People often use the terms “feeling safe” or “feeling emotionally safe.” But exactly what does that mean? Usually, we think of “safety” in a physical sense. We seek safety from a criminal or anyone who threatens our comfort or way of life. Though emotional safety does not necessarily involve physical or legal issues, it’s just as real whether or not it’s physical. Though the definition of the emotional aspect of safety can be very personal, I believe it can be defined in concrete and objective terms.
To some people, emotional safety translates into a belief that you will not be betrayed. To others, emotional safety means confidence that you won’t be judged unfairly. To others, it means knowing that a person will say what he means, and mean what he says, especially in personal relationships. Even if held subconsciously, emotional safety is based on certain assumptions and standards which might – or might not – be reasonable.
To become involved in a relationship and to feel safe that someone will not betray you or cheat on you is a reasonable standard. To feel safe that you won’t be lied to, or unfairly criticized or judged are likewise reasonable expectations or standards. However, some needs for safety are not reasonable, because not all standards are realistic and reasonable. For example, some people feel that they cannot be criticized. They feel that criticism is always a bad thing and that they are somehow entitled to not be criticized. They fail to recognize that criticism can be valid, and therefore help one improve, or it can be invalid, in which case they’re completely free to reject and ignore it. Instead of seeing criticism rationally, some people are frightened by it or are hostile toward it. They therefore don’t feel safe with anyone they believe will criticize or challenge them in any way.
Rather than dismiss this as new-age silliness or psychobabble, I encourage people to look inward and identify what leads them to feel more or less emotionally safe. I suggest they ask themselves, “With whom do I feel safe in my life, and with whom do I not feel safe?” It’s always good to know yourself and know your standards. It can help you live your life more consciously and challenge unrealistic or impossible assumptions. Though doing this only once will not fix everything, getting into these self-aware habits can be of great practical benefit. Try it for a while, and you will see what I mean. While it’s of course possible to over-reflect and become paralyzed through lack of action, it’s just as much a mistake to live the unreflective or unexamined life. When you live in that sort of “bubble,” you end up at the mercy of other people or chance situations and occurrences. You become less aware of, and less subject to, your own choices, your own conclusions and your own reasoning.
I believe this is why so many people feel depressed, helpless, frustrated or out of control. They’re told that they “stuff their feelings,” but it’s a surface diagnosis based only on the symptoms. The underlying cause is the failure to live a self-examined life – a life where you are capable of seeing yourself objectively as you would see another person. It’s important to identify the people with whom you feel safe and who are worthy of your trust. Leave room for mistakes and self-correction. They happen, and the wisdom is in correcting them quickly. By consciously choosing the kind of people who deserve your trust, your respect and your confidence, you will have much more productive and satisfying relationships. No matter how dysfunctional and misguided a society or culture may become (and ours is not in good shape right now, for sure), there are always exceptional people out there who are worthy of becoming important and special to you in some way. Examine your life objectively every day: All you need is to look at things objectively, and you’re on your way.