Have you ever been to a war before?
Most people reading this probably have not.
So let me ask you another question.
Have you ever watched a movie about wars?
You know, where there are soldiers in the field and a lot of dead bodies and body’s parts.
Or, have you ever played games that imitate wars’ environment (for instance, Call Of Duty)?
Chances are, many of you will answer one, or both, of these questions with a yes.
For those who have answered no, and for those who have answered yes but have only remembered the names of the movies and not the adrenaline-boosting scenes, let me help you with what I am trying to say.
War is scary. There is no certainty. Everything is dangerous; anything can blow up and take away your life. It’s not an environment in which you can learn or grow or feel good and safe. It’s an environment where you make sure that you survive and that the enemy dies.
This environment might be good for war’s purposes, whatever they are. We are not here to discuss that.
But can you imagine being in an environment like this all of the time? Or most of the time?
Can you imagine growing up in such an environment?
Can you imagine getting used to this environment to the point of pursuing only survival and the death of the enemies (whoever they are; real or perceived)?
It sucks, doesn’t it?
Well, here’s what sucks more.
Some research suggests that children who grew up in dysfunctional families might be suffering the same way war veterans are suffering. This is due to PTSD (Posttraumatic stress disorder), which was associated with the war veterans (for a good reason). It turns out that children who grow up in chaotic and stressful environments have the same brain structural changes. They, too, may experience PTSD. They experience flashbacks and irritability, let alone that they are affected deeply by their childhood.
I understand that we can’t compare war to a toxic family environment. But also we can’t compare soldiers to children as children are way more vulnerable and sensitive.
And anyone who has grown up in a chaotic, uncertain environment can tell you that it is mentally daunting and scary. It leaves a lot of wounds and scars that are hard to heal and hide. And any similar environment, no matter how slightly, can open these wounds again.
Watch this video before you go any further. It’s an eye-opener.
The reason I’m writing this article is that our minds adapt very well. Even to chaotic situations. They get used to almost any situation. This is necessary in order for us to survive. But it can be harmful, too.
I want to raise an alarm that some of us might have lived and might be living in toxic surroundings. And until that changes, any personal change or growth can’t happen. Until that changes, it’s hard to develop healthy self-esteem. The goal when in a toxic environment is to survive and to kill.
And I also want to illustrate how beautiful and amazing it can be when you are in a safe environment. It’s not a luxury, it’s one of your rights.
But if you don’t know how a safe environment looks like, you will never recognize the toxic, war-like environments.
This Is What Safe And Unsafe Environments Look Like
We are not talking only about the environment in which you have grown up. We are talking about the environment that you are regularly in as an adult. That includes your family but it’s not excluded to it.
Your friends, your workplace, your romantic relationships …etc.
Yes, we can sum it up by saying: if you feel safe with the people in that environment, it’s a safe one. Else, it’s not.
But let’s take it a step further and see how “safe” looks like.
We are going to have two lists. One for what a safe environment is. The other one for what a safe environment is not.
They are examples and sure in real life, there will be more (or less). But they show you the pattern to which you should pay attention.
Let’s start with …
What Is Not A Safe Atmosphere
- There is a hidden contract: You always have to do X or Y in order to be accepted and loved. If you don’t do this X or Y, you will be judged, criticized, and screened out. You’ll be rejected! That is one of the reasons we start wearing masks and start faking who we are.
- Lack of trust: Trust is the fuel of relationships. It’s the glue that keeps communities, of any form, together. If you can’t trust those around you, or they can’t trust you, the atmosphere will always feel weird. And the relationship quality will suffer.
- A lot of drama: Every problem deserves to be the most important thing in the world. Drama is nothing but a self-centered behavior that will hurt everybody involved. And here is another fact: drama is addictive. That’s why we find drama queens (or kings!) in big, major problems most of the time. There are always huge events happening. Something is screwing up their lives and they can’t do anything about it!
- Physical or emotional abuse: This one should be obvious. But it can be the subtlest one. Emotional abuse isn’t always that clear. You may adapt to it to the point of no longer recognizing it as a type of abuse. In adult relationships, this happens because of weak boundaries. When you don’t set strong boundaries from the beginning, nothing will be too extreme for you. And the reason we don’t set boundaries is usually related to self-esteem. We don’t have enough of it to believe we deserve to be treated in a specific way. Which, in turns, makes our self-esteem worse. A cycle that must be broken. Examples of emotional abuse: emotional blackmailing, making you feel guilty, making you feel jealous, manipulating your decisions.
- Lack of honest communication: Honest communication is about expressing your true self. It’s about saying how you feel. It’s about addressing how the other people want to be treated and effectively communicating how you want to be treated (Read: How to Be Assertive and Not Get Walked Over). There has to be openness and honesty when it comes to expressing your needs, regardless of the response. And equally, you have to listen to other people when they, too, honestly and openly express their needs. And most importantly, there has to be a willingness to address other people’s needs and genuinely respect them. All of that, in and of itself, is hard. And if one doesn’t already feel safe with the people around him, it’s harder. Maybe the hardest thing in the world. That’s why I’ve put it at the end of this list. Also because by using it you can defuse all the situations that create the unsafe environments. How? Honest communication is the litmus test for relationships as we are going to see. It requires an honest and a positive response. If you see any defending or attacking or blaming, know that there is something toxic.
Now, this is …
What A Safe Environment Looks Like
- You feel loved and appreciated not because of what you do or what you have (the X or the Y!). You feel loved and appreciated because of who you are. You don’t have to convince people to like you or to accept you. They just do. And those who don’t, you know you are better off without them. You are free to be who you are. You are free to express your own uniqueness and authenticity.
- Your imperfections are accepted empathetically: They are not used to shame you or to blackmail you. Your imperfections are accepted because perfectionism is fear- and shame-driven, two drives that can’t create secure bases. Perfectionism doesn’t have a place in safe environments. Safe is imperfect. In fact, if something projects itself as perfect, you should run away. So, you are expected to have imperfections. And often, in safe environments, they are the reason people like you and are drawn to you.
- Your honest communication is taken seriously: Remember what we have mentioned about honest communication being the litmus test for relationships? Well, in safe and secure relationships, what you express through honest communication is taken seriously. It’s not downplayed or underestimated. When you express yourself honestly, people listen and care. When you express your concerns, you and your concerns are taken seriously. You are not blamed or made feel stupid. You are not told that you are overreacting. You get a positive response through words and through actions if needed.
- You are supported and empowered: Safe environment should help us become better. They should make us a little braver when it comes to navigating the world. They are not to control us and guide us through strict rules and paradigms. They should encourage us to do more of the things that we believe in. You don’t only feel safe expressing who you are and what you believe in, you are actually encouraged to do it and supported while doing it.
- Growth: A natural consequence of all the above. As time goes on, you become a better person. You grow. Don’t read this wrong –you don’t become perfect and you don’t solve all your life’s problems. But you do grow. Emotionally, personally, and maybe professionally. You may become better at work. You may become emotionally stronger. You may become more emphatic. I don’t know how you are going to grow. But when you look back, you will see that you have become better here and there and with this and that. I know there are types of growth that have nothing to do with our environment or the people around us. But the safe environments and the good relationships can help you grow beyond your ability to do it alone. This is one of the lessons I’m trying to learn after years and years of flying solo.
How To Find A Safe Environment And A Secure Base
I have 3 pieces of advice that will make you move away from the toxic, war-like environments and closer to the safe, secure environments.
The effect of this is enormous. Not only on your self-esteem but also on your overall life’s quality.
Here you go.
You need to be able to differentiate between a safe environment and a chaotic one. And you need to be able to know where you stand. Hopefully, this article has offered some insights.
You need to have more safe environments in your life. And you need to spend more time there.
Our minds can adapt to almost any situation we are in. And if you have been living in the dark for so long, it’s not easy to realize that it is too dark in here and it can be sunny and warm out there.
Be honest with yourself. And have the guts to question all the relationships in your life and all the environment you are in.
Create It Within Yourself First
In order to find a safe environment, you must create it within yourself first.
Or at least, start creating it.
There are some behaviors that you need to start doing. There are some traits that you need to start developing.
For instance, honest communication and setting boundaries and growing as an individual. Those are your responsibilities.
Equally, walk away from the negative behaviors. Don’t do drama and don’t tolerate it. Don’t emotionally abuse anyone and walk away as soon as you recognize it.
Be and live like those who are in safe environments and you will start attracting them. You don’t have to do it perfectly. Just start. And don’t stop. Eventually, you will stumble upon a safe, secure environment. And it will amplify all your efforts and reward you.
You need to walk away from the toxic environments. That is easier said than done. Especially if you have been in these environments for a long time.
But it is a must. And it takes courage.
You need to start finding and creating new safe environments. That is also not easy. There is this creepy uncertainty of being in a new, different place.
Again, it’s a must. And it does take courage.
Awareness takes courage. Developing a safe environment within yourself takes courage, too.
Know that you are going to be afraid. You are going to feel stupid sometimes. Some people may try to keep you where you are. You might try to keep yourself where you are because, despite the chaos, you know the place here very well.
And pushing through all that takes courage. And it takes time. It won’t happen right away.
It’s not a destination that you reach; it’s an endeavor.
That may sound difficult. But do you know what is more difficult?
It’s having to live your life in unsafe and insecure environments and never getting to experience high self-esteem or self-love or real relationships satisfaction. And then having to maintain this because it’s the status quo.
Choose now which endeavor you prefer to pursue. Choose wisely.