on feeling safe

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that I want to be around people who make me feel psychologically safe. I think about this as safety versus appraisal—do you feel like you have space to experiment and make mistakes without fear of judgment, or do you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells? It’s impossible to avoid appraisal—we’re all constantly being judged in multiple parts of our lives—but if the only relationships in your life are critical relationships, you’re likely to be unhappy.

My younger brother starts college in September. I was reflecting on what kind of college experience I hope he has, and remembered Marina Keegan’s essay:

I sat down. And I looked up. At this giant room I was in. At this place where thousands of people had sat before me. And alone, at night, in the middle of a New Haven storm, I felt so remarkably, unbelievably safe.

We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale.

“Remarkably, unbelievably safe”: that’s how I want him to feel.

My own college experience wasn’t like Keegan’s. It wasn’t bad, and I met friends I’m still close to today, but I never felt that sense of intense belonging. The first time I did feel it was during the first summer I spent in San Francisco. I came for a summer internship and met a bunch of people I had an instant affinity for. It felt magical. I was an instant convert.

I would live in San Francisco, on and off, for the next four years. There were, of course, lots of situations I encountered that did make me feel appraised, which we have established is natural and unavoidable. But I always had friends who made me feel safe. Safe, as in: if you fuck up, I’ll tell you, but I still love you. Safe, as in: I believe you’ll figure it out, even though you haven’t figured it out yet. Safe, as in: you can crash on my couch for as long as you want. Safe as in roommates and Dandelion Coffee and Alta Plaza Park on breezy Sundays, always having someone to get lunch or drinks with, always a house party to go to on a Saturday night, always someone to call at 2 AM when you’re feeling lonely.

Here are some of the things that make me feel safe in friendships and relationships:

  1. Consistency: the person is around and dependable. Their feelings are the same day after day and the way they act towards you is reliable. There are no sudden disappearances or long periods of unavailability.

  2. Tact: the person is direct with you, but they’re also not an asshole who uses “honesty” as an excuse to be mean. They care about how you feel.

  3. Lack of fear: you don’t feel like you’ll be punished the moment you do something wrong. You won’t be laughed at or berated if you experiment with something new.

  4. Warmth: you feel loved and held. You feel like they’re interested in what’s going on with your life and hearing about your feelings and problems. They’re happy when you succeed and supportive when you’re struggling.

A lot of people exist in communities that operate on appraisal, where everyone is friendly on the surface but they’re all constantly brutally judging each other. We don’t have complete control over the social circles we end up in—you might be in a really competitive workplace that makes you feel unsafe but you love your job and want to stay—but it’s really, really important to have at least one or two people in your life who foster psychological safety. It could be your family, your friends or your partner. Ideally it’s all of the above.

Psychological safety helps you establish a solid identity. When you’re around people who love you, you learn to see yourself through their eyes: as someone who’s worthy of time and attention, worthy of forgiveness, interesting and valuable. You believe that you deserve love. You’re more willing to take risks, because you’re not fixated on the judgment of your acquaintances: you have people who love and believe in you, and you know their opinion matters more. I know we live in a society that fetishizes individualism, but nobody exists in a vacuum. We are all the products of our environment. No one is unaffected by the people around them—if they think they’re impervious they’re probably not that self-aware.

I didn’t grow up valuing safety. A typical Asian mentality is that criticism makes you stronger and tough love is the most valuable form of kindness. A lot of my beliefs were centered around this idea of I’m strong, and if people around me are super-critical it’s fine because I don’t need to be coddled. Looking back that makes me so sad. I want to go back and shake myself and scream it’s a trap!!! From Not That Kind of Girl:

I thought that I was smart enough, practical enough, to separate what Joaquin said I was from what I knew I was. The way I saw it, I was fully capable of being treated with indifference that bordered on disdain while maintaining a strong of sense of self-respect.

She goes on to articulate the exact trap that so many smart people fall into:

When someone shows you how little you mean to them and you keep coming back for more, before you know it you start to mean less to yourself. You are not made up of compartments! You are one whole person! What gets said to you gets said to all of you, ditto what gets done. Being treated like shit is not an amusing game or a transgressive intellectual experiment. It’s something you accept, condone, and learn to believe you deserve.

There are people who will make you feel like you’re only interesting or valuable to them if you have it together—if you’re fun and popular and successful in your work life all the time. And it’s awful because if you surround yourself with those people for long enough, you believe that’s all that’s worthwhile about you. You think you’re only lovable as long as you keep up the performance.

From Briallen Hopper’s excellent book of essays, Hard to Love:

Emerson believes in self-made men, but I experience myself as someone formed and sustained by others’ love and patience, by student loans and stipends, by the kindness of strangers. Emerson thinks of people as independent individuals, like an orderly orchard of freestanding trees, but I see them as an overgrown tangle of undergrowth, mulch, mushrooms, and moss, or as an indivisible ocean of brinedrops. I believe we are all obviously a part of one another, elements of one ecosystem, members of one body, all of us at the mercy of capitalism, weather, genes, and fate.

We think of ourselves as solitary and distinct, but in the end we’re all interdependent. The paradox is that acknowledging that you’re affected by others makes you a more confident and capable person. If you try to pretend you need nobody but yourself you’ll always be paranoid, untrusting, unwilling to let your guard down. Believe in a version of you that loves yourself, but also needs be loved by others. Then go out and find the love you deserve.