The Fallacy of Safety
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Before I continue, here are three caveats:
We must be sensitive and compassionate about the experiences of others. Pretty much everyone is working through shit and telling them to “fuck your feelings” or pray harder or meditate more or suck it up is cruel.
We are each responsible for creating safe containers within our relationships and communities for others to express themselves and be authentic.
We are each responsible for our own happiness. No one can make us feel anything.
Now to my premise in this week’s essay …
Trying to make your ego feel safe is a waste of time, energy and attention. It is the “Bridge to Nowhere” of personal growth and development.
I have arrived at this conclusion through my own learnings and experiences this past year. I have noticed that chasing away threats to my ego makes my heart closed off. I have noticed that chasing information (which my ego associates with safety) just creates more anxiety and attachment. I have noticed that feeding my ego’s need to feel safe generates a false reality that separates me from my soul and the souls of those I love.
Let’s unpack this …
I don’t believe you can truly make your ego feel safe. The whole reason for the existence of the ego is to be alert to danger and threats. Even if you have some level of success in making your ego feel safe, it is temporary at best. And it will create assumptions, certitudes and complacency - which life, nature, the universe will shatter.
I do believe safety is essential in several areas of the human experience:
Physical safety - This is the kind of safety the ego is actually designed for: to keep you from dying. This applies to survival and high-risk situations. I learned a lot of this kind of safety growing up on a cattle ranch: equipment, livestock, guns, nature. I was well aware that being unsafe in any of these areas could harm or kill me or someone else. This kind of safety also applies to “safety culture” in higher-risk jobs - a topic my great friend, Andy Erickson, talks about extensively.
Nervous system safety - If you are a trauma survivor (especially related to complex PTSD), your nervous system is hypersensitive to situations, unexpected incidents and the energy put out by others. Nervous system safety is about being centered, curious, observational. Focusing on ego safety takes resources away from nervous system safety - actually making the nervous system more sensitive and fragile.
Spiritual safety - This one is more abstract but still essential. This kind of safety is focused on creating conditions for the soul to emerge from hiding. Again, the ego will easily barter away soul safety. This is why the safer the ego feels, the less safe the soul feels. Parker Palmer is my favorite thinker in this area.
“Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places. I learned about these qualities during my bouts with depression. In that deadly darkness, the faculties I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered. But from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”
― Parker J. Palmer
In order to be safe in these areas, we must accept that our ego will feel unsafe. To do that, we must understand that trying to make our ego feel safe sends us on a perpetual chase for the uncatchable; the mythical “peace of mind” made popular by advertising and propaganda. This creates a kind of self-codependency where the ego creates narratives that justify its need for safety. Yet these narratives produce anxiety, worry, stress. This is a tormenting loop that can only be stopped by realizing that trying to make the ego feel safe is folly.
Focusing your attention and efforts on making your ego feel safe also creates the conditions for two types of tyranny:
You inadvertently join the cult of fragility that the authors of “The Coddling of the American Mind” write about. Your egoic sensitivities become your identity and you operate life from a defensive posture. Everything is a threat. Which the ego uses to justify both its existence and its demands to run your life.
You invite others to gaslight and manipulate you. If you are focused on making your ego feel safe, you will consciously and unconsciously attract those that promise you safety. We see this at a macro level in fascism, political cults (like MAGA), and at a micro level in relationships with narcissists.
As mentioned, the net effect of these two things produces a false reality. One entirely constructed by the ego. One that sadly and ironically contributes to destructive behaviors, never-healed nervous systems and soul death.
Here is how this epiphany has changed my mindset and behaviors …
I can more clearly discern the difference between a threat to physical safety, a nervous system response vs an ego response, and the intuition of the soul. This makes me more decisive, bolder and more present.
I can much better discern the significant difference between triggers and my narratives about these triggers. I will always have nervous system triggers (from both conditioning and biological wiring), but the narratives are changeable. And the narratives determine the reality I live in.
My intention for 2022 is to live an integrated life. This will never happen if I’m trying to make my ego feel safe. So instead, I’m focusing my time, energy, attention on experiencing life more wholly and holy - and with a sense of possibility and joy. In essence, I am ignoring my ego. Which it doesn’t like at all. But the truest and best of me most certainly does.