Trying to find security in the most insecure places

I was thinking of Abraham Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs the other day. All needs are about security. Fulfilling a need is making our well-being more certain, making our lives more secure. Everything we seek out is, in some way, helping us feel more secure. Security (because it helps ensure our survival) drives pretty much all of our decisions, the formation of all our beliefs, even who we are and who we become.

We become the people we have found that makes our lives most secure. I people-please, not just because it’s part of who I constitutively am (part of my inborn or given personality traits), but because I have found that people-pleasing has been my best guarantee for feeling socially secure. I feel as though people-pleasing secures the good will of others, and that as a result they are more likely to think well of me, not act contrary to my well-being, to agree to my oh-so-rare expressed needs and desires, and to defend me if someone else acts towards or talks about me negatively. My people-pleasing is my social suit of armor.

Most personality traits, habits, or beliefs that people lean on is driven by a desire for, and a certain resultant feeling of, security. Directness makes others feel secure. Patience makes people feel secure. Optimism, pessimism, belief in God, belief in a godless universe, reasonableness, objectivity, etc. Whatever we find meaning in, we find meaning in in part because it confers a sense of security.

(Interestingly, when I started to step out of my belief in God, I felt much less secure. It was terrifying, because so much of my security was bound up in my belief in the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God. It was only when I started to feel like clinging to my God belief was making me less secure that I could switch beliefs fully into atheism. At some undefined point, atheism and what I felt it represented about the universe, felt more true and thus more secure to me than to continue to force a belief in God.)

We choose the ways we navigate the world and we choose on the basis of what makes us feel secure, even if we weren’t entirely conscious of the choice or why it makes us feel secure. These choices aren’t always conscious — we aren’t always able to articulate them — but they are “our” choices nonetheless, which means if become conscious of those choices we can make different, better ones.

For instance, my people-pleasing was developed in a childhood defined by love offered on condition of me being and acting in very prescribed ways. I learned that the best way to get love (and the familial security every child needs) was by catering to the demands of my parents, and that became extended to a feeling that only as long and if I cater to the demands of others will I be secure. People from different childhoods or who have a different biological makeup have found that being aggressively independent was the way to feel secure, pushing folks away so they don’t feel like they need anyone else. Because we grow up surrounded by uncertain, insecure, traumatized people, we’ve all developed coping mechanisms that give us a feeling of safety and security in this stressful, uncertain, insecure, traumatized world.

Sadly, some of the very things we do to make ourselves feel more secure are the things that actually make us less secure. My people-pleasing has not helped me develop secure relationships; it has actually deeply hindered by ability to form deep, lasting, real relationships with others. It keeps me from knowing, expressing, and advocating for myself and my needs, and has thus made me far less secure in reality, even if it has felt safe. My feelings of security as found in my people-pleasing keep me farther from the actual security I crave.

To realize this is a bit unmooring, because what are we left with? If I am driven by what feels secure, but that doesn’t actually make me secure, then how can I trust anything in myself and my drives towards anything? Ultimately, the best way to overcome our coping mechanisms is to feel secure in ourselves, to find our security in the persons we are, and the healthy relationships we are able to healthily develop with other people. We need to be able to trust ourselves to be able to navigate this world and trust that we are allowing the right people into our worlds. But we are profoundly, deeply confused in body and mind about our ability to do this and what it looks and feels like when we’ve developed the right, healthy habits.

At its core, learning to trust ourselves means developing healthy ways of interpreting the world (and other people) and developing a deep trust of our bodies, a trust that our bodies tell us the truth about our experiences. That doesn’t mean that we trust every single one of our interpretations about what our bodily experiences mean, just that we learn to trust that our bodies are telling us that something significant has happened or is happening and it’s something we need to pay attention to. (Like emotions.) The work of our lives is learning about the world and our own psychology to be able to better interpret what our bodies are telling us, and thus to trust that our deepest security is in understanding and trusting ourselves. Our bodies know so much more than we realize.

Then when we find ourselves in cycles of behaviors we wish we could change, it would be helpful to ask ourselves “What about this behavior is making me feel secure? What kind of security does my instinctive brain find in this and why? Is this particular way of navigating the world truly making me more secure, or do I need to revisit my understanding of security?” Realizing that the things that make us feel the most secure can be the very things keeping us from finding true security is the kind of scary but freeing truth we need (and deserve) to face head-on.

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