to the nitty gritty of how I understand this model, but also how I understand that it can be applied.

I draw on the love languages framework as kind of, a baseline for explaining what the Routes of Safety model is, because I think it's fluid and dynamic. And I think it changes as we  grow in our relationships. And then also just like in our ways of seeking and looking for love.

And so the Routes of Safety model is the exact same in that it's fluid dynamic and that it is constantly changing and growing and moving like, as you are growing, expanding healing, all those types of things.

Liz Wiltsie: So for folks who aren't as familiar with it, as I am, walk them through what Routes of Safety is and how they could sort of get at it in their lives.

Jake Ernst: Of course.

So the Routes of Safety model is a, like I said, it's a fluid and dynamic model where, I kind of look at it like a wheel, in the sense that there are eight different spokes to it. And so the eight different spokes or the eight different routes are  descriptors for the ways in which we fluidly access safety.

And so just off the top of my head, I can tell you about a few of them. So one of them is inner guidance. And so this is the Route of Safety that I think a lot of wellness practitioners use and apply, pretty liberally, but also pretty commonly. And so that is all the inner resources that we help people use in order to access a sense of safety within themselves.

And the way that I understand that specifically is through the language of self guidance, or inner guidance. And so, that one specifically is about all the ways that within ourselves we can resource our own sense of safety. In creating this model, what I was really particularly aware of was the ways in which that is different for everybody.

So some of the spokes or some of the Routes are relational. Meaning that we can't get that sense of safety without being in relationship with someone else or something else. And so part of what that looks like is a, those can be like sensory experiences. So like a connection to my senses, through my experience of the world with other people or with other objects such as, nature, or just like being out and, perhaps using a hobby, perhaps being involved in a social movement, those can be a relational experience that we have.

So, one of the spokes is sensory experiences. One is also a quality relationships. One is also, common humanity, which really is just about that, like really common, like form of connection that allows us to access safety. And so really in terms of Routes of Safety, the way that I define safety is  through the language of finding ways for our nervous system at like a very kind of core level, to feel a sense of calm, relationality, connection, availability. And so part of what that looks like for a lot of people is not necessarily like an absolute form of safety, but actually just a safer or a safest, practice.

So I don't look at safety as a binary. It's not like you're either safe or unsafe. I look at it as a spectrum. We're always moving on this like scale of like moving towards things that are safer or moving towards things that are safest. So it's not to say that there's only one safety option. And so the way that I capture, and this is I guess, the fundamental component of the Routes of Safety, is that we are always safety seeking. And so that's the language that I use to describe how we move in terms of locating our Routes or which Routes are most safe for us, is this idea of safety seeking.

Liz Wiltsie: I know one of my favorites is structure and certainty.

Jake Ernst: Oh yeah. I forgot to mention that little gem.

Liz Wiltsie: And I will just say for folks, there will be just details for you and Jake has this written up on his website in ways that can be accessed as well as his Instagram, which I will link you to as well. So, so Jake, one of the things, when I started, digging into this via a webinar with you, and then your Instagram, was thinking about the way Routes of Safety play out at work. And how both as individuals we can, kind of, help ourselves.

And then also as leaders, how we can kind of keep the Routes of Safety open for other people. So I'm wondering if you have some thoughts about Routes of Safety in the workplace.

Jake Ernst: Oh, I love that. Keeping Routes of Safety open for other people. I think that is just fundamental to a workplace that is safe, right.

Is allowing people to decide, for themselves, like how they want to access safety at work. One of  my great learning role models, Kim Katrin, she often talks about, the golden rule. So, we know the golden rule is treat others the way that you want to be treated. And she does a really amazing reframe of the golden rule and she calls it the new golden rule and the new golden rule is treat people how they would like to be treated.

As opposed to assuming that everyone wants to be treated the way that we want to be treated. And I think that is just so profound and it's actually a way that I incorporate the Routes of Safety in my work with clients, but then also, in a lot of the trainings that are done, like in workplaces or training for staff as a way to apply this, in their lives.

And so I always sort of suggest that the number one way that we can apply this at work is we have to know how it functions within ourselves. And we have to have, we have to start cultivating that own awareness of how is this showing up for me? Personally. The only way that we're going to really be able to recognize those dynamics in other people, or to be able to apply it in say like our workplace, which is a really like a, it's just, you know, a group of people coming together.

It's a big relational experience. And, it's also not an experience that we've chosen in terms of, you know, who we, sort of are taking up space with, which means that there are many things that are in our control and out of our control. Largely the way that I say that we need to start thinking about in the frame of which we should come at this with is we have to start applying it to ourselves so that we can start to apply it for other people.

Liz Wiltsie: Yeah. One of the things that stuck with me from the jump, talking about this was what you said, but the idea that we can't figure it out for somebody else. Like you actually, in your first, the first webinar that I went to about this, there's a slide that's like, what is safety? And you're like jokes on you.

It's not like such a thing, there's not one way.

Jake Ernst: No.

Liz Wiltsie: To get there. Do you think it's fair to say that, one of the mistakes, a lot of leaders make is assuming that like there's only one or two.

Jake Ernst: Yeah, exactly. And I think that, to expand on that, one of the biggest mistakes that I see leaders making is assuming that people are accessing safety in the same ways that they need to access safety.

And so instead of asking people like, you know, what is it that you need to feel successful at work? Or what is it that you need to feel safe at work? We often assume that we all need to feel safe in the same way that we do. And that's why I like, using the love languages model too, because I think that's also equally true, in applying a model or a framework, like the love languages.

Right. And so, I like Routes of Safety because it's dynamic and relational in the sense that, I can figure out how it is that I personally access safety, but I can also use the exact same model, and the same tool to figure out and map out for people how they can access safety too. And so it again, shows the idea that we don't have to have the same Routes and that's okay.

Right. But really the core, and like the what's at the root of it all, is just, again, the fact that safety is an important part of feeling well.

Liz Wiltsie: Yeah. I actually think about the ways that they can be implemented on an organizational wide level. So like one of them is also private retreat, mine are private retreat, structure and certainty, and I'm pretty sure inner guidance.

Jake Ernst: Are we the same person?

Liz Wiltsie: The idea that like, some people are gonna need to feel connected and some people are going to need an escape hatch. And like both of those things kind of need to exist in a physical space. And then there's, you know, common humanity pieces and protective pieces where people need to feel like they're being cared for.

And what's interesting is that, in the worksheet this is true, but definitely on your Instagram post about it, there's a longer list under inner guidance, there's like 12 things. And so I have actually taken those posts and like circled the ones that apply to me and what I find is, and I've asked other people to do that as well.

And I find it really helpful. But, I find there's something in each of the eight buckets that is real for me. So I may say like, those are sort of my three heavy hitters, which is true. But there's some thing in each of them that I'm like, yes, yes to that.

Jake Ernst: Exactly. I call the model the great equalizer, because what it does is it, actually just sorta, like you're saying is it, allows us to draw on each of them and allows us to see the value in each of them. But then also at the very same time, have our preferences. Right. Or have like maybe our most safe options.

And what I like about it is that it, and what people might find, is that it's actually dependent upon the situation. It's dependent on the environment that changes our Routes of Safety. And, I think in terms of, that great equalizer idea, it's this idea that actually no Route of Safety has a judgment or a value attached to it.

They're all equally allowed, accessible, and they're all equally, I'm trying to just really sort of paint a picture that like there's no value put on them. They're all available to us.  In the way that we need them to be. And I don't mean that like, everyone can access   like certain Routes in the same ways, because we know that is not true.

There are certain Routes of Safety that are absolutely and indeed a privilege to be able to access and utilize. But I do think that there is availability just in terms of, finding some sense of safety in all of those different buckets kind of, as you were saying. And, I've gotten this question a lot.

Like how does this apply to people who are experiencing ongoing violence or ongoing oppression where safety is not a resource that is absolutely, or as accessible. And that's why I liked the idea of framing it just in terms of, well we're just trying to move the meter. We're just trying to get a little bit safer or trying to access safety in a new, and maybe a little bit more of a regulating kind of way.

And so it's not to say that you're ever going to achieve full safety. Cause, to your earlier comment around the definition of safety, I don't, no one is ever completely and indefinitely safe. Again, we're just constantly moving in and out of this idea of feeling more safe, more regulated, and more available for connection.

Liz Wiltsie: So there's a piece in there of a hierarchy within sort of mental health. Right. And you said it at the beginning that a lot of therapy relies on inner guidance, but like inner guidance is one of eight. And so this notion where, you know, and what we see a lot, I think in the sort of modern wellness, the sort of pseudoscience wellness, and I'm not saying that is what this is, but like that sort of Instagram wellness, that says like breath work and meditation, which no shame on breath work and meditation, but that it's like one of many. And if we start thinking that's the best way for everyone, then we're missing this broader idea. And then people are sort of, like feel shame about the ways they feel safe. Like, I think there is some of that in terms of, I know one of yours, under private retreat is like a dark room.

Right. And there is some sort of stigma around, like, I need to retreat to a place that has no humans and no stimulus where plenty of folks feel like that's not okay. So I think there's that piece in it as well.

Jake Ernst: Absolutely. And I think also what you're highlighting is the fact that a lot of our Western, or Eurocentric models of healing, they tend to focus on like the individual. They tend to focus on, what is the individual's capacity to change their world? To change their perspective? To change their mindset? And then access this, like imaginary or this like unique form of like, where we were like, symptoms are gone or like, we, like, we don't have anxiety or something like that.

Right. And I think that is dangerous thinking, first of all. But I also think that, it's a lot more complex and necessarily complex. Because, I am of the belief that just as humans and as a species, we're a social species. We need relationships in order to stay well. We need community in order to stay well.

And so that was at the forefront of my development of this model, because I know that we can't just do it by ourselves. We can't, we just can't, a lot of the work, a lot of the choices that we make will be ours and we'll, a lot of the work is obviously from within and we can heal from the inside out sort of, so to speak. But I like to use the analogy of like, you know, if we were to go away and like isolate ourselves, like in the woods, like by ourselves and be forced to kind of heal from a lot of the hurt that we've experienced in our life. I'm just not convinced that we would totally be able to do it. By ourselves in that kind of isolatory. By ourselves kind of way. Which just speaks to like the power of connection, but also speaks to the ways in which safety is very relational and safety is very much dependent upon, our relationships, the culture in which we live, our upbringing, our parenting, the parenting that we received maybe, and also the parenting that we're giving or reproducing what also, just like how we experience the world.

And so that's why I like models that are more dynamic and like I'll offer nuance and offer multiple explanations. Because to your point, I think that also allows us to escape some of the shame.

Liz Wiltsie: So Jake, the other question I like to ask everybody is what are you grappling with?

Jake Ernst: Oh, what am I grappling with?

I'm grappling with, what I'm going to eat for dinner because I'm really hungry. I'm grappling with a lot of the the complex parts about being human. I'm grappling with a lot of the things that you're kind of mentioning around, like social media use, and grappling with this idea of what parts of me are allowed to show up on a platform such as Instagram. Where I'm showing up, obviously as a therapist, but I want to be a human first. I'm grappling with the idea of, being able to show up as all the complex and whole parts of myself. And not just like one specific box of what my profession sort of mandates that I show up as. I'm grappling with the idea that I want to be a complex human, but also, know that like I'm also a pretty simple person. I think that I'm holding like many of those parts too that, like, that's challenging. And then I'm also grappling with the fact that, you can see them grappling with a lot of things. So I'm just going to keep going.

I'm grappling with the fact that our culture is so like fast paced and wants us to speed up. And my body wants me to slow down. And I think that part of, how that just shows up for me is the fact that, I'm grappling with the fact that I'm a white person in 2020, right now, and there's a lot of racial trauma that has,  not only come to the surface, because it's been at the surface and it's been here for a long time, but I'm grappling with sort of what my role is in all of that and how I can meaningfully show up for, not only just the Black people in my life, but also just my Black clients or people, who are not having a good go right now.

Yeah, I guess there's room for it all, right. Anything from, the ways that the pandemic is sitting for folks all the way down to what I'm going to have for dinner tonight. So all of it and grappling with it all Liz.

Liz Wiltsie: I grapple  with what I'm eating for dinner all the time.

Jake Ernst: Yeah, I know. It's funny you say that because I go down, I always kind of return it back to like, what are my basic needs?

As someone who like growing up, like didn't really get to like figure that out. Cause I only really started to figure that out, like, as it became an adult. But, it just fascinating just like when you start to tune into your body and be like, oh, I'm thirsty right now. Or like, oh, I have to use the bathroom.

Right. And like those are some of the basic needs that I think go to the wayside, like when we're not in tune with what our body needs in this current moment. And I'm constantly working at that. I'm constantly like checking with my body and having to consciously do that. So.

Liz Wiltsie: Yeah. Yeah. For those of us who weren't raised that way, it's tricky to like, learn that later feels much harder.

Jake Ernst: It's like a whole new language. Right. And that's the challenging part.

Liz Wiltsie: Jake, thank you so much. This has been lovely. I appreciate you.

Jake Ernst: I always love chatting with you. Holy crap. Love chatting.

Liz Wiltsie: For detailed show notes, please visit If you liked this episode, subscribe on your favorite podcast platform. Jake's Routes of Safety model is featured in A Field Guide to Naming Your Needs at Work, which is an interactive tool with more than 30 exercises to help you live your best work life. It is also available at

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