David Hockney, Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica, 1990
I feel more securely attached now, I told a friend two weeks ago.
To whom? she asked.
Uh, to the world.
I’m not an expert on attachment theory, but certain things it posits are undeniable. For instance, the idea that your attachment style affects not only your romantic relationships but also your general sense of well-being.
As I’ve shifted to being more secure, I’ve noticed exactly what Josh describes: this background sense of “things will be okay” that I never had growing up. By default I was terrified of any less-than-perfect outcome—I thought of the world as a threatening place.
What I feel now: I describe it as safety.
What’s contributed to my sense of safety?
Feeling loved by someone who appreciates me as I am and is accepting instead of reflexively critical.
Having close friends whom I see regularly and share large parts (social, emotional, intellectual, work) of my life with
It’s Maslow: if you don’t have pure logistical safety (making enough money, having a comfortable place to live) it’s hard to have psychological safety. But having logistical safety doesn’t give you psychological safety.
There are a lot of people who feel unsafe no matter how much money or prestige or love they have. They aren’t securely attached to the world, to themselves, to other people. They’re always afraid of slipping. They suffer from a deep, pervasive sense of anxiety and not-enoughness that they cling to because it’s all they’ve ever known. They literally can’t imagine another way of being.
How I started letting go of my anxiety: slowly and reluctantly. I relaxed more when I noticed that I felt better. And then I kept letting go, more and more and more.
I think the best thing you can do to learn safety is to just find one person who really exemplifies it for you. And it doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship—personally I think romantic relationships are just extensions of friendships. Before I ever had a partner I had female friends who showed me what love meant. Turning, turning, always turning towards you; wanting to talk all day; sharing everything. I wish I could go back to my 14-year-old self and be like: Hey! When you are lying in the grass with your friends basking in the ecstasy of communion: that’s what love is about. Well, whatever. Sometimes we take the long way home.
My paranoia was a coping mechanism. For some period of time it served me well. I had a pretty ordinary childhood, but it felt unstable in certain ways: my parents were emotionally volatile and I had no friends until I was 12. So from a young age I lacked trust. I’ve always physically been extremely tense—lots of nervous energy and stress in my body. Which yes obviously stemmed from my constant emotional tension.
It consumed a lot of time, a lot of brainspace. Always thinking about what could go wrong. Feeling socially anxious in all sorts of situations. Running through doomsday scenarios late at night.
It limited the ways in which I could explore. I’ve always been very curious and experimental, but my ability to experiment rigorously was hugely limited by my fear of failure.
Safety freed me. When I felt loved and felt held, I was able to meander, knowing that I had a safe place to return to. For the first time in my life I started trusting the ground beneath my feet.
I don’t know if I’ll always feel safe. Nothing is permanent. Life is long. But at least I know now that it’s possible—I know what it feels like.
I didn’t realize before how much people just want to love and be loved. I feel much better equipped these days to create a space for someone to love me safely.
Here’s what I know now: most people really want to be good. They act out when their needs aren’t met. The best thing you can do for the people you care about is to try to help them meet their needs.
This is how I evaluate relationships:
Can we make each other feel safe?
If so, can we challenge each other?
You need both (at least I need both). Having the latter without the former is just disastrous. Having the former without the latter is disappointing.
The most useful skill you can acquire as a human is the ability to help other people feel safe. That requires an understanding and an attentiveness to their needs, a genuine commitment to their lived experience. A common prerequisite is feeling safe yourself first. If you don’t feel safe, your anxiety will bleed through. You’ll project things onto other people; your relationships will be corrupted by projection and ego.
Safety is the ability to try ambitious things and fail at them and know you’ll be okay.
Safety is the relationship I have with my dog: warm, cuddly, unconditional. I would rearrange my life to take better care of him. He would follow me anywhere (I’m his primary source of food).
Safety is not being nervous to message someone because you know they’ll always message back. Safety is knowing that if someone’s a bad communicator that’s on them and not you.
Safety is being able to tolerate volatility in others because your relationship with yourself is stable. Safety is being more attracted to stability than volatility because you value someone who takes good care of themselves.
I used to think safety was the opposite of art. Now I believe that in a lot of ways it’s what makes good art possible.