Sunday, September 12, 2010

Safety Matters!

Imagine this scenario.

Brenda is waiting at a local coffeehouse for her first "date" with Jim. She met Jim through an online dating service, has spoken with him on the phone, and is looking forward to their time together.

Jim arrives a little late, and the two exchange pleasant conversation. Although Brenda feels a little apprehensive, she continues to engage Jim to learn more about him. He talks easily about himself without revealing much feeling or insight. His own questions of Brenda seem superficial and practiced. She think he's good looking, polite, and "hard to read."

Brenda responds to her experience by agreeing to meet Jim again. She attributes any "awkwardness" to the anxiety of a first encounter. After several similar, lackluster dates, Brenda is feeling frustrated and begins to doubt her own attractiveness. She becomes confused and physically demonstrative. Eventually, she sleeps with Jim, and does so periodically over the next three months before she breaks off the relationship.

Now, Brenda feels guilt and shame. With bitter self-criticism, she wonders how she ended up in this situation.

* * *

In my consultations with many women (and men) over 35 years, distressing experiences like Brenda's usually correspond to unstable or diminished self-acceptance and a powerful, repetitive pattern. In this manner, people habitually fail to acknowledge or casually disregard a core component of healthy relationship life.


In the interpersonal context, safety refers to conditions in which some form of harm to you and the other person is unlikely. Furthermore, your well-being is recognized and nurtured.

According to Abraham Maslow's hierarchy, after you meet your basic physiological needs (e.g., air, food, shelter, sleep), safety is essential before you can effectively meet your needs for love and belonging.

Additional support for the importance of safety comes from Erik Erikson, who created an eight-stage theory of emotional development across the life span. In Erikson's first stage, Trust vs Mistrust, the infant needs to develop feelings of comfort from a consistent caregiver. This constant, reliable care promotes the baby's sense of trust. If a child's needs are not consistently met, she can develop a sense of mistrust. As a result, she will be less able to delay gratification, and react to frustration with anxiety and upset.

In my view, this early trust forms the roots of interpersonal safety.

In Brenda's example, safety was missing throughout her relationship with Jim. Although she wasn't concerned about physical harm, she did have some initial uneasiness, didn't feel "visible," and lacked a sense of genuine connection and trust with him. As Brenda and Jim spent more time together, she felt less secure and more uncertain about herself.

Despite her disappointment with Jim's minimal support, comforting, and empathy, she became sexually involved. Brenda overlooked all these signs of being "unsafe" because she wanted, perhaps desperately, to belong, to feel loved, and to share intimacy. In Maslow's terms, she bypassed her safety needs to get her love/belonging needs met.

By acting without safety, she allowed her fundamental well-being to be ignored. As you might expect, this level of personal compromise led to her feeling isolated and distraught.

* * *

Of course, interpersonal safety is critically important in all your relationships. If you wish to enhance your safety with friends, family, coworkers, as well as with lovers, you need to first assess what you have now. Consider the following:
  • Reflect on your current relationships, and identify those people with whom you feel "safe" as discussed earlier.
  • What qualities and characteristics do these people possess that support your feeling of safety?
  • What behaviors do they express that promote your safety with them? What do they actually do?
Review your responses. Make sure you've been clear and specific.

By creating this list, you have recognized the significance of safety in your present relationships. Now, you can take that activity one step further with this question:
  • What qualities, characteristics, and behaviors do you want to experience to feel safe (or increase safety) in your relationships?
Some of your responses to what you want may come from your previous list, while others will be new.

In any case, your desired responses will help you notice those factors that are present when you feel safe (and when you don't) in various interpersonal encounters with familiar as well as unfamiliar people. As your awareness grows, you can make any changes to your wants as you wish.

In the next discussion, I'll go beyond interpersonal situations to explore the key to safety within. Until then:

Allow yourself to feel and appreciate the consistency, comfort, and nurturance of safe relationships.

Love and Peace,

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