Earlier this week, I attended a seminar that touched on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This was the first I had ever heard of the pyramid and it threw some things into high definition for me about some of the situations I have been in over the last several years. Since walking out of that conference hall, I have been struggling to put the thoughts and feelings into some sort of logical order in my mind—easier said than done sometimes.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this is what it looks like:
Even if you’ve never seen this pyramid before, I’m sure that most of you are looking at it now and thinking ‘yeah, that’s all obvious’. As humans, we sort of just naturally know what we need to live a happy, healthy life, right? It’s instinctual for us to seek out the things that help us to thrive as an individual and most of us (if not all?) will spend our lives working toward the top of this pyramid: self-actualization.
For me, however, the second section of the pyramid was never something I realized was an actual need. Safety. Now that it’s been brought to my attention, I feel I can trace many of my hardships right back to this very need which I feel I have always been searching for and somehow lacking.
If you’ve followed my blog, my tumblr, or even my youtube channel (when it was active), you probably know at least two things about me:
- I was in an abusive relationship for over six years.
- I am battling mental illness.
Due to the nature of my inherent secrecy, I’m sure it’s never been clear to anyone—not via this blog and certainly not even if you know me personally—what the full scope of the abuse entailed or what actual mental illness I struggle with daily. I have an incredibly difficult time talking about these things in a personal way. I can write entire books about mental illness and abusive relationships from a third person perspective without ever admitting that it’s actually a first person narrative. I have never even spoken to my family about the things most personal to me—and I typically don’t even let them know that I have an Internet presence so that they can’t read about it here, either.
It feels like I’m digressing but I’m actually right on point: I don’t feel safe. I have never felt safe to be honest and frank about who I really am. Not to my parents, not to my sisters, not to my closest friends. This isn’t a fault that I attribute to them; I’m sure it has something to do with my paranoia, but it is a need that I have been lacking, and it is something that has crippled me in relationships for the majority of my life.
While I have alluded to an abusive relationship with a boyfriend, what I have never admitted in any way is that I stepped out of that relationship and into another equally abusive relationship. This one was with a job. I pride myself on my work ethic—but sometimes the things we pride ourselves on the most can become the very things that others will abuse. Such was the case with my previous employer.
It got to a point where I was working fifteen or more hours in a day because I felt that I had set the expectation that if my boss told me to accomplish a goal, I would hit that goal no matter what it took. I was the leader of an entire team, but not given the authority to ask that team to do their part to help us reach team goals. This often led to me sitting in an empty office building, doing the work of several people on my own long after the team had gone home to their families.
In addition to completely abandoning my writing, which has always been my main career path, I was being abused by my manager behind closed doors. In spite of my best efforts to achieve nearly impossible goals while also juggling the many personalities and clashes of nearly twenty individuals, my manager would pull me aside and say things like “you’re a shitty leader” or, worse, she would tell me I was doing a great job and encourage a decision only to later tell her boss that I was a bully and act as if I hadn’t actually come to her for advice prior to making a decision.
My team members would come to me with real concerns and if I were to treat them as humans, I would be told that I’m too emotional. I wasn’t permitted to view them as people. There was no leniency for the team member who was struggling with mental illness. There was no encouragement for the team member who just needed a little more help to hit their goals. I was given a co-leader who would speak such venomous words about team members—she would belittle and degrade them, saying that they were too stupid to do basic functions without giving them any opportunity to grow or improve.
And, then, as if all of the above was not terrible enough—they would refuse to provide team members with the tools they needed to be successful and then punish them for falling short.
As a leader who is incredibly empathetic, this was daily torture. I was being told to treat people as less than and if I couldn’t stop feeling then I was a terrible leader and ‘not a good fit’. Rather than encourage, they threatened. The CEO of the company would sing my praises in company-wide meetings and yet he had no idea that I was contemplating suicide daily due to how my manager was discouraging and belittling me behind closed doors.
And the best damn thing that has ever happened to me was when they fired me for some imaginary wrongdoing that was never addressed, coached, or even alluded at being wrong in the first place—something my leader before me had actively done for four years.
I wasn’t safe. It was an environment that cultivated inauthentic people who would step on your face if it meant gaining an inch for themselves. That environment was toxic while claiming to be a safe place—“be you here”. Except don’t be you, be who we want you to be. Be callous. Be fake. Be inhumane to the very people who need empathy the most.
(*I have to insert here that this was only one department of a company that I’m confident does have good people and good leaders elsewhere—just not where I was.)
One of my best friends, and truly one of the few people that I feel like I can really talk to very candidly, reminded me the other day that “safe places” are mythical. They are only safe places for the individual(s) who created them—and anyone who doesn’t agree with their opinions will be subjected to the same litany of abuse as they would be outside of that so-called “safe place”. I point this out to make myself clear: Safety as a human need cannot be fulfilled by finding a “safe place”.
I wish I had understood that when I was trying, in vain, to create a safe place for my team at my previous job. I wanted to protect them from the abuse I was receiving, but I couldn’t. I would have done them a better service by being frank and honest with them, telling them exactly where they were struggling and offering them whatever support I was able to allow them to improve. Instead, I tried to shelter them and, I’m afraid, ended up only crippling them.
Safety is something that you must learn to cultivate for yourself. Safety isn’t a noun, it is a verb. It is the action of building a support system wherein you can learn how to be frank about your feelings and receptive to equally frank feedback. It is the mentality of allowing yourself to be challenged to learn, grow, and change as a person. When we neglect this very important step toward becoming the best version of ourselves, our journey to that pyramid’s top is nearly impossible.
How do we create safety, though? Where do we begin when we set out to cultivate safe relationships? I believe we must begin with defining what a safe relationship really is. It’s easy to think that a safe relationship is one where you feel like you never have to explain yourself or step outside of your comfort zone, but that isn’t actually what a safe relationship is. Because when you find yourself in a relationship that allows you to dwell in your comfort zone, it is so easy to become complacent or stagnant within that relationship.
The true definition of a safe relationship is one that allows you to be honest with yourself and another person, to expect honest feedback and advice in return, and one that encourages you to be better every day. This can be a familial relationship, a romantic relationship, or a friendship. I can’t stress enough how important it is to weed the garden—get rid of the toxic relationships that discourage personal growth.
Lastly, it is essential that you become safety. Be an authentic individual who provides honest feedback and encouragement to those around you. Be frank, but always be kind. You will be so amazed at how a person will open up when given the feeling of safety needed for them to be themselves. And when we are ourselves—not hidden behind masks for fear of rejection or reproach—that is when we can truly grow. We can hold ourselves accountable when we feel like we can be accountable to others, and this moves us toward self-actualization.
Don’t just listen in order to respond. Listen first to understand. Listen so well that you could argue that person’s viewpoint on their behalf, to their satisfaction. And then begin to articulate your response. There is safety in feeling understood, even when the individual doesn’t agree with you. We become more open to criticism and opposing viewpoints when our own viewpoints have been heard and understood.
As you work toward becoming safe for those around you, you will begin to attract relationships that are safe in return. To quote Leigh Bardugo (completely and utterly out of context, to be fair), “Like calls to like.”
Get out there and work toward being your best self. Be authentic, be kind, be honest. You’ve got this.