Mental Health

What Do We Give Up For Psychological Safety?

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Image by Reimund Bertrams from Pixabay

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown cautions that depression and anxiety may result when we trade in authenticity for safety.  This really resonated with me; safety has become something that I grasp onto as tightly as possible wherever I can find it.

Many of us with mental illnesses have had difficult experiences that have made us feel unsafe in some way. This can lead to the building of defensive fortifications, which may or may not (and probably don’t) keep us safe in a literal sense. Still, they contribute to at least some subjective of safety, even if only figuratively.

According to Brené Brown, where this gets problematic is if we sacrifice being authentic in order to feel safe.  That makes me wonder whether, over time, chronic illness causes our authentic selves to evolve in order to adapt to the conditions imposed by the illness.

My biggest safety issue is that I don’t trust people not to harm me.  I suppose one could argue that by not allowing people into my life I’ve traded away the social connection and social stimulation that I once had.

It’s not that simple, though.  I’m very introverted, and my behaviour has become more consistent with that as I’ve gotten older and my illness has gotten more chronic.  I’m totally fine with spending the vast majority of my time alone.

In fact, I prefer spending most of my time alone, because when I’m depressed, it’s hard to be around people.  I don’t have social anxiety; this seems to be a combination of overstimulation and exhaustion, along with having zero interest in going along with polite social conventions just for the sake of being polite.  I don’t care, I’m not interested, and if people think I’m rude, hopefully they’ll stop bothering me.

All things considered, I can’t really give up what my illness has already take away.  Does the desire for safety stifle me work-wise?  Probably, but there’s been abundant evidence that work isn’t a safe environment; therefore, my thinking is that it’s better to take that into account right from the get-go.

To return to Brené Brown’s point about authenticity, I think my identity has evolved, but my desire to stay true to that identity hasn’t shifted.  In many ways, accepting this vulnerable illness identity has made me more authentic. It’s certainly allowed me to connect with a community of like-minded individuals.

So yes, I will continue to seek psychological safety, but it won’t be at the expense of my authentic self.

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29 thoughts on “What Do We Give Up For Psychological Safety?”

  1. I gave up on some dreams a long long time ago. I searched for safety as I feel it is something that we need to have to live. Safety is very important to me. I overdid it in the past and became slowly disconnected to ‘me’. Having mental struggles made me curl up even more, I lost more and more, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. I feel like the purpose of my illness is to reconnect me with me. To connect with the trauma. That is not a ‘safe’ step.
    My illness makes me too careful, I realize that, I’m very scared to relapse. So in a way it really holds me hostage. But I can’t ‘break’ that wall whenever I ‘want’.
    I think it is a very good subject to think about. I have that book for over 4 years (I think) on my shelf. It survived every Marie Kondo cleaning up, so maybe I should read it. Thank you for brining it to my attention!

    1. Connecting wtih trauma isn’t easy, but at the same time, not connecting with it probably isn’t so safe either in the longer term. Doesn’t make it any easier, though.

  2. I can see a version of my former self in this way of thinking. For years I was convinced that trading trust and social interactions for some kind of safety would keep away the harms which might trigger me. It took me a long time to understand that this thinking of safety is just another illusion of control. You cannot control every possible aspect of life in order to be as safe as possible. This realization may suck at first, but eventually it was obvious for me that I would get even more harmed by situations I did not expect and couldn’t control.

    I have been fighting this kind of avoidance behaviour for quite some time now and personally, I feel way calmer and more satisfied most of the time.

    1. That’s great that you’ve been able to get to that place. And you’re right, there’s so much we can’t control, and that can’t be avoided no matter how hard we might try.

  3. I look for safety a lot. I’m not sure how much it is related to depression. I mean, it obviously is when I’m hiding my depression from people from fear of stigma, but a lot of it is about masking my autism traits, partly from fear of stigma, but partly because some things are considered less socially acceptable e.g. stimming in certain ways in public, struggling with small talk etc. But my biggest safety issue isn’t related to mental health or autism at all, it’s masking certain beliefs and practices in my religious community for fear that I will be rejected if they were known. I’m not even sure what I’m afraid would happen to me – would they stop talking to me? Stop inviting me for meals? Ban me from the synagogue (that one is most unlikely).

    I suppose I also avoid politics and the like in lots of places because I’m afraid of how people will respond. I guess a lot of people do that.

      1. It’s hard to tell. I probably don’t give up much practically in terms of mental health and autism as might be the case, as there really isn’t a socially-acceptable way of talking about these things to people you aren’t close to, and I’m not sure how much I would want to anyway.

        I do give up some authenticity to live in my community. I still do what I want and think what I want, but I’m very careful about letting people know about it and I guess there is a loss of communication that could lead to friendship e.g. when I hid my musical tastes from someone recently because I thought they were not acceptable, only for him to describe having similar tastes.

  4. Interesting post Ashley and it got thinking – I remember in counselling one time, I said “I just want to be me!” and the therapist asked me how would I know what ‘being me’ is and when would I know it. Wow, that really made me think – I’d been hiding ‘me’ for so long, I didn’t know who was the real ‘me’. I’d hidden the trauma we all went thro’ when dad beat my mum, the trauma of sexual abuse (obviously kept that one hidden – didn’t want everyone knowing how ‘dirty I was’), the trauma of domestic violence. Then I realised, through counselling, these things are not all ‘me’ but are ‘parts of me’ only. I’d hidden behind the safety of masks for too many years for fear of being ‘found out’ that – what – I mean, I didn’t do those bad things, they were done to me – why was I hiding away? Why was I still afraid to trust and let people in? Things are very different now; I still suffer from depression and anxiety but I’m more able to manage this (to some extent) now.

  5. Although I am also introverted, when I do dare to step outside my comfort/safety zone…I am pleasant outside of those realms.
    However, that being said, I find my guard is much higher since so many incidents have taken place.
    I’m still nice, but really nervous around others.
    My authentic self is what I am here… Laid back, a little more relaxed because I can simly be me. I also trust the people with whom I interact with here.
    My authenic self on the outside world is clenched teeth and looking down, especially lately, but I’m still my authenic self no matter what.

  6. I’ve never been a huge fan of many of her conclusions, so I definitely side with you on this. I think she speaks to a particular audience well, but I’m not part of it. Shame, depression, anxiety, authenticity and safety look different for all of us.

  7. The reason I have trouble being social is because it makes me unsafe. If thinking about something makes me feel unsafe, I avoid it. I wasn’t this way before my mental illness started. My safe place is my home. By doing this I do hurt others. I don’t like it but I have to trust what my mental illness makes me feel.

  8. Very interesting blog post! I’m glad, in your case, that you’re not losing anything you’d want, in a social sense. I sort of see what you mean. Social chitchat can be mind numbing and lead to Nowheresville.

    In my case, I think I’ve always been too authentically Meg, and I’m used to people thinking I’m weird, which is sad, but it makes it easy to find the best friends!

  9. I’ve always had few friends. I’m an introvert. I enjoy being alone. I’m going through a very hard time right now. My therapist wants me to socialize. She’s got science backing her up. Something about having supportive people is essential to mental illness recovery. Ok there’s no way in hell im gonna join a meet up group or a church or a professional organization. Sorry! I told her I’ve made many online friends and I think I’ll be ok 😀

    1. Supportive people is great, but it’s got to be in a way that works for the individual. Online connection is the best thing since sliced bread for us introverts!

  10. Really appreciate your explorations here Ashley. Those who have strong voices like Brene can be intimidating to question. You bring some great personal insights that from what I know of Brene, she would humbly accept and learn from.
    I am still learning and growing in this area. It is very personal and your boldness to bring it to the light is truly authentic.
    Keep exploring.


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