Why do our eyes shut and our jaws clench when we watch the torture scene in The Marathon Man? It has to be more than our collective fear of dentists. In that scene, Dustin and Larry dramatize one of our most primal needs – our need for safety.
We begin life swimming in a warm, wet womb – the archetype of safe havens. Just as our developing brains begin to appreciate the comfort and safety of our surroundings, Mom, in what must seem to us an inexplicably malevolent fit, forcibly ejects us from our sanctuary into a cold, bright, scary world. For the rest of our lives we struggle to recapture the feeling of safety so violently torn from us at birth.
Is it safe? We unconsciously ask ourselves that question at each stage of our development. My grumbling tummy troubles me; ah, that nipple does the trick. Pooping from this porcelain perch feels precarious; ah, Mommy’s “good boy” relaxes my plumbing. I’m a little scared to wander over there; ah, Daddy’s thumbs up fills me with courage. Maybe this cold, bright world isn’t so scary after all.
But, what if the nipple never comes? What if every time I poop I get yelled at for going too slow? What if my butt gets whacked (or worse) each time I venture beyond the boundaries? What if no one likes me? What if I fail? Maybe I was right about this scary, unsafe world after all.
The world both nurtures and tests us. While our challenges might differ in character and intensity, each of us must work – sometimes quite valiantly – to survive and thrive. Yet, our assessment of life’s difficulties doesn’t necessarily correlate with the reality of our circumstances. Life may “suck” for Melvin; while a life of similar circumstances might feel quite tolerable – even enjoyable – to Marvin. What makes Marvin so annoyingly optimistic?
Yes, Marvin might have received hugs and smiles and encouragement when he was young, which would certainly smooth his psychological path toward a positive attitude. Still, is there no hope for the rest of us who were neglected or teased or abused? What about those of us who were (cue ominous music) bottle-fed? Is our negative attitude irreparable? Can we ever feel safe?
Good news: there’s hope for Melvin. That hope lies in the distinction between physical and psychological safety. Perception is not reality. Physical safety depends on circumstance, of which we have some, but relatively little, control. Psychological safety depends on thought, control of which we can develop to a remarkable degree.
By now, most people know about our reflexive reactions to a perceived threat: we fight, we flee, or we freeze, and the sympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system chooses our stratagem before our emotional or intellectual systems ever kick in. Once the threat has passed, our parasympathetic nervous system (again, without the need for any intellectual intervention) puts on the breaks by slowing our heart rate, lowering our blood pressure, and unclenching our anus.
Our fear response is a dumb response, one that occurs quickly and without the benefit of any cognitive consideration. That’s great for a bear attack. But, handling the prolonged stresses of our modern, overcrowded, hyper-complicated world requires a more conscious, discerning approach. The problem is, our emotional system is also pretty dumb, and our neocortex is just a bit too neo.
Our impressive cognitive apparatus has had insufficient time, evolutionarily speaking, to develop the ability to mediate our reptilian survival responses and our mammalian emotions. When our sense of safety is perpetually challenged, we experience a condition of prolonged stress, to which our limbic system (thought to comprise our emotional apparatus) responds by creating worry, regret, sadness, frustration, depression, mania, and a host of other feelings. And, although that prolonged stress gives our neocortex time to analyze the situation, we’re still not very good at moderating those emotions or devising a healthy plan of action.
Still, our brains deserve points for trying. Consider these earnest attempts:
At age seven, Bill moved in with his first of four foster families. Before that, he lived with his alcoholic, schizophrenic mother. Except for an experience at age four when his mother ended Bill’s latest beating with the off-handed wish that he would die, Bill’s memories of his childhood are sparse and, interestingly, not particularly harrowing. By the time Bill was removed from his mother, he had perfected his ability to dissociate and isolate. After moving out of his last foster home at age 18, Bill lived in a studio apartment for the next 25 years, unable to keep a job or make a friend. He could be found each night (and most days) sitting in front of his TV eating fast food, drinking beer, and planning to “suck it up” the following day. Bill died of a heart attack at age 43. His body wasn’t discovered for two weeks.
Mary is four years younger than her brother Chris. Chris suffers from borderline personality disorder. Mary had just turned five the first time she remembers witnessing the recurring family drama. Chris would “freak out.” Mom, an angry matriarch who struggled with the remnants of anorexia, would clash with Chris in a loud, sometimes violent exchange. Dad, an only child with finely honed people-pleasing skills, would attempt to negotiate a peace between Chris and Mom. Mary would quietly watch, picking at her skin until Mom would distractedly smack Mary’s hands. By the time Chris left for college, Mary was secretly purging 3 to 4 times a day and had begun wearing long sleeve shirts to conceal the cuts on her arms. Mary’s first suicide attempt occurred the day after Mom insisted that she eat more. (Dad told Mary she looked fine.) Mary is currently receiving treatment for bulimia and anxiety. She’s finally at the center of the family drama.
Depression, anger, isolation, panic attacks, substance abuse, hallucinations, purging, narcissism, dissociation, fanaticism, and obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors all can be viewed as attempts by our neocortex to resolve chronic stress – to protect our organism from danger – to recreate that lost feeling of safety. Recreating a feeling of safety once it has been lost can be a daunting task, often requiring heroic effort and years of psychotherapy.
Regardless of the path you take toward recapturing your feelings of safety in the world, consider beginning your journey with a hug. As innocuous and simplistic as that might sound, hugging is a pervasive comforting behavior in the animal kingdom. For humans, hugging appears to be crucial to healthy mental and social development. And, if your mother or father or sister or brother or cousin or barista won’t hug you, hugging yourself works almost as well.
So, my unsafe friend, hug yourself when you wake in the morning, hug yourself when you feel scared or anxious, hug yourself when you feel sad or angry, hug yourself when you feel a craving, and hug yourself when you feel hopeless. Our brains learn from experience and association. If you begin to expect a comforting gesture whenever you feel unsafe, your underlying beliefs about the danger and difficulty of life will begin to transform.
Happy 4th of July, everyone! Remember: “Safe and Sane” is not just for fireworks.
Armstrong, C. (2015). The therapeutic “aha!”: 10 strategies for getting your clients unstuck. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.