Sara has been challenging me, encouraging me, to shift my focus from a personal development framework to psychological safety. I’ve been resisting that. I don’t see a good, cohesive framework out there. And I have been using one and evolving it, and it works. Why wouldn’t I want to focus on that?
As soon as people actually start their personal development work, however, it always comes down to the same root thing. People are struggling with having the healthy, happy, highly effective relationships they desire. And that, my friend, hinges on psychological safety.
The degree of psychological safety we are capable of directly impacts our ability to connect with others. I think our ability to connect with others is the secret of life. And I think many people don’t know this. In this post, I will explain why I believe this to be true, and why I’m shifting my primary focus to helping people understand and cultivate psychological safety. To connect. Let’s bring this to life through real-life situations…
Why do I believe connection with others, with ourselves, and with life itself is the secret of life? For two reasons:
Reason 1 — Everything Worth Doing Happens Through Relationships
Everything we want to accomplish or achieve or build only happens through our relationships. You are not an army of one. We love the notion of being self-made, and we Americans are steeped in a societal DNA of “rugged individualism.” That’s wonderful and everything, but we don’t make it in life alone. And if we do, we end up incredibly lonely.
Reason 2 — Most of Us Don’t Know How to Connect, How to Do Relationships Well
This is the secret part. When we look around us at the average relationship, we probably find that ours aren’t that much worse. Further, we don’t see that many truly great relationships — relationships where unconditional love, warmth, acceptance, and support are present along with radical candor.
We are lulled into buying into and accepting “average” because exceptional relationships where unconditional love, warmth, acceptance, and support along with radical candor are so uncommon. Therefore, it doesn’t even occur to us that it is even possible. We tend to believe only what we can see. Not seeing it, we don’t believe it. Or we take it as a myth. And even if we were to embrace such an impossible possibility or myth, the how of it is unknown.
The bottom line is that everything happens through relationships, yet most relationships are close to average and the average relationship is unhealthy. The implications of this are staggering. We don’t know we have a problem, we don’t know what is possible, we don’t know how to make it possible. Those are three very significant strikes against us.
Psychological Safety and Connection
Psychological Safety is getting a lot of press. Books are coming out on the topic, articles written, and there’s even a Wikipedia page dedicated to it that says:
“Psychological safety is a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. It can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Kahn 1990, p. 708). In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected. It is also the most studied enabling condition in group dynamics and team learning research.”
I’m going to super-size that. In my view, psychological safety is much, much larger when we lift it from the workplace and apply it to the whole of life. Here’s the way I’d define it:
Psychological safety is present when there is an absence of fear that love, warmth, compassion, acceptance, and support will be withdrawn as conditions change. Further, it requires total honesty — a radically high degree of candor. Therefore, true psychological safety is present when unconditional love, warmth, compassion, acceptance, and support are present along with radical candor. When this arises, that is true connection.
One nit. Technically, in my view, unconditional love already includes radical candor. Total honesty — or radical candor — is absent due to conditional love and due to social conditioning that conflates “nice” with “kind”. So, the definition above is somewhat redundant, but since many people do not believe unconditional love includes total honesty I am emphasizing that here.
True connection is psychological safety. True connection doesn’t come and go as conditions change… such as when I disapprove of what you are saying or doing. So…
- When I say the secret of life is connection, I’m also saying the secret of life is psychological safety.
- When I say psychological safety, I’m saying unconditional love, warmth, compassion, acceptance, and support are unwaveringly present.
- When I say unconditional love, I’m including radical candor as an essential ingredient.
Getting better at connection transforms us, our relationships with others, our relationship with life, and transforms our ability to produce results and to serve life. We can’t fathom the degree to which this is true. We can’t imagine what is possible. And we don’t even know that we have a problem… and that the problem is us. More on that, later. Let’s bring this issue of connection to life!
In Real Life
An executive I work with and care about greatly is fighting for their professional life. They are an incredible person who has been promoted to a very high position. Certain things have happened, their ego and related defense mechanisms have been activated, and they are acting in destructive ways and they can’t see it. They are certain that the problem is outside of them. That’s the way it almost always is.
As they are acting out — which to them is rational and justified behavior — they are provoking everyone around them. And getting more of what they don’t want. Their behaviors — they think — are aimed at one thing, and they are getting the opposite. This is the human condition. They are not alone.
They are lost. Why? Because they have lost connection to their self (their higher self), they are damaging their connections with others, and they have lost connection with life itself. When our egoic defense mechanisms are working in overdrive — which is when we feel a lack of connection and therefore a lack of psychological safety — we are disconnected. From ourselves. From others. From life. We don’t know it. We can’t see it. And we can’t seem to stop it. And we start hurting ourselves and others.
This is a good, smart, well-intentioned person who has lost connection. They can’t see that they have, and their professional life is hanging in the balance. But, the issue isn’t just their lack of connection.
Other people care about them. Yet, because these other people don’t understand psychological safety, connection, unconditional love, radical candor, and the like, they can’t help. They cannot hold the level of connection required to truly help their friend and colleague when they need it the most. So what do they do? They commiserate, which is the opposite of helping.
When you see it for what it is, it almost seems patently unfair. Unfair that no one has taught us. Unfair that we can’t see it. Unfair that we can’t stop it. Unfair that with the best of intentions we are harming ourselves and others. And unfair that so often we can’t help others when they are in that position. How can we help them if we haven’t even found the way out ourselves?
But it doesn’t have to go that way. Connection can be present in a way that helps us and helps others. How do I know this? Did I read about it? No. I experienced it. Here’s how.
The Power of Connection
Here’s what this looks like in real life when the power of connection becomes present. It is embarrassing to share this because I’m going to admit what I have looked like at my worst in my past. But it is the very best story and one of the few I have about what the power of connection can do. In fact, this was a key turning point in my life and set me on the path I walk today…
Sara and I had a doozie of an argument — a fight really — about seven years ago. Afterward, we had an appointment and we were driving. In silence. A long silence. Sara breaks it, saying, “Otis, when you are angry I feel you don’t love me, that you hate me.”
I was dumbfounded. I thought that was the silliest thing I’d ever heard. Not because she thought I hated her when I was angry. No. What was dumbfounding to me was… how could I be both angry and love someone at the same time? That was outside any reality I’d ever seen, experienced, or contemplated. (How sad, I know.)
I said, “You want to feel like I love you when I’m also really angry at you? I don’t think I can do that.” I wasn’t even angry any longer. I was crestfallen. As far as I could see, my wife was intimating I had to do something that I thought was impossible, and if I couldn’t, curtains.
And then Sara said, from a still and silent place and with a shaky yet clear and soft voice…
“If you cannot be angry at me and also still love me then I don’t see how this marriage will last.”
That simple statement hung in the air, and something in me shifted. I cannot explain to you what happened to me, or what that felt like, or what happened to time and space, or why I actually felt hope. I didn’t know HOW I could possibly do this, but I knew that I would somehow find a way… because I love this woman and I don’t like this part of me.
I had become angry with Sara because she was rubbing up against some of my “rules.” And when that happened, I withdrew all love, warmth, acceptance, and support. My love, warmth, acceptance, and support of Sara weren’t just withdrawn. She became the enemy, the cause of my suffering. I forgot that I loved her. Because, in fact, I had stopped loving her in those moments. That’s not psychological safety. That’s manipulation. And it is sick. And to some degree or another, when others displease us, we all do the same.
Those times didn’t happen a lot, thank goodness. But frequency isn’t the point. The point is the other person — in this case, Sara — was living day to day and wondering when the next time might be. That doesn’t engender health, healing, love, joy, closeness, trust, and such in a relationship. And, you know what else? I couldn’t see it then. But I was just as unhappy and fearful and worried as she was. Because I feared and hated that part of myself, and I could not control it.
What happened, really, when the world turned around for me? Sara found it within herself to shift the quality of her connection with me. For reasons I can never know, she shifted from fighting against me to fighting with me. She did what she was asking me to do. She was loving me while she was angry with me. That shifted everything. She brought in psychological safety and radical candor to the nth degree. Nothing false or dark can withstand the full force of both love and truth. Nothing. The light burns away the darkness.
This is the transformative power of connection. This is unconditional love, warmth, compassion, acceptance, and support — including radical candor — and it is healing. Sara didn’t just save our marriage, she pulled me back from (or over) a very dark abyss that I would have never have been able to by myself.
What We Long For
What we long for is to give and receive love, warmth, acceptance, and support unconditionally. Without conditions. Said another way, we long for a connection with ourselves, with others, with life that doesn’t wane. We long for the end of self-centeredness and separativeness. We long to be at-one with others, with ourselves, with life.
When we give conditionally — to ourselves, to others, to life — we violate our deepest longing, our deepest desire, our deepest knowing. We violate our humanity and the humanity of others. That’s a problem. That’s not good. That’s where I was sometimes at with Sara all those many years ago. And with others I’m close to in my life, sad to say.
When we give love, warmth, acceptance, and support unconditionally, we are our highest expression, living with meaning and purpose, cooperating with others and all of life, and creating heaven on Earth. This is what I long for. This is also what I hope for every person, every being, everywhere.
Unconditional love, warmth, and support do not come and go. Their unwavering presence heals us all, brings goodness into the world. And, yes, helps us achieve great things.
The short answer is to always turn towards and into what you resist. Bad answer, right? But stay with me. This answer will seem overly simplistic, and there is much more to it than I can possibly cover in a single blog post. But it comes down to this.
The practice of turning towards what we resist shows us how self-deceived and therefore ignorant we are — that we are not seeing ourselves, others, or life straightforwardly, yet we are acting as if we are. I am certain that the ancient saying that ‘you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ contains this truth.
We resist in two ways: 1) clinging, and 2) aversion. We resist giving up what we think will make us happy. That’s clinging. And we also resist what we have an aversion to. Clinging and aversion are the two types of resistance. Resistance gets us in a heap of trouble.
So how can this possibly work? How does turning into what we resist help overcome self-deception? Simple. Your ego has rules. Just like the ones I had that Sara was rubbing against. Those rules contain flaws, distortions. Some (a lot) of those rules about what you should cling to are flawed. But you can’t really know which of those rules are flawed until you let go of them and find out. Likewise, some of your aversions exist because your rules tell you these things will bring suffering, but you can’t see which aversions are based on illusion until you turn into them, map them out, and stop avoiding them.
This “resistance training” systematically starts removing the distortions from your emotions and thoughts. And as you do that, the ego starts losing its grip. You start to see more straightforwardly. As illusion and distortion are burned away, inclusiveness and clarity start streaming in. This is the place to start: Release what you cling to, move towards what you avoid. And watch what happens.
Loosening the self-centeredness of ego strengthens our connection. Egotism and connection move in opposite directions. As egotism is loosened, connection becomes stronger. As egotism and egoic operation are more dominant, connection shrivels.
This is the essence of personal development, really, in a nutshell. Sometimes I tell my clients, “Believe it or not, your first step is to increase your tolerance for bearing your own discomfort.” I tell them this because moving towards what they are averse to and letting go of what they cling to is uncomfortable indeed. A certain part of us will tell us with certainty, “This is going to kill you.” Find solace in the fact that this is always an over-exaggeration. Always. It is uncomfortable, but not deadly. See! There’s good news!
That’s the start of it, but that isn’t the all of it. I’ll be writing more about the various things I’ve found very helpful. Namely, there are four foundational aspects to psychological safety and five practices. I will frame these nine things up for you next week.
I’ve attempted to demonstrate to you that the secret of life is connection. Connection with yourself, with others, and with life.
I’ve attempted to convey that what I mean by connection is actually unwavering and unconditional love, warmth, compassion, acceptance, and support and that this includes radical candor. Some people call this psychological safety, but I think we’ve expanded the definition much farther than the current literature takes it.
I’ve attempted to convey that this is a “secret” simply because we don’t know how good and strong and powerful and healing connection can be. And, further, we don’t know how to do it. No one has shown us the way. And I’m promising to tell you four foundational things and five practices which are my current best knowledge of the how… starting next week.
I’ve attempted to bring this to life for you. I shared with you a real-life story where connection has to all intents and purposes been severed, and someone I know and care about is adrift. And I shared one of the most embarrassing things I can share with you regarding my own life, and that Sara’s ability to do what I’ve talked about here saved our marriage, gave me a direct experience of what I’m writing about, and helped put me on a path of healing, a path I still walk today.
Over to You
In the meantime… look for what we’ve talked about above in your own life. Here are some things to ponder:
- What relationship is most problematic for you, right now?
- How would you describe the quality of your connection with that person, now?
- In what ways are you withholding love, warmth, acceptance, and support from the other person?
- Under what conditions are you willing to give these things again? In short, what are the conditions of your conditional love?
- Has this strategy of yours ever worked, in terms of fixing anything? Or did that simply buy some time and set up the next go-round?
- Related to this, what are you clinging to and what are you averse to? What would it look like to start dropping this resistance?
Knock. Knock. I’m knocking on your door. I’m saying, “Open up!” Step out on the porch, look at your life and your relationships and your connections anew. The secret of life is connection. Start to embrace this, and you will shift your life, and the lives of others, and the world around you.
There’s a whole new world that awaits… and it just may look very, very different from the world you see today. I’m exploring it. Sara’s exploring it. And I can tell you this: Nothing would please us more than to explore it with you, and to share with one another our experiences, insights, setbacks, and breakthroughs together. And to encourage, help, love, and inspire one another along the way.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African Proverb