Trigger Warning: This episode contains themes of violence, suicide, and mental illness.
Safety is a concept that includes all measures and practices taken to preserve the life, health, and bodily integrity of individuals. However, not everyone has that guarantee sadly.
So why is safety important?
Thanks to the following guests for participating:
Michelle Tom began her writing career as a print journalist in her native New Zealand. A chapter from Ten Thousand Aftershocks placed second in the Writers Victoria Marion Grace Wilson Emerging Writers Competition (non-fiction section) in 2019 and appeared in the November issue of The Victoriun Writer. Michelle was one of five writers chosen for a week-long Varuna Memoir Masterclass with Patti Miller in 2017 and was selected for the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY 2010 non-fiction program. She lives in Melbourne with her husband and two youngest children.
Jessica John of @speakitjess ministry
Here are some of the resources from the show:
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., is a humanistic psychologist exploring the depths of human potential. He has taught courses on intelligence, creativity, and well-being at Columbia University, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. In addition to writing the column Beautiful Minds for Scientific American, and he also hosts The Psychology Podcast,
From acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, “Interstellar” stars Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, and Oscar winner Michael Caine. With our time on Earth coming to an end, a team of explorers undertakes the most important mission in human history: traveling beyond this galaxy to discover whether mankind has a future among the stars.
Books looked at this week:
Michelle Tom: Ten Thousand Aftershocks: Family, Frontlines, Fallout
Scott Barry Kaufman: Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization
PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.
Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.
Welcome to season 2 episode 54 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky topics and skills by reading through the best books out there. We’re looking at the idea of safety, especially as we hit year two of the pandemic on a global scale. And even more so, the recent conflict in Ukraine.
Safety is the condition of being protected from harm or other danger. From Hippocrates to Abraham Maslow, there is a long-held belief that environment can play a part in both improving and damaging human health and wellbeing. Maslow highlighted that physical safety comes second only to physiological needs for humans to feel healthy and motivated in their surroundings. However, more recently, The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (Number 11) requires that we make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
But what about in our daily lives? Is safety important for us to function? Here is Jessica John of speakitjess ministry on feeling safe.
Jessica John: To me, safety means liberty, wherever I feel safe I feel free. Very few spaces are as safe as they should be anymore from environmentally to relationally, which means safety isn’t obtained, but it has to be cultivated. To me. Safety is a holistic assurance that where I am and who I’m with does not harm me. And I think safety is so important because we cannot thrive in any other kind of experience from childhood to adulthood. The mind, heart and soul of a person needs the fundamental experience of safety. Safety provides a backbone. And when safety is removed, fear is imminent. With safety unknown territory is an opportunity, but without safety, unknown territory is almost predatory.
Back to host:
Our first book is from Michelle Tom with her memoir Ten Thousand Aftershocks: Family, Frontlines, Fallout. Tom began her writing career as a print journalist in her native New Zealand. A chapter from Ten Thousand Aftershocks placed second in the Writers Victoria Marion Grace Wilson Emerging Writers Competition (non-fiction section) in 2019 and appeared in the November issue of The Victoriun Writer. She was one of five writers chosen for a week-long Varuna Memoir Masterclass with Patti Miller in 2017 and was selected for the ACT Writers Centre HARDCOPY 2010 non-fiction program. I had a great time chatting to her about her book and the idea of safety. Find the full interview on http://www.howtobe247.com or on the YouTube channel, but here is a snippet.
Michelle Tom: We were just chatting, exchanging stories about what we were there to write about. And I told her about the fact that we’d just survived the Christchurch earthquakes. And we were living in Australia as a result of leaving that behind us. We were looking for somewhere safer to live, and then we’d got into family stuff and I was telling her about my dad’s death.
And she turned to me at one point and you know, we’d only just met, but she said, it seems to me that, uh, your father dying was like an earthquake in your family. Really, it was an epiphany for me. Um, and that was what kicked that whole idea off. And I think it’s a really good example of how other people can influence your art and your creative process that take really stuck. I think I was aware my whole life and that things weren’t quite as they should be in our home. And that, that was the root of all my anxiety as a child. I think. Lack of confidence. Um, you know, the inability to stand up for myself when I was bullied at high school, you know, a lot of those things I can trace back to just life and that family in that home.
And it’s not that it was, you know, as bad as some people get it. And I know a lot of. People say that people who’ve been through trauma say this because we do tend to try and rank ourselves on a well, you know, a trauma scale. But, um, I think it’s better to kind of think about how it impacted the individual.
And I know that it impacted me quite deeply and it’s not even that my parents were meaning to be the way they were. It’s just that they weren’t emotionally mature enough to try and rein themselves in. And, and so the ongoing effects of that on these three kids, myself included, I think my assessment is that there, a lot of it goes back to that and it, it just played out so tragically over the course of our lives.
This is what I was so interested in when I was writing was this idea of, um, I’m looking on my wall, I’ve got post-its with quotes. And one of them is by George Eliot and its consequences are unpitying. And that was, that was one of the main ideas that I kept in my head. The whole time of writing was that, you know, these events were the result of things that happened that people didn’t give any thought to the flow on effects of, and those are the aftershocks. Yeah. Those are the 10,000 aftershocks. And, and so the 10,000 to me was both a finite and an infinite number in terms of the earthquakes themselves and Christchurch. It was a finite number. It was almost like a limit that we, as a family reached and we were like, no more, we can’t do this anymore.
But within our family, it was almost, it’s almost a number that’s representative of infinite flow on effects through lives, the ongoing effects. I was thinking about this today, funnily enough, um, with COVID and I think it makes me, I can only speak for me extremely risk averse, extremely aware of mortality. And those two things probably sum me up right now.
And I think when you grow up with trauma and then you experience it, you get that reinforcement every time something new happens that you have to work hard to stay alive on this planet. Some people skate through not thinking about it, taking risks. I think it goes back to that same thing of being risk averse.
I mean, I’m always trying to think ahead. I think I will always have a level of anxiety about survival. You know, I get my pap smears and get my mammograms, do all that stuff, but I think it’s interesting. Um, this is another thing that’s been an ongoing after effects from the earthquakes is, um, I don’t know if your listeners can relate to this, but you know, when you get into bed at night and it’s cozy, maybe it’s the middle of winter and you’re under your duvet and you’re warm and you feel really safe. Um, and you, you know, you snuggle down since the earthquakes that has left me, I cannot achieve that level of comfort anymore. And I think it’s to do with the fact that it was quite used to arrive at all hours of the day and night, and even going to bed. You’re going into that ritual of snuggling in could be interrupted and was interrupted regularly at any time of the night, which would involve us racing to the, to the boys room to check that they were okay.
While we were basically still asleep, we would be running in our sleep down the hall. And, you know, I write in the book about how I felt like comfort that had slipped down the cracks somewhere and I’d lost it forever. And I have to say, I have not been able to get that back. And that pains me because I think there’s nothing quite so delicious as that feeling. And I miss it. And I don’t know if they’ll come back. It may, it may over time, but it’s been more than 10 years now. Um, so you have to think that there’s, that’s fear. That’s living in my nervous system that has not dissipated, that’s raised cortisol levels and that sort of thing. So, and then you, you know, you think about your health and what’s that doing to you and you can do what you can do, right?
You do your yoga and you exercise and eat well and drink your water and all that sort of stuff. You get your therapy. Even so, that is still missing. And, um, yeah, that is, uh, I feel like that’s been a price for that experience.
Back to host:
The lack of safety is punctuated throughout Tom’s memoir. Beginning with the funeral of her younger sister who passes away at the age of 43 with melanoma, we are thrusted into raw grief straight away. She then recounts her story through five stages, the system used by seismologists to measure aftershocks.
The reason being, is very quickly we learn that Tom and her family survived the 2011 New Zealand earthquake that killed 185 people. And it is not the only the earthquakes that shake her life on a regular basis. Tom defines aftershocks as an aftereffect of a distressing or traumatic event. Unfortunately, there were many aftershocks she had to contend with throughout. She says: “As a fault line broke open the earth, so I too was broken”.
Aftershocks continued to rattle Christchurch following the earthquake and would do so for decades. Her sister Meredith’s funeral was an aftershock of another kind, one born of generational trauma.
Geologist Charles Lyell believed that the key to the present is in the past – that the results of past seismic events inevitably bring us the present-day landscape.
Hence just as it is described in stage one, where immense seismic pressure accumulates in rocks for decades or even millennia, with its latent potential for catastrophe unseen, and inevitable. Tom parallels a moment in her own life, where subconsciously she felt violence in her household, even though she wasn’t fully aware of it at this point in her younger years.
Lack of safety meant anxiety roiled in her gut for decades. We feel the years of stress play out with these undulating time shifts in her narrative, the emotional disarray that comes with unresolved childhood trauma.
The juxtaposition is jarring, hearing that her teacher told her in 1979 that there were only two roads in and out of the city, and both would be severely damaged in the event of a large quake. And then in 2011, more than thirty years after Mr Irvine’s warning, her standing in her broken house in Christchurch, a city not previously thought to be at risk of seismic activity.
Similarly, Tom recalls that even though appearances had been important to her mother, her sister Meredith had become the scapegoat, and any violence she endured in the 1980s and kept quiet about, later came out when she ended up in psychiatric ward as an adult. So when Meredith was diagnosed with cancer, Tom believes that her sister felt she was not worthy of care, that she failed to place any value on her own health because in a way she never was safe.
Stage two states that broken rocks near a fault hold firm under pressure and release moisture from fractures within. In this case, the grief that swallowed up her mother due to her own brother’s suicide became all-encompassing, forcing the children to become crutches in this situation. Tom says she realised this was a form of manipulation.
Her father’s violence was thought to have come from her grandfather, an inherited fury that punched through her father and into their generation like a fist through a wall. And if her father assumed his father’s violence from childhood, she says she thinks her mother wore shame from hers.
In stage three, continuing pressure around the fault line forces water from surrounding soil back into the cracked, expanded rock, reducing its strength. This is when catastrophe bound to occur. For Tom, she experienced severe panic attacks and vertigo for nine months in 1997, culminating in a visit to a psychiatric ward.
Her mother was at the root of her distress. She says she was yet to learn how to withhold, was yet to learn the word ‘boundaries’. Her therapist told her your body is screaming at you in the form of panic because you haven’t been listening. The panic attacks were tremors in her relationship with her first husband as well, where she realised she had been putting his needs first. Her father’s sudden death was another huge aspect of the inevitable turmoil she faced.
She writes: “For many years I believed I suffered my father’s loss so deeply because he’d died suddenly, but also because I saw the good in him. Years later I learned that the co-existence of love and fear can create intense attachments that are difficult to break, even in death, especially if those experiences occur in childhood.”
Her beloved brother’s death in 2001 was also a cataclysmic event. Missing for 21 months in Melbourne after a psychotic episode, his body was found and buried in the same grave as his father, despite their fragmented relationship.
Stage four is the earthquake itself. A magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit Christchurch on February 22 2011, destroying large parts of the city, killing 185 people, and liquefying the ground beneath them.
She realised that despite moving to a new city, the places she had felt most safe, the sanctuaries they had made for themselves, ultimately offered no protection at all. She says” I no longer trusted four walls and a roof for protection. I no longer trusted the earth. Years later I still struggled to sleep. Comfort was elusive, as if it had seeped down through those cracks in the earth and been lost forever.”
Safety is not something we all have, but it is something most of us take for granted. This book is really a story about a woman trying to find safety again — physical, psychological and emotional. In her early 50s, she and her family moved to Melbourne in a bid to escape any more nerve-shattering situations. Stage five is the aftershock of all of these events.
Strangely enough, the idea of safety reminded me of the movie by acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan, called “Interstellar” starring Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway searching for whether mankind has a future among the stars.
Interstellar film clip:
Hathaway: Couldn’t you have told her you were going to save the world!
McConaughey: When you become a parent!
McConaughey: One thing becomes really clear!
McConaughey: And that is that you want to make sure your children feel safe!
Our final book is from humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman with Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. The 2020 book expands on Maslow’s famous ideas about human needs and presents them in a new light that takes us on a path to self-actualization. Here he is
Scott Barry Kaufman: It was very clear to Maslow that life is not a video game. It’s not as though you reach some level in life like safety needs, and then you get you, you reach the safety needs and you get a certain number of that. And then some voice from above is like, congrats, you’ve unlocked connection! And then you go (Sound of bell ringing) and you move up to connection and then it’s not how life works. And Maslow was very clear about that. In a lot of ways Maslow was a developmental psychologist at heart. He really believed that human development was constantly this two steps forward.
One step back dynamic. We’re constantly choosing the growth options. And then we’re failing in some way, or we have some struggle, which is an inevitable part of life. And then we continue forward. It’s not, life is not some Trek up a mountain, and then you reach self-actualization as though you’ve, you’ve achieved self-actualization and, and you, uh, and, and the, the final credits come on, you know, like the video again, to continue in the video game metaphor, uh, life is not like that self-development is a process.
It’s constantly in a form of development and we are constantly becoming, uh, our being in the world is constantly becoming and Maslow was very clear about that. Abraham Maslow made very clear that self-actualization is not the same as achievement. A lot of people in fact, may achieve quite a bit in their lives and maybe on the cover of magazines, may have all the awards. They have the whole trophy shelf of their house that they show off and still feel deeply, deeply unfulfilled. We are, we feel much more fulfilled when we actualize our potentialities, our deepest potentials. Um, the things that make us unique, the things that we can uniquely contribute to the world in ways that have a positive impact on the world. Just realising your talents without the context of the meaning behind it is a recipe for a lot of talented people to live a very unfulfilled life.
Back to host:
If you’re not aware of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is an imagined pyramid divided into five levels. You may have seen a picture of a pyramid divided into five different levels. The base of the pyramid represents humankind’s most basic need: safety. The pyramid’s tip, represents our most abstract need: self-actualization. The idea is going through the different levels until you reach the top. Except that may be a bit simplistic, and Maslow himself died in 1970, before he had finished his work.
Maslow believed that the need for safety trumped every other need. When basic needs such as hunger aren’t met, negative emotions can overwhelm us, causing all other feelings and concerns to fade into the background. Safety means stability, a sense of certainty, and having trust in our environment. It is the secure foundation that lets us take risks and explore the world. Our sense of safety comes down to how we relate to the people around us.
One of the ways we relate to others is called attachment, and it begins in childhood. Every human is born helpless and completely dependent on the people taking care of it. An infant’s sense of safety depends on its caregiver. If the caregiver is close and paying attention, the infant will feel safe and secure, and it will be willing to play and explore the world. But if the caregiver leaves or stops paying attention, the infant will get anxious and start trying to get noticed again – by crying, for example.
From these interactions in infancy, we develop our attachment style. As we grow older, our attachment style plays a key role in our relationships. If we were lucky enough to grow up in a warm, caring environment, we learn to be attached in a secure way. We feel confident that others will accept us. But if our caregivers weren’t reliable or sufficiently available, we become anxious in future relationships. We may even avoid close relationships altogether, which is called avoidant attachment.
People who have a secure attachment style tend to be better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. They cope with and regulate their emotions in more constructive ways, and have more satisfying relationships. In contrast, insecurity, especially the anxious kind, can lead to depression and loneliness. Kaufman says the good news is that, though we learn our attachment style in childhood, we can change our patterns. New, positive experiences can help us develop healthier ways of interacting.
Next connection is a fundamental need. Apparently on the Greek island of Ikaria, there are numerous centenarians, and they put this down to their active social lives. Neighbours care for each other, sharing food and celebrating together, and most people live with extended family instead of alone. In a word, there’s a strong and reliable community. The need for connection is the need for belonging and intimacy.
The need for belonging is satisfied when you feel accepted by a particular group. When you feel rejected and invisible, in contrast, that need is unsatisfied. Research shows that the pain of social rejection is indistinguishable from physical pain. And the effects don’t end there. Continued rejection can lead to all kinds of problems, from poor sleep to depression.
The quality of the connection also matters. While belonging is about feeling protected by your group; intimacy is about loving, caring for and protecting others with whom you have a close relationship. close connections hinge on what psychologist Carl Rogers calls unconditional positive regard. This occurs when each person feels seen, cared for, and safe expressing a whole range of feelings and experiences.
There is also mutuality in high-quality connections, which means that the people involved are engaged and participating. Such connections also encourage experiences that keep us coming back for more – laughter, joy, having fun together, and reciprocal gestures of kindness. Check out episode 31 on community and belonging with Unbound author Verlaine-Diane Soobroydoo.
Next is self-esteem on the pyramid, which isn’t the same as self-regard. Self-esteem is the natural result of genuine accomplishment and connection with other people. If you find yourself too focused on improving your self-esteem, that’s already a sign that something has gone wrong.
Healthy self-esteem has two aspects: self-worth and mastery. Self-worth is about genuinely liking yourself and thinking you’re a good person overall. Self-esteem is closely connected with how others hold you in their esteem.
Our judgments about ourselves often factor in the judgements of others. If others like us and hold us in high regard, we have what researchers call relational social value.
People with relational social value tend to have close relationships with others, and they tend to be valued in those relationships. The higher our relational social value, the higher our sense of self-worth.
The other part of self-esteem is mastery. Mastery is the extent to which you can act intentionally, achieve your goals, and exercise your will. It comes down to feeling like a competent human being. But just like self-worth, our sense of mastery depends partly on how others judge us. That’s where instrumental social value comes in. That’s the degree to which others see us as having qualities that are important for the common good.
While you may have mastery in some areas, you may not in others, and compounded feelings of finding obstacles in your way can make some feel incompetent. On the other side, if you regularly achieve your goals, you may feel an overall sense of mastery.
Hence the next step is exploration which helps you to grow as a person. It is the desire to seek out unfamiliar information and experiences. There are two types of exploration. One is known as behavioural exploration. The other is called cognitive exploration.
Behavioural exploration also has two components: social exploration and adventure-seeking. Social exploration is about engaging with people in a way that helps us learn more about them and the world. People who seek adventure are often driven by the desire to learn and grow, to overcome challenges and learn new skills, which makes them more resilient and tolerant of stress.
Cognitive exploration itself has two parts. One is openness to experience. This involves things like appreciating beauty, getting absorbed in activities, and enjoying artistic pursuits. People who are open to experiences in this way also tend to be intuitive, empathetic, and in touch with their emotions.
The second part is intellectual. It comes down to reasoning and understanding the world through abstract thought. It’s the desire to learn new information and discover new ideas.
The next is love. Not the creepy, desperate kind, but more the reciprocal nurturing kind. In his writings, Maslow distinguished between deficiency-love, or D-love for short, and love for a person’s whole being. He called this latter type of love B-love. D-love is something we feel like we have to search and strive for. It’s a need, and it has to be satisfied.
But that’s not how B-love works. People who love in this way don’t need to receive much love at all – their love is not about what’s missing from their lives. Instead, they’re focused on admiring others and giving.
It’s a shift from regarding love as something to be gotten to seeing it as something to be given, from depending on others and being rewarded with their love to loving the world at large.
People who practice B-love tend to be driven by self-transcendent values. B-loving people are also notable for high levels of tolerance, benevolence, and trustworthiness. They have character traits like kindness, humility, and forgiveness. Other people love being around them. But B-loving people are also able to look after their own needs and assert themselves when necessary – they just do it in a way that remains caring and considerate of others.
Above all, B-loving people are able to integrate two aspects of human existence that might seem contradictory: agency and communion. Agency involves independence and separation from others. It’s about how much you’re able to achieve your own goals and assert yourself. In contrast, community is about contact, openness and participation – being together with others.
B-loving people manage to bring both aspects into harmony. They do this by going beyond the need to receive love, maintaining high levels of self-reliance while also staying engaged in satisfying relationships.
Purpose is what gives our lives meaning and you can organise all your actions so that each has significance. It also gives you energy to pursue your goals and encourages perseverance.
Purpose often means having a calling – an overwhelming urge to follow a particular path in life. And for many, that calling is closely linked to work. Kaufman says the closer you are to seeing your work as a calling, as something you’d do regardless of pay, the more likely you are to be satisfied – not just with your job, but with your life in general.
When you choose goals that focus on growth – like self-improvement, creativity, or making the world a better place – pursuing them will tend to bring a feeling of well-being, which often isn’t the case when you strive merely for money, power, or popularity.
And, choose for the right reasons. That means looking for goals that feel meaningful on a deep level. The most worthy goal won’t give you a sense of purpose if it doesn’t mean anything to you. The more your goals resonate with you, the more your motivation increases – and the more likely you’ll be to achieve them.
The next is peak experiences which mean bringing a deepened sense of connection with the world – a feeling of openness and curiosity. It’s a paradox: the more the self dissolves and seems to merge with the world, the more self-actualized one feels. This is a feeling of awe. Studies show that people who experience awe have increased life satisfaction; they also tend to be more generous and less aggressive.
This is where transcendence comes in. In a 1969 paper about its meaning, Maslow came up with 35 ways to define the term. It included a great variety of concepts, from loss of self-consciousness to acceptance of the natural world to experiencing cosmic consciousness. Transcendence is not just one aspect of your life – it’s about the entirety of your existence.
It’s about being the best version of yourself, mobilising all your resources in service of this version, and integrating them in a way that raises the standard for the whole of humanity.
People who are transcenders are not just striving for happiness, health, or personal growth. Instead, they’re driven by transcendent values and have a vision for the whole of humanity. They are devoted to a calling beyond themselves. This can include ideals like justice, truth, meaning, goodness, or beauty.
The paradox is that transcenders are not necessarily happy. They may often feel frustrated when they can’t realise their vision, or feel sadness about things like human cruelty. But they’re also better able to integrate the good and the bad sides of life, and to feel less regret.
In short, they integrate all aspects of human existence. They have the ability to look at the multiplicity of human needs in a nonjudgmental way, and see them not as conflicting, but as part of a harmonious whole. Experiencing transcendence means accepting different perspectives, and being open to challenges and aware of the uncertainty inherent in human life.
So to sum up:
Tom says in Ten Thousand Aftershocks that broken does not equate to weakness or hopelessness. It just needs time and care. She says that selfishness, in the form of radical self-care, might be the highest form of courage. And the risk of judgement from others was a small price to pay to end generational trauma.
Kaufman says in Transcend that human needs are all closely connected, and the greatest sense of well-being and fulfilment comes when we can integrate them into a healthy whole. With our needs integrated, we have a base for growth and self-actualization. We open ourselves to transcendent experiences and the possibility of becoming the best selves we can be.
I definitely understand that feeling of lack of safety, and it’s taken years of battling insomnia to get to a steady point. How about you, what does safety mean for you? Please join in on the conversation by following @howtobe247 on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and subscribe on the podcast, which can be found via http://www.howtobe247.com.
Please do leave a review if you enjoyed this! Ill leave you with Pearl Howie of Pearl Escapes who has written the book Camino de la Luna, part 2 of the series of the same name, reading an extract from her book on this very topic. See you in two week’s time!
Pearl Howie: I can’t imagine being on the Comuna de Frances, surrounded by other people, sleeping in dormitories. I feel this is stripping me bare. At times I feel so raw. Like my heart is on my skin and even in a four-star hotel, surrounded by food or water, fluffy towels, my nerves are still jangling. It seems at odds with what I discovered in the dark, but it wasn’t courage. It was like discovering another lie, feeling it, like I said to the girl in the hostel, this is not as dangerous as sitting around watching TV and eating junk food or taking pills or antidepressants. Misadventure just makes the news. But without adventure people shrivel up and die inside and outside.