In my blog post Vulnerable Vs. Needy - A Fine Line, I explored how vulnerable it is to share our wants and needs, knowing that the person we expose ourselves to might choose not to honor that want and need. (File under “fear of rejection.”)
In this blog post, I want to dive deeper into this issue and discuss something that’s totally up for me - the issue of safety.
What Makes A Relationship Safe?
In many past relationships, I’ve felt unsafe. What do I mean by that? I’ve been in a physically abusive relationship before, so obviously, that’s an extreme feeling of unsafety. But there’s a more subtle, and in many ways more emotionally damaging, kind of unsafety that’s about not feeling safe to be vulnerable. In those relationships, I couldn’t trust someone to hold my vulnerability without lashing out in hostile, unconscious ways or betraying that vulnerability.
In those relationships, when I opened my heart, it got trampled on. And when I asked to have a need met, it went unmet - time and time again until, as Brené Brown teaches, there were no marbles left in the trust jar.
That’s when I decided that safety was tantamount, that trust was key, and that, at least in my close relationships, I’d choose safety over risk or adventure any day.
So how does safety relate to vulnerability and need? I’ve come to realize that I feel safe when I come to trust that someone will make every effort to meet my needs when I’m brave enough and vulnerable enough to express them. When I feel safe in a relationship, I can give someone a whole lot of space without interpreting that space as distancing or threatening to the relationship. But if - over and over - I express needs that don’t get met, I start feeling unsafe and that leads me to feel insecure and then - lo and behold - I start acting needy.
My blog’s tagline is “Passionate Prescriptions For Living & Loving Fearlessly” and the next book I’m writing is called “The Fear Cure,” so I wind up noodling the concept of fear a lot. When I first considered quitting my stable job as a doctor years ago, I was utterly terrified. How in the world would I ever pay the bills if I left the hospital? What about all the medical school debt I still carried? I had a newborn daughter - and a stay-home Daddy husband - and it would cost me six-figures to pay off a medical malpractice “tail” if I was brave enough to actually leave medicine. The very thought was enough to nearly paralyze me.
The Fearless Bubble
So I had to surround myself with an artificial bubble of total fearlessness. I couldn’t even entertain fearful thoughts - but they’d knocked on my bubble like bacteria trying to enter a healthy cell - an army of Gremlins threatening to take me to the dark side of doubt that might tempt me to run, tail between my legs, back to the relative safety of the hospital.
During this scary time, everyone who loved me thought I was behaving recklessly. After all, I had spent 12 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars, investing in a career they thought I was throwing in the toilet, with no back up plan and no safety net.
I recently met with a group of doctors who gather at Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen’s house monthly to discuss a variety of topics and seek meaning in medicine and in the human experience. The topic of the month was “Safety,” our quest for it, our desire for it and, as we discovered, our complete inability to attain it, given the certainty of uncertainty.
It got me thinking about how many years I spent striving to feel safe. It’s not like I grew up unsafe and spent the rest of my life seeking it. My childhood was full of white picket fences and loving parents and bike-riding in the middle of the barricaded street at neighborhood block parties. I was rarely sick, never abused, and nurtured like an object of precious affection. With the exception of seventh grade, mean girls, premenstrual acne, and the inevitable heartbreak of unrequited crushes, my young life was as safe as they come.
Yet I sought even more safety, perhaps to fend off the imaginary demons that might threaten such safety. When you have so much to lose, life automatically feels unsafe. Somehow, you know it could all be taken from you in a blink.