On Being Safe

I have realized that I have gone through much of my life not being a safe person for many people.

I remember the first time I realized this about myself.  I had family visiting from out of town.  It was my first year of university.  I would only see this family every few years.  I remember my cousin looking suprised at how I reacted to the idea of someone getting drunk the weekend before (I reacted non chalantly).  I asked why she was surprised and she said that she was actually afraid to tell me because a few years earlier I would have reacted very differently.  I would have reacted in the typical self-righteous way that I learned with my Christian upbringing.  That story never really left me, and I was determined to stop being the kind of person that wasn’t safe.

More recently when a good friend of mine told me that the last number of his years, when I was very close with him, were the hardest in his life and he didn’t feel like he could bring me into it really shook me.  How can I have such an intimate relationship with someone and give off the impression that I am not safe for them to be themselves?  He just thought I wouldn’t understand and so kept it to himself.  This made me sad, that a close friend was feeling lonely while I was right beside him.

This has turned out to be incredibly hard.  Being a safe person for someone who is telling you something that you have never experienced is a feat of strength.  When you are happily going through life, and someone shares with you their innermost struggle.  My own insecurities of my life bubble to the surface and I overcompensate with judgment.  I get argumentative as a way to understand better and if they are really close to me and I will try to lighten the mood with humour as a way to avoid either of us feeling too serious.  It’s all very unintentional, but it’s clear I do it.  Unfortunately all that makes me unsafe.

A lot of my thinking and writing of empathy and vulnerability as of late has given me a new perspective on being a safe person.  I realized that I have large walls of protection up against people that aren’t safe myself.  I portray myself as together, complete and that I don’t need them (or anyone).  Recognizing that I do that lead me to understand that other people do it with me.

There are common traits among people in my life that are safe.   Primarily I have learned that it is sincerity, intentional encouragement and gentleness.

I have spent many of my friendships making jokes, teasing one other and debating.

All this to say, that while I have had great relationships and I would trust these people with my life, we failed at making safe places for each other and others that found ourselves in our vicinity.  This is hard to recognize when there is a culture of guarding ourselves through layers of sarcasm and jokes and when there is a great need for someone to look you in the eye and say I am proud of you, you are important and I am here.

I am a decently connected person.  I live in community and relationships are my life blood.  In going through the most difficult year of my life, two people responded to me where I felt safe.  Two.  This isn’t to say that everyone responded poorly, but few people were intentionally safe.  The world needs more safe people.  I have no desire to perpetuate unsafe places and further ostrasize people into their loneliness and pain.  It is difficult to practice sincerity, intentional encouragement and gentleness.  It really takes work and focus and worrying more about the impact you are having on others than on yourself.  But I think it’s worth it.  Because it is those safe people that give strength and bring peace to the places that are usually filled with anxiety and shame.

2 Comments

  • Hey Nathan,
    Perhaps you’d appreciate the work of Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend called Safe People about this exact thing. It identifies character traits of people that are good to have relationship with and those who aren’t so good… Has some great insight that I appreciated.

  • When one can admit to being unsafe it makes you more safe then anyone. It is brave and selfless to admit this and to the public. You took this attribute you did not like and were not proud of about yourself and shared it and made it a teaching lesson.

    Finding myself faced with one horrid event after another outside of my control but which has full impact on me has opened my eyes to the fact that ALL the people I have invested in were and continue to be unsafe for me. It is a lesson brought to me in life I do not welcome and have to come to accept. I am so disappointed and hurt by it. I only wish they would come to the realizations you have and I could forgive and continue to invest in a relationship with them.

    I think today, it feels like every man for himself… get out of my way or I will step on you to get where I want to go. A complete time of entitlement, lack or morals, lack of self awareness, lack of everything that makes well a good well rounded safe person for his own self and others.

    I found your story because I am to visit my parents in a few hours and am preparing myself for wrath of insults, insults, gas lighting, judgement and criticism all so under handed when I stand up for myself others think I am just nuts.

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