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You Can’t Grow Your Business If You Feel Unsafe

Jan 08, 2021
desk with laptop and journal

Last month, a tragedy happened in my neighborhood. I won’t get into the details here but it was sudden and it was terrible.

In the days that followed, I found myself peering through the shades to assess each passing car for danger. I struggled to concentrate, checking the local news for a conclusion or resolution to what happened. I was looking for something to say, “You are safe.” or maybe, “This is over now.” We were safe, overall. We had thought about whether we needed to do anything to secure our physical safety and decided that we were alright. But that reality didn’t change my gnawing unease.

As I stared out my window one Tuesday soon after, I realized that there wasn’t going to be a conclusion that would be satisfactory to the animal part of myself that felt unsafe. All the court update articles in the world wouldn’t help, of course.

So I made a list.

On the top of the page, I wrote: Things that would make me feel safe. And underneath, I scrawled everything that came to mind. The things ranged from “walks and exercise” to “resolution of court case” to “cut back on sugar” to “leave phone and computer in my office during non-work hours” to “fix front door key so I don’t keep leaving the door unlocked.”


In looking over the list, I noticed a few things:

  • A felt sense of safety is foundational.
    I’m unlikely to be patient with my toddler or visionary with my business if I feel unsafe. Feeling safe at this basic level is also supportive of taking action to make constructive changes in my life, neighborhood, and world. So I’m certainly not pursuing “safety” in the sense of pretending everything is alright, but rather pursuing safety in the sense of claiming whatever safe ground I do have, from which I can act.
  • There is a lot I can do to feel safe.
    Making this list surprised me, by proving that there are many things I can do to increase my felt sense of safety, big and small. Some are out of my hands but some are very much in my power to do.
  • It all goes into the same bucket. 
    Although I may not be able to resolve many pieces relating to the tragedy, my felt sense of safety is also impacted by things I can impact: not checking my email at night, not watching shoot-’em-ups, doing yoga, etc. And it all goes into the same “felt sense of safety” bucket. So even if I can’t fix one thing on the list, I can do the others. And if I do the ones I have control over, my felt sense of safety will increase, by a lot, even if there are others on the list that I can’t impact at all.


It turns out that my intuition is backed up by neuroscience, too:

“When it comes to threat or safety, the only thing that matters for the brain is the felt sense. This means that whether the threat of safety is real, perceived, or imagined, it is all the same to the brain. In that moment, if the person has a felt sense of threat, the survival systems will be turned on. The sense of threat can be physical or emotional/psychological. It does not matter what the source or the type of threat is for the brain to turn on its survival systems.”

 

After I made the list and crossed out the things I couldn’t do, I started doing all the ones on the list I could do. I kept my phone out of the bedroom… I stopped checking my email when I couldn’t act on the messages… I called a friend to talk through things… I only put things in my body and mind that would help me feel steady and healthy… I got some exercise. And honestly: within a couple days, I felt completely different. I still felt sad and angry and scared about the tragedy. But I also felt steadier, safer, and able to concentrate.

You may not have a tragedy in your neighborhood that impacts you. But you certainly have things in your life that create instability, uncertainty, stress, and fear. You might face financial problems, systemic racism, health struggles, challenging relationships, childcare volatility, an up-and-down business, or one of 1,000 other things. Of course, some of us are exposed to dramatically more stress and volatility than others, in part because of where we live, our race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, class, and other aspects of our social location. But every human’s baseline right now is that we’re living through a global pandemic. And even turning on the news leads to a barrage of terrifying developments.

My observation is that there are a few categories of things that can wear away at your felt sense of safety. Intellectually, we might think that there is a single thing making us feel stressed, distracted, or unsafe, when really our felt sense of safety is the aggregate effect of all of these things (and others):

  • Threats (real or imaginary)
    Concerns at work, personal stresses, systemic racism and structural violence, political upheaval, disturbing news, and even imaginary stresses like violent movies.
  • Hypervigilance
    Sickness, pregnancy, small kids, or other vulnerable states can create hypervigilance.
  • Overstimulation
    Too much work, clutter, media, news, email checking, or other types of “incoming” in a constant and overwhelming way.
  • Inflammation
    Inflammation in the body (from sugar, stress, lack of exercise, or other causes) creates stress at physical, hormonal, and cellular levels.
  • Being stuck in the “on” position
    Physiologically, there are things like our breathing and blood sugar cycles that can lock us into a feeling of stress even when the stressor itself has ended.

 

So if you are struggling with any of these things in your life and are also trying to grow a business, I have a simple recommendation you can do right now:

  • Identify whether you are actually unsafe in some way.
  • List things that could make you feel safer.
  • Cross out the things you can’t do or don’t have control over.
  • Do as many of the remaining things as you can.

 

In writing this article, I consulted my friend who is a psychology professor who studies safety, security, and resiliency. She reminded me of two additional things to keep in mind around these issues:

  • The longer you are in chronic stress mode, the more difficult it is to make changes that help you feel safe. In chronic stress mode, we come to expect threat and to interpret every ambiguous situation as threatening so it may take a while to unlearn the anticipation of threat. Regardless, what leads to change is practice -- literally repeatedly experiencing safety. The more you practice feeling safe and bringing attention to the ways you feel safe, the more this will begin to permeate other areas of your life.
  • One of the most important ways to increase our sense of safety is to seek support and connection from attachment figures. Just like little kids turn to a parent when they're upset, as adults we have people in our lives (romantic partners, parents, siblings, friends, etc.) who help us to feel safe and protected. Making time to connect authentically with these people is really important in feeling safe.


This should go without saying, but: if you need professional help, you should get it. I’m not a trained psychologist and generally don’t suffer from anxiety or depression, so I don’t have professional or personal insight into problems beyond the scope of what I’m describing here. I’m sharing a technique that has worked for me but it may not be the right solution for you, of course. And if you’re actually unsafe for any reason, that should be addressed first.

It can feel hard to pause long enough to reflect on these dynamics and care for ourselves in these ways. But if you feel unsafe, even in ways you’re not quite aware of, you won’t be able to do the big-hearted work and living that you’re capable of.

We need your gifts; and for you to offer them, you need to feel safe.

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