I found the topic of safety difficult to approach at first. Viewing the world through a lens of safe and unsafe seemed a little clunky for some reason. Until, through some discussions with others, I came to think of safety in terms of vulnerability and humiliation.
If I really thought about it, I feel vulnerable all the time. Such as when I’m in the shower with my eyes closed and the door unlocked. And I feel open to humiliation when my insecurities are laid bare before others.
Once I turned that corner in my mind, the floodgates of past experiences opened wide. I’m a bit biased, but I think the result is a long but very honest and productive exercise in developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of safety.
I hope you’ll join me for the journey.
The Third Essential Element of Dignity – Safety
This week we’ll be taking a closer look at Safety. You can view all of the essential elements of the Dignity Model in our first post of the series.
Safety – Put people at ease at two levels: physically, so they feel safe from bodily harm, and psychologically, so they feel safe from being humiliated. Help them to feel free to speak without fear of retribution.
Taking Stock of My Relationship to this Element of Dignity
As I’ve done in previous posts, I’ll be using the questions below to complete a self-evaluation of my own relationship to this element of dignity.
- Have you done this in the past?
- Do you do it now?
- Can you recall a time when you did or did not make others feel safe?
- Can you recall a time when others did or did not make you feel safe?
A Quick Accounting
As has now become a regular practice (in addition to answering the questions above) I polled my Facebook friends to see what makes them feel safe or unsafe. I answered my own question to get the ball rolling and here is my off the cuff accounting of what makes me feel safe and unsafe.
I feel physically safe when:
- Karla and I have locked everything up, prepped the apartment for bed, and get cozy for the night.
- I’m among trusted friends.
- If I’m under someone else’s power/authority then rationality, competence, confidence and compassion are a big deal.
- If I’m doing something potentially dangerous then preparation and the right tools/resources are a big deal.
I feel physically unsafe when:
- Weapons are present.
- Behavior is erratic.
- People drive too aggressively.
I feel emotionally safe when:
- Others are willing to be vulnerable too.
- The vibe is authentic and I don’t sense an ulterior motive.
- I know that my honesty will not be punished.
I feel emotionally unsafe when:
- I’m asked to be vulnerable to someone I don’t trust.
- I know the folks I’m interacting with have talked behind other folks’ backs in a negative way.
- The power dynamic is dramatically out of balance.
Have I made a habit of making others feel safe?
Yes. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve made a habit of making others feel physically and psychologically safe. But that doesn’t mean I’ve never made someone feel unsafe.
Is there a time that comes to mind in which I did or did not make others feel safe?
While a few come to mind, one in particular stands out as especially egregious and a turning point in the way I treat people today.
I was 20 years old and I had more responsibility than I had ever had in my life. I was an (unpaid) writer/producer at the time for a Christian film and television studio. And if you’re wondering how that works and if it’s legal, it didn’t and probably wasn’t. Thankfully that organization doesn’t exist anymore. But that’s a different story for another time.
I was tasked with leading the production of videos, graphics, and sermons for a massive 30+ city tour of the United States called Acquire the Fire. Altogether, there were well over 300 individual projects that needed to be completed in about 3 months. We had a team of 70-ish other young unpaid interns who all had jobs that were over their heads just like mine was for me. With minimal senior leadership that mostly consisted of them being disappointed we weren’t already better at the jobs we’d never been trained for, it was our responsibility to get those projects done before the show hit the road.
I was a writhing ball of stress and way too immature to handle it in a healthy way. Case in point, one day our senior producer calls me into his office and rips into me for not turning in a receipt for an expense showing up in our checking account. I can’t even remember what is was for, but he was demanding that I give him a receipt right that instant and if I didn’t have it for him soon I’d be in trouble.
I left his office and went straight to the studio bullpen where everyone else worked. I found the guy who I had tasked with making the purchase in question and demanded the receipt. He didn’t have it he told me. He must have thrown it away. Thrown it away?! I lost it. I tore into him in front of everyone.
“How do you just go around spending someone else’s money and you don’t save the receipt?” I yelled. Never mind that it had never occurred to me either. And since he was older than me, I dug into him from that direction too, “This isn’t your first job like it is for most of us, haven’t you learned some professionalism by now?”
At this point I could see he wanted to respond, but I cut him off, “Listen, I don’t care what you have to do, get that receipt and give it to me asap.” He wilted, apologized, and said he’d get on it right away.
I was cruel. I was in a panic and I was lashing out. I had a serious case of hero syndrome and I desperately wanted to be the guy who rose above his inexperience to pull off the impossible task of hitting all of these ridiculous deadlines. And I wanted to do it like the pro I wasn’t. Which meant that every rookie mistake I made became a crisis. After a few months of that, my nerves were wrecked. Sleep was something I did at or under my desk between full pots of coffee. And I was behaving like a totally different person.
A few hours later I found this poor guy sitting at his desk, his head in his hands. I asked him how it was going tracking down the receipt. He looked up at me like someone expecting more abuse. He launched into an explanation of all the things he had done to try and track down the receipt. He’d looked everywhere, tore up his workspace and anywhere that it might be besides the trash. He’d called the vendor and tried to get a copy emailed or faxed over, but they wouldn’t do that without proof of purchase in the first place. Finally, he simply said, “I don’t have it. I can’t get it. I’m sorry.”
I had calmed down a lot since earlier and I could see in that moment how unfair I’d been to him and the tole it had taken. I told him that I’d let the boss know I couldn’t get him the receipt and he could stop trying. When I reported the news to the boss he more or less said something to the effect of, “Oh well, you tried.” And explained that he had just wanted to make a point about the importance of being thorough and to light a fire under me during the homestretch of production for the tour.
I felt sick to my stomach. All I could see was the look in my co-worker’s eyes. The stress, the disappointment, the humiliation. And for what?
I sought him out at the earliest opportunity and apologized. I explained the best I could why I had behaved the way I had and told him I’d be changing how I interacted with everyone at the studio moving forward. He accepted my apology but explained to me that I’d really hurt him. I’d humiliated him, made him feel insecure in his role at the studio, undermined other people’s confidence in his ability to work on their projects, and last but not least, I’d been a real dick about it too. My words, not his.
Up until that point he and I had actually been on a path to becoming friends. I knew his brother and sister pretty well and we’d started to hang out a bit outside of work as a group. After this experience though, there was a noticeable distance between us that never went away. A space he needed, I’m sure, to feel safe.
Is there a time that comes to mind in which others did or did not make me feel safe?
Two stories come to mind in regards to being made to feel unsafe. One very personal and the other sort of abstract, but still relevant.
I can’t recall exactly what grade I was in, probably 8th or 9th. I was at a high school basketball game. A group of friends and I were hanging out together in the cafeteria which during games doubled as the snack bar for attendees. I’m sure my group was being loud and obnoxious as kids that age are bound to do from time to time and in doing so we had drawn the attention of some parents–including my Dad.
All I really remember is that a few of the kids in the group were getting a little wild and one of them spilt a drink of some kind and knocked candy wrappers or other trash from the table on the floor at the same time. It was clearly an accident and in the midst of my surprise at it and trying to avoid the mess my Dad was suddenly right there, red faced and angry. He began yelling at me in front of my friends and demanding that I clean up the mess. I tried several times to tell him that I hadn’t been the one who did it–because in my shock at what was happening that was the only reason I could think of that would have made him so mad. Every time I tried to speak he would yell at me to be quiet, to stop talking back, and to clean up my mess. I could see the look on my friends’ faces that said, “Wow. What is wrong with this guy?”
But he wouldn’t let up.
So I had to get down on my hands and knees in front of not just my friends but everyone in the cafeteria who were now paying attention and clean up the mess. It was humiliating. And to add to the injustice my favorite pair of pants were stained in the knees by having to get down in the mess. Ensuring I’d remember the incident every time I put them on.
Afterwards, I couldn’t even look my friends in the eye. I remember throwing all of the trash and napkins I’d used to clean up the spilled drink in the trash and going to be by myself somewhere in the school until my family was ready to leave the game.
To this day I still have no idea what that was about. I’ve forgiven my Dad for this humiliating experience though. I think I’ve come to understand my Dad a lot since I was a kid and where he was at in his life then. I’m confident that based on our relationship in totality he did not intend to humiliate or hurt me. I think in his mind he was trying to dole out some tough love as he understood it. Forcing me to be responsible for my behavior and public conduct. Unfortunately, it didn’t go very well and it certainly didn’t help that he was dead wrong about what had actually happened, misguided punishment aside.
Of course none of that changes the fact that this event took place. And I can honestly say that for years afterwards it made me nervous to be myself–especially with friends–if my Dad was around. There was too much risk that something accidental would set him off and I’d be punished and publicly humiliated all over again. Obviously it made an impact, seeing as some twenty years later, it still comes to mind.
The second story is likely a common one for folks in the United States. Not too many years ago I was unemployed. As a result, being an American with an employment based healthcare system, I had no health insurance. Unfortunately for me I was dealing with some serious ongoing symptoms of PTSD. I had (and still have to this day) high blood pressure. I was also having a lot of anxiety issues at the time resulting in chest pains that often felt like they might be heart attacks.
One day the stress and pain freaked me out enough that I gave in and asked to be taken to the emergency room. After a few hours there, mostly sitting in an empty room with nothing happening and no medicine administered, I was sent home. Nothing had been physically wrong, it was just my anxiety. Great, right? No. Because then the bill came. It was $3,000.
For someone dealing with a lot of anxiety, getting a $3,000 bill while unemployed for having a panic attack is not exactly helpful. I felt like I was being punished for something out of my control. It’s not like I wanted PTSD in the first place. And I hadn’t even wanted to go to the hospital, I just thought, you know, maybe I’m dying?
To resolve the issue, I went on a begging tour of officials at the hospital. I called anyone and everyone that would listen. I told them about my situation and made a case for lowering or waiving the amount due. In the end, some of the line item fees were waived and after emptying my bank account of what I did have at the time, the balance I owed went down to around $1,200.
I felt trapped between my past trauma and a system that cared about nothing but money. I felt like I was being punished for being the victim of the thing that had caused my PTSD in the first place. And I felt helpless to do anything but deteriorate mentally and physically while paying for the privilege. In other words, I felt very unsafe. And more than once considered ending things myself just to escape the situation.
Thankfully, a good friend helped me out. Being in a much better financial situation than I was at the time they (at their own insistence) gave me the money I needed to cover my balance with the hospital and disaster was avoided. I’m very aware of just how lucky I was and am to have that friend in my life. I know countless others have had it much worse with no one waiting in the wings to save the day.
But the impact of that experience is still very much with me today and it affects how I manage my own health.
Even as I write this, I am slowly going blind. I have a treatable condition in which my corneas are thinning and bubbling out. This process warps one’s vision until the thinning and bubbling results in an actual hole. At which time you lose sight in that eye. The treatment for this condition is an outpatient procedure that takes about 40 minutes. But it costs roughly $8,000.
I’m reminded once again of how unsafe it feels to be forced into a system that is not compassionate. A system that doesn’t care how much of your savings it wipes out in an afternoon. A system that is willing to bankrupt and financially ruin people for the crime of having a simple ailment.
Thankfully, I have more options now than I did before and I’m confident I’ll figure it out. But I sure don’t feel safe.
Affirming my Commitment to Safety
This week I made some slight alterations to the affirmations. I noticed that none of the language was very inclusive of myself! So I re-wrote them to make sure that I was not only affirming my commitment to honor dignity in others but also in myself. I’m sure this kind of tweaking will happen more than once over the remaining weeks in the year!
Today I will endeavor to be an agent of Dignity.
I will approach others as being neither inferior nor superior to myself.
I will be my authentic self and give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged.
I will interact without prejudice or bias, accepting the ways in which race, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, and disability may be at the core of other people’s identities.
I will conduct myself with integrity and assume others are too.
I will do my best to make others feel that they belong–whether they are in my family, community, organization, or nation.
I will do my best to make others feel safe both physically and psychologically.
Making these changes over the last week has actually been a relief. I think it was starting to feel like something that could potentially drain me over the course of a whole year of focus. Now however, I feel like the more I focus the more I build myself up. Which is exactly what I was hoping would happen since this is supposed to be a lifestyle change and not just a temporary experiment.
When I began this post I thought, this’ll be a short one. Boy was I wrong. One of the great things about this exercise is that it forces me to really dig in and dredge up things I wouldn’t otherwise engage with from my past. I’m forced to consider the prompts from every angle until something comes to mind and then once I start writing more and more things seem to always follow. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for the indulgence! I’d love to return the favor and learn about your thoughts and experiences around Safety in the comments section below.
Next Week in A Year of Dignity – Acknowledgment
Next week I’ll be tackling the essential element of dignity known as Acknowledgement. You can get a jump start on this topic too if you’d like by reviewing what exactly that means in the context of the Dignity Model here.