If you’re reading this blog then I’m betting, one way or another, that you have issues around safety. Anxiety is, after all, a quest to feel and be safe – we wouldn’t be anxious in the first place if we didn’t feel threatened.

We get in trouble, however, when safety becomes our primary goal. That may sound a little odd, but stay with me while I explain myself. Safety is good, important, something that we should certainly keep in mind. But when it becomes the major (or even only) thing we focus on we, unintentionally, amplify our anxiety. And we set ourselves up to fail, again and again, in our quest to overcome anxiety.

I would argue that this comes from a basic misunderstanding of safety.

Safety – A Packhorse we WAY Overburden…

Let’s just admit a basic truth about our fight with anxiety. The vast majority of us were very, very poorly educated when it comes to understanding where anxiety comes from and what drives it in the first place. If you’ve done much reading in this blog then you now understand anxiety’s origins in our thinking and the body’s Flight or Fight response –

But most of us don’t understand those basic, fundamental truths about anxiety’s causes when we begin our own experience with anxiety. We begin to deal with anxiety (whenever that starts for us) by starting to look for a way to FEEL safe. We’re not even aware that we’re doing it. We just start reacting to Flight or Fight’s reactions to our thinking, our anxious, frightened thinking, and we start retreating towards something we call, vaguely, feeling safe.

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There’s very little thinking in that reaction. That’s not a criticism, by the way. How in the heck could we do useful thinking about it when we were so poorly equipped to even understand what was happening to us? And Flight or Fight as a biological mechanism isn’t about thinking. It evolved WAY before we had the brain to do any thinking about it.

We shouldn’t feel stupid or that we’ve failed because we didn’t understand anxiety and its roots. But it is essential that we start to look more critically and unflinichingly at our unconscious and often manic drive for that safe feeling. We NEED to do that, because the automatic, reflexive push for safety isn’t taking us where we want to go…

A Little Parable About Safety

There is a great story from the original “Twilight Zone” TV show that demonstrates the futility of seeking perfect safety. (It starred William Shatner in case you’re a Star Trek fanatic like myself.) This man and woman are traveling through a small town and stop to get a meal at a diner there. In the diner, at their table, is a small personal fortune-telling machine.

When they ask the machine about their journey they get an ambigious answer. That answer makes them anxious, so they ask again. Every time they ask they don’t get the certain response guaranteeing a positive outcome to their question that they are looking for, so they get more worried, more afraid to even leave the booth at the diner for fear of what might come next.

That’s US when we demand that we have to be perfectly safe/feel perfectly safe! That’s us when we retreat from our Flight or Fight responses because we’ve convinced ourselves that our mission is to stay perfectly safe – i.e., free from anything that might rock our worlds, scare us or make us anxious.

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In other words we see ANXIETY AS THE ENEMY. But anxiety isn’t the enemy. Anxiety is simply, basically our fear of what MIGHT happen, translated into our bodies by Flight or Fight, tempting us to step back, stay safe by freezing in place, hiding from the world, not risking discomfort, upset, anxious feelings or anything that smacks of losing our grip on safety…

No, the enemy is the notion that we can achieve something as elusive and unreal as perfect safety. Maybe more accurately the enemy of our peace of mind is the belief that our mission is to FEEL perfectly safe.

Worse still we’re not even aware that we’re making that assumption. So we keep chasing it down, this feeling of safety, which really means that we keep retreating, further and further back.

Sometimes that retreat stalls because, for a time, we don’t feel as anxious, or think we’ve found safety. Maybe we find a great person who comforts us when we’re anxious, and that seems to be a safe place. Maybe we move to a new house, or get a new job, or come into some money, and that makes us feel safe. Maybe the anxiety/Flight or Fight symptoms subside and THAT brings us some comfort.

And then we tell ourselves PHEW, that’s behind us, I was anxious for a while but now I’m not. Except that we are still anxious – we’ve just managed to find a temporary truce in the fight. All that’s changed for the present is that we don’t FEEL anxious.

But, maddeningly, anxiety is still there, still lurking in our thinking about the world and what we deem to be safety. So when that delicate balance is upset, when our safe person suddenly doesn’t seem so safe or our safe haven of a house or apartment develops the taint of anxious thinking, then we panic, desperate again to STOP feeling anxious and START feeling safe again.

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This is one of the basic reasons we want so much to find a fast, right-now answer to our anxiety. We’re treating our anxiety like it’s a crisis – except that it isn’t. It’s a thinking problem, and we’re going to have to treat it like a problem to make it stop.

This is why so many people begin to find ways to medicate, in all the ways we do medicating – because they are focused on the wrong problem. Worse, medicating does bring, a lot of the time, some temporary abatement of Flight or Fight, so we keep at it, just wanting to not FEEL anxious.

Let’s Talk Turkey About Safety

So let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Our desperate search for the feeling of safety, the way we’ve been doing it, is only getting us in trouble. We need another approach to finding our way free of anxiety.

That approach consists very simply (as most of you reading understand) of both identifying the thinking that makes us anxious in the first place (what I call unpacking our fearful thinking) and at the same time develop new responses to what Flight or Fight means to us – i.e., not danger, just an alarm system about our anxious thinking.

At the heart of that new approach is a fundamental truth: safety is a dynamic state rather than a static end goal. Safety is a creature of the moment AND a thing we create in our thinking, not some absolute physical condition we achieve and then can put down and forget.

That may be pretty uncomfortable to hear, and I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. But here’s the good news – the moment we can begin to get our heads around this idea the faster we can begin to break free of the obsessive need to achieve “safety” as an end goal.

Safety is NOT the absence of any anxious feelings or sensations. Safety is not perfect. Safety is not striving for an absence of anxiety, because anxiety is, when we’re healthy thinkers, one of the alert systems we have to tell us there are issues/problems/challenges that need our attention.

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So what IS safety? Safety is the self-confidence to meet whatever comes our way head-on, secure that we’ll do the best we can, ride the storm (if storm it is) and take care of ourselves in the process. Safety is treating the world’s ups and downs as problems, not crises.

It is a terrible illusion to believe we can create some zone of perfect safety. The world is the world. It changes. People come and go, lives begin and end, jobs start and stop. We have to contend with the facts of illness, ignorance, accidents and yes, other people’s fears. We and other people make mistakes, mess things up, act on imperfect information.

If that makes you anxious reading that then you’re not alone – I know this thinking sure as hell made me uncomfortable when it first began to become clear to me. But it isn’t all darkness! Because with all that I listed above there is the other side of things. Good things happen to us too.

Yeah, I know, when you’re in the grip of anxiety the good things seem to get valued to zero and the bad things get extra credit. I get it. But that doesn’t mean we’re seeing things clearly or realistically. And it is past time for each of us to start looking at our thinking more critically (not as in criticizing – but as in questioning, evaluating, reassessing) about our assumptions.

Because the truth is life is much more complex than just risks and failures. Gifts get scattered in our lives. People love and care for us. Opportunities present themselves. Things go right, we learn things, we try and succeed. We celebrate victories, or at least we have victories, even if we discount them. We survive crises and grow stronger, smarter, more capable.

Yeah – More Capable…

And that might be the perfect word to set opposite the word safety – capability. We have to start getting clear just how capable we are, and have already demonstrated ourselves to be in our life.

What, you say? Me, capable? Well, yes. You’ve managed to get here, wherever you, and you’re still standing. You still have some sort of roof over your head. You’re still eating (unless you’re now somehow running on batteries.) You’re getting out of bed, most days, and still taking care of basics. You’re still managing a host of things, however much you trash and abuse yourself.

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And you’ve done that for years and decades in the face of some period of chronic anxiety and depression. I’m sorry – what’s NOT capable about that, exactly?

Oh, of course. It wasn’t perfect. You didn’t do it completely free of fear and the need for safety. But you DID IT. Capable. Not perfect. In fact incredibly capable.

Nobody is ever completely safe. That’s a fantasy. And we don’t need to be perfectly safe. We need to embrace the vagaries, variations and vipers of life. It’s our capability to meet what comes – whatever we’re FEELING in the midst of our anxiety – NOT achieving perfect safety – that will take us through and give us our life back.

The Pursuit of Perfect Safety Means We Stop Living

We can’t live, really live, if we’re running from what makes us anxious. The single-minded pursuit of safety means we give up engaging in life. (Any chronic anxiety fighter I know completely understands THAT truth.)

Flight or Fight isn’t trying to mess up our lives. It isn’t malicious. It is just doing what it evolved to do – get us away from real, actual, physical danger. The problem isn’t Flight or Fight. It’s our thinking – and our ignorance. We don’t have to stay ignorant. And we sure as hell don’t have to stay the prisoners of our thinking.

REAL safety – a real, life-living map of safety – starts with understanding that safety isn’t static. It’s evolving, it is variable, and it is dynamic. YOU are capable.

Real safety comes from looking our fears directly, facing them, unpacking them, and beginning to deal with them as the problems they are, not the crises our single-minded pursuit of safety would have them to be.