I like a good quote as much as the next person but I must admit that I had never heard this one before: “A ship in harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.” I heard that from Dustin, my therapist the other day and it has stayed with me – haunted me – ever since. “Safety” is an interesting concept and I think it deserves a little unpacking here. But I will confess up front, I realize that I view safety through two very different and oft times conflicting lenses : those of Dr. Terencio Daunte McGlasson, PhD, retired psychotherapist and current professor of counseling…and just plain ol’ Terry McGlasson, vulnerable and fragile human being. So, if you want to read on, I’ll let both of them speak their respective minds to you and you can sort it out…
Dr. Terencio Daunte McGlasson, PhD: Safety from a counseling perspective is critical. Not safety physically (though of course this is important) but rather psychological and emotional safety. We live in an emotionally unsafe world. We bind up our hearts and souls because we’re terrified that if we put the real us out there we’ll get sliced and diced. I’m not suggesting that every moment of every day we consciously withhold or repress. No, it is far more insidious than that. It starts when we are very young. We are born into this world rather uninhibited. We cry when we hurt, we laugh when we find something funny. We speak without edit or censure. Why? Because as little ones it doesn’t occur to us not to. We are simply acting out of our nature and its instincts. And while this can create untold embarrassing moments for our parents and teachers and ministers there is truly something to be admired here. I think it is just one of the reasons why we all look so fondly upon children. Perhaps there is a little envy there? Oh to be young and uninhibited again. But usually that’s as far as we take it because we also implicitly understand that to be young and uninhibited also means to be vulnerable and relatively defenseless. As we grow and mature, we absorb the proverbial blows of life and we begin to discern a message that it is far less painful if we don’t put ourselves out there…if we don’t speak our opinions…if we don’t share our feelings. Worse yet we are conditioned by the adults and older kids around us that it is not appropriate to cry when we’re hurting or laugh at the things that we find funny. And we really should withold our raw thoughts because it’s not polite to speak our minds. And you can see where all this leads. The combination of the indoctrination by adults that had long ago shut down their own true selves with the body blows of our raw, honest heart offerings being shoved back down our throats, would tempt even the most steadfast, pure spirit to callous over and drink society’s Kool-Aid – in essence to give in and gag ourselves in deference to conformity and survival.
Now back to my original point. Professor McGlasson teaches his counseling students that our first priority as therapists is to be SAFE PEOPLE and to create a SAFE SPACE for our clients to enter into. This safe space (the therapy office) is what D.W. Winnicott referred to as the “holding environment” and interestingly the premise of his excellent work on this issue of psychological safety was built on the intimacy of the mother-infant relationship. He believed that for a therapist to create a safe-enough environment for healing to occur, the therapist needed to re-create the safety and nearness of the mother-infant relationship. In essence the therapist is to authentically communicate unconditional acceptance as a way of wooing the “little child” out of its hiding place residing deep within our adult shells. As this dance begins, the truest aspects of who we are emerge and they then are secured in this holding environment where the therapist (in lieu of mom) cherishes them and keeps them safe. Now for you non-counselor types this might seem weird or sound like a bunch of psychobabble but trust me when I tell you it is very real, it is accurate and I have had the distinct privilege of witnessing it hundreds of times in my career. Truth is once a person feels safe the rest begins to happen quite rapidly. Why? Because most of us desperately want to be heard and seen for whom we really are.
A side note: two of my former students, April and Jake, stopped by to see me yesterday with their beautiful 3 week old daughter, Atlee. What a profound joy to bear witness to this young couple with their tiny, baby daughter. What satisfaction to hear them recall the story of Atlee’s birth and their accompanying feelings as she struggled towards life in the world outside April’s safe womb. And as I watched them hold her and attend to her these ideas about safety came home to me.
Okay, so that’s the basic idea of psychological safety from Dr. McGlasson’s perspective to. It is sacred, it is critical to the therapeutic relationship and basically without it nothing can be accomplished. Now let’s hear from plain old Terry McGlasson, vulnerable and broken human being…
Plain Ol’ Terry McGlasson: I want to be safe all the time. I don’t want to take risks. I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want people to think I am weird or off-base or silly. I just want to fit in. I want to look like everyone else. I want to be found acceptable. I want that special person to see me as attractive and desirable, not complicated and needy. I don’t want to be laughed at or misunderstood. I want to be seen as brilliant and insightful. And consequently on a personal level I am loathe to take risks. But despite the fact that I say I want real friendships with people, time and time again I balk because I am not sure that I want them to see the real me. And despite the fact that I say I long for the companionship and love of a life partner, time and time again I balk because I am afraid of being rejected.
Enter Dustin and his comment about the ships…Now stay with me because here’s the BIG clincher:
I am sitting in my therapist’s office on Friday morning where he has worked to create a safe holding environment (remember Winnicott’s theory?) so that I can be real and share the thoughts and feelings that reside deep within (of which he has done an amazing job) and then he pulls out the million dollar “ships quote,” basically saying to me, “You can keep playing it safe and maybe you will avoid feeling rejected and hurt, but that’s not what you are designed for. That’s not what LIFE was designed for.” WOW! He created a safe space so that he could challenge me to stop playing it so safe! Ha! Counseling students: that’s the key to successful therapy! Everyone else: that’s the key to successful life! Yes, we desperately need safety and we can’t be our true selves without it. But safety taken too far leaves us constrained, hiding in the shadows. Permanently anchored in safe harbor, if you will.
Whew! Okay, I’m going to stop writing for now.
I need to weigh anchor and get back out to sea.
To be continued…