More than ever, people are concerned about feeling “safe.” Unfortunately, what that word means changes with context, people you’re with, the environment you’re in, and is based upon each individual’s background and life experiences. What may feel unsafe for you may be perfectly safe for me.
Physical safety is something most people understand. You get into a car, you fasten your seat belt, and that helps you stay safe in case of an automobile accident.
But what is the equivalent of a seat belt for our emotional safety? And is such a mechanism dependent upon the rest of the world to understand and provide you, or is it something you need to figure out how to provide for yourself?
You can’t argue with the data. Crime statistics from over the past two to three decades demonstrate — quite clearly — that we are living in the safest times our country has ever enjoyed. Your chances of being involved in a random crime by a stranger are pretty much as low as they can go in a large, diverse society. (Your chances of being the victim of crime by a family member or someone you know, however, still are much higher than they are with a stranger.)
We are also more safe because fewer houses catching on fire (due to better safety regulations and a significant decrease in smoking) and fewer people dying from fires at home (according to the Modern Building Alliance):
And we are more safe because despite people travelling a lot more miles in their vehicles, deaths per billion vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is at actually at its lowest point in human history (dark red line in graph below):
People face the least amount of prejudice and ostracization for being in a minority group (no matter for what characteristic) than at nearly any other time in the past century. It doesn’t mean we still don’t have a long ways to go, only that in terms of safety, in many ways, we’ve never been safer as a society.
I suspect, however, that people feel less safe than they did twenty years ago, because the amount of information readily available to every citizen has increased exponentially. Now, a small, one-off shooting in Portland, Oregon is shared endlessly and repeatedly through social media, through rose-colored lenses chosen for us by complex algorithms that few people understand.
In short, technology has exposed us to much more information than we had twenty years ago. And that information has biased our worldview in a largely negative manner.
If we’re all feeling and believing that we’re less safe nowadays — regardless of its basis in fact — it’s not surprising that parents seek to protect their children from even more adversity than the previous generation did. That protection naturally extends to a person’s emotional sense of safety, of feeling secure in a place and environment to express themselves without fear of negative reactions by others.
Yet that’s a pretty unrealistic expectation to put onto the world. How can the world possibly or reasonably provide an emotionally safe environment for everyone, in all the wonderful complex diversity that makes up a modern society?
As psychologists have been telling people for the past century — you are the only one responsible for your own feelings and emotions. Nobody can make you feel a certain way. You’re making a conscious (or more often than not, an unconscious) choice to feel a particular emotion in reaction to someone else’s particular behaviors or words.
From that perspective, it seems a little difficult to understand the expectation that the world needs to ensure it provides a “safe space” for your emotional needs. Because those needs will vary from person to person, resulting in inevitable contradictory needs coming to a head. Who decides that one person’s emotional needs are of more value than another person’s?
If you don’t have the emotional resilience or understanding of self to be secure in pretty much any typical environment, that’s a failure of your parents to help you learn those skills growing up. They probably did so wholly unaware and unintentionally — that in protecting you from all of life’s potential failures and setbacks, they were denying you the experiences that help build that emotional resilience.
Because emotional resilience is your emotional safety belt. The more you can build this — and you can build it — the more safe you’re going to feel, and the more able you’re going to be able to face life’s stresses and challenges head on.
I want to be clear that I’m not talking about an environment that clearly is toxic or hateful, such as those denigrating a person based on their racial, sexual, or gender orientation. Such environments so readily available online are found much less commonly in the real world.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each of us for our own emotional safety. I don’t believe it is a reasonable expectation to have the world to cater to whatever our specific and unique emotional needs are in every possible context and environment. Building your emotional resilience helps you keep emotionally and psychologically safe.
Taking responsibility for your emotional needs is empowering. It gives you control over your own feelings, instead of ceding such control to others. It also builds the emotional resilience that is needed to navigate the complexities of modern society and diverse cultures.