The Underrated Emotion of Safety

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Feeling safe and secure is a foundation for mental health, so why don’t we hear more about these feelings and how to increase them?

Attachment and Security

Modern psychotherapy has recently taken a new look at an old theory. Legendary psychologist John Bowlby did a lot of thinking about attachment theory, which describes how very young children relate to their parents or caregivers. Out of his work, Developmental Psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed the “Strange Situation” assessment to measure how toddlers react to being separated from their caregivers and then reunited. Based on the child’s reaction, a set of descriptors was developed, both for healthy, “secure” attachment and other less-adaptive patterns of interaction. Securely attached children show affinity for their caregivers, distress when separated from them, then relief and renewed comfort when reunited.

Secure attachment to a caregiver in childhood is thought to shape emotion and behavior throughout the lifespan. Sue Johnson, Professor of Clinical Psychology and creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) extended Bowlby’s ideas into the realm of couples therapy. Johnson asserts that people with less-than-secure attachment to their primary caregiver carry “attachment wounds” which drive them to repetitive patterns of fighting or avoidance in adult romantic relationships.

Johnson also describes the subjective experience of being securely attached. She says that secure attachment is perceived as two gut level beliefs: first, that the people closest to me care enough to take care of me, and second, that I am worthy of their attention and love. To deeply hold these two beliefs is to feel safe and secure in a social network, whether that be a partner, a family, or a peer group.

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Note that this feeling of safety and security is just that — a feeling. It doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with reality. As human beings, we are unsafe and insecure from the get-go. Our loved ones will, at times, fail to give us what we need even if their intentions are pure. Similarly, we will inevitably do things that make us hard to love. As the Buddha observed, most of us will grow old, become sick, and all of us will eventually die. A feeling of safety and security always includes at least a little self-deception.

Developing a sense of safety and security is intuitively good for obvious reasons. We like to feel safe. We crave it and pursue this feeling. What’s more, research shows that lack of safety and security (manifested in the form of stress) actually disturbs our ability to form short-term memories.

Much has been written about stress reduction. Techniques for reducing stress are legion and quite effective. And yet I feel that we look at stress in much the same way as we used to look at physical illness. Before the era of “wellness”, people were either sick, or they weren’t. After the concept of wellness took off, we saw that there were levels of health beyond simply being disease-free. I’d like to suggest that a positive sense of safety and security is the wellness of the stress-reduction world. By fostering a sense of safety and security, we may be able to inoculate ourselves against psychological stressors in the environment.

Feeling Safe

As much as some of us try to deny it, human beings are social creatures. We come into this world absolutely dependent and while we may survive our adult years without social contact, I wouldn’t consider it thriving. Although we may avoid serious relationships for many reasons, our sense of safety rests to a great degree on the sorts of people that we allow into our lives. The risks of betrayal or rejection, though real, are outweighed by the certainty of insecurity and loneliness if we choose isolation.

For centuries, human beings, when confronted with their own frailty and mortality, have turned to religion, spirituality and philosophy for comfort. Most religions include some divine figure serving in the role of a mother/father or protector for the faithful. Belonging to a faith community is one of the easiest ways to build up social connectedness on a regular basis. Even without the trappings of organized religion, spirituality or a sense of the sacred can offer the feeling that there is indeed something larger than oneself and perhaps that that something has care and compassion for ephemeral beings like ourselves. Philosophy offers a more intellectual inquiry into existence. Most philosophies posit that life has a meaning that transcends an individual’s existence. Choosing a greater purpose to devote one’s life to can grant a sense of stability and certainty through trying times.

Can you decorate your way to inner peace? I believe it’s worth a try. People go away on vacations in order to change their surroundings and consequently their moods. Why not try the same strategy at home? Setting up the house to be a refuge, a place to de-stress and recharge, could go a long way towards creating that sense of safety and security. What makes a house feel safe is quite individual, but calming music, soft fabrics, muted colors and scenes of natural beauty work for most people.

Arranging our homes is one way to increase our sense of security. We can perform a similar manipulation with our time. Any parenting book worth reading will stress the importance of a regular routine for babies and children. Are we adults any different? Creating a regular schedule that includes enough time for rest, recreation and recovery sets the groundwork for developing a feeling that the world is a predictable place where our needs will be met.

At the risk of being self-serving, I’d also like to propose therapy as a source of safety and security. Therapists often view safety and security in session as a means to an end. Most client’s won’t talk frankly about their problems until they feel safe in session. However I believe the safety of the therapy room can be a positive good all by itself. For a client unfamiliar with secure attachment, a good therapist may be the first person stable enough, empathetic enough, and secure enough in their own selves to warrant the client’s trust. Once you’ve felt truly listened to and cared about in the ways that therapists practice and refine, you gain perspective on how other relationships function in comparison. How can anyone seek safety in a relationship when they’ve never felt it for themselves?

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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