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The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Safety

Part two: How the need to feel safe and secure can lead to chronic anxiety, people-pleasing, and could land you in a cult

A disproportionate drive for security can become a prison in itself

“If you see me as your friend, I’ll be your friend. If you see me as your father, I’ll be your father… If you see me as your saviour, I’ll be your saviour. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.”

– Jim Jones

“How could something that started out with such good intentions end so badly?”

– Chris Saunders, The Death of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple

A man hides away for years because he only feels safe in his own house. A sportswoman panics when she forgets her ‘lucky socks’ for the big tournament. A teenager refuses to go anywhere unless she knows her ‘escape’ route. A middle-aged man washes his hands a thousand times a day.

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There’s no doubt about it. We humans can be intensely irrational, even when it leads to self-sabotage. Or complete annihilation!

In part one of this series I explained that attention is a kind of vital nutrient – one we all need to varying degrees – but that our need for it can also poison us.

Not only can our unconscious drive to meet our need for attention in the wrong area stop us from achieving our dreams (because gaining attention is the true hidden priority), it can also be used by unscrupulous people to wreak havoc on our lives. ‘Love bombing’, as I wrote, is powerful.

In part two, I’m going to look at how the drive to feel safe and secure can also work against our clients (and us!). If misdirected, this drive can lead us to seek a sense of safety in ways that, paradoxically, undermine our very existence.

Uncontrolled unconscious drives

Our primal emotional needs drive much of our unconscious behaviour. This series is about bringing that unconscious behaviour into the conscious domain. It’s about knowing what our – and our clients’ – needs are, being clear about them, and understanding the dangers of trying to ‘meet the need for hydration by drinking engine oil’.

Meeting our needs in balance keeps us sane and safe. Safe from the kind of manipulation I’ll be addressing here.

The need to feel safe is paramount. I’m not saying all adversity should be avoided, or that we should be so ‘safe spaced’ from contrary opinions that we end up soft, brittle, and fragile. I just mean we need to feel secure enough to have the spare capacity not just to survive life, but to embrace it.

At its deepest level, the drive for safety and security is really the drive for survival itself. In more primitive times, a lack of shelter and safety meant there was no guarantee you’d live to see the next day. No wonder we still have such an inherent drive to feel safe and secure.

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The primal drive for security may help us protect ourselves in some situations, but it can also trip us up in modern life.

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Safety first

In part one, I made the point that when people are starved of attention they don’t feel safe. That’s because once upon a time loneliness, living away from the tribe, was literally dangerous.

And so was exposure. Finding shelter meant we were safe, if only for the moment. We could continue to exist. When we began farming, it meant increased security. We knew where our next meal (and many more after that) was coming from.

In modern life, fulfilment of this need relates to financial security, healthcare and physical safety. It relates to the fulfilment of our other basic emotional and physical needs. It relates to trusting relationships. It relates to being able to plan ahead and have a sense of how things will be: the opposite of uncertainty.

All this helps us feel more secure and frees us up to focus on aspects of life beyond survival.

But what happens when people try to meet the drive for safety in ways that actually work against them?

Fear, anxiety, panic, and obsession…

All fear and anxiety conditions, including panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, are manifestations of the same need: the need to feel safe and secure.

Rather than seeing these conditions as pathological, we could view them as sloppy, maladaptive unconscious attempts at meeting primal emotional needs.

But even if we don’t suffer to that extent with anxiety, we can all fall victim to a misdirected drive to seek safety and security.

… meanness, timidity, and depression

Chronic meanness when someone has the resources to be generous may be a kind of – and here I’m going to use a very old-fashioned word (trigger warning!) – cowardice.

Feeling we can’t spend money, or ‘waste’ money, may signify an overwhelming drive to feel safe and secure. The meanest people I’ve known have tended to be pretty wealthy. Yes, that might help explain their wealth… but when is enough money enough?

Likewise, an excessive drive for safety and security may produce a kind of chronic timidity in which life is never taken by the horns, no risks are taken and no challenges are faced. Yes, avoidance may be safe, but so is being dead. Not daring to try carries its own risks. Regret and resentment aren’t great comforters as life moves on.

As practitioners we need to help our clients find ways to meet this fundamental need healthily. Indeed, much of what we do does require us to help our clients feel safer. A huge part of depression treatment is about helping our clients feel safe again, to begin to move in life and meet their needs sustainably.

In fact, a myriad of different symptoms common to our caseload relate to the innate drive towards security.

From chronic reassurance-seeking to horrific flashbacks

Incessant worrying; chronic washing, checking or counting; flashbacks; panic attacks; addiction to alcohol or opiates and ‘comfort eating‘ are all ways in which the unconscious mind may desperately seek a sense of safety.

Even depression, in which energy shuts down and basic challenges are avoided, can be seen as a kind of unconscious retreat into a dark cave that the light of day can’t reach.

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Some people become such rule-bound lovers of bureaucratic processes that spontaneity and common sense don’t even seem to factor into the equation. Chronic rule-following may also be an attempt at feeling secure. An attempt at ‘covering all the bases’.

All these can be viewed as maladaptive attempts to feel safe and secure. But of course, they don’t work.

If we look at what need any behaviour or emotional condition is trying to meet then just about all facets of the human condition become explicable.

People who seek reassurance or approval are really seeking to meet their need for a sense of safety and security. People who can’t stand the unexpected or a break from routine are really seeking a sense of security.

When we feel unsafe we are, by definition, in seeking mode. We are constantly looking for safety. And when we are desperate, we are easily led. What seems to offer us safety may, in fact, be poison.

When people become parasites

“Parasite, noun: 1. An organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the other’s expense.”

– Google Dictionary

Hitler offered safety and security (and dignity) to the German people. Eventually, it became objectively unsafe not to follow him.

Stalin, murderer of millions, also offered a kind of utopia… at first.

And I won’t even talk about the wonderful promises of freedom and safety Communist leader Chairman Mao Tse-tung made before killing an estimated 45 million of his own people.

“Let me be leader of your tribe and I will offer peace, security, comfort, and self-respect. With me you are safe!” This is the timeless message of those who would exploit our trust and squander our lives.

The machinations of a cult can occur in groups of any size, from an entire nation to, I would suggest, just two people.

Captivating cults

Cults promise:

  • Safety (be cast out and be damned!)
  • Meaning
  • Togetherness
  • Feelings of being special or ‘chosen’.

Cults also:

  • Devalue outsiders
  • Shout down dissent
  • Alternate hope with fear
  • Seek to convince members that only the cult can meet their needs. The sole provider becomes the sole source of ideas, and demands for ‘payback’ abound.

All abusive relationships have cult-like elements. They meet needs in the short term but become parasitical fast.

But there are more subtle ways we can convince ourselves we are safe.

Ideological safety

Wanting to feel we are ‘ethical’, and therefore that others are less so, may also be indicative of a drive to feel secure. After all, feeling righteous is a way of feeling safe in the knowledge that “I am good.”

When this kind of safety is promised – “we are good; others are not!” – the end can so easily come to justify the means. The safety offered by one-size-fits-all ideologies leads people to engage in terrible collective behaviours, convinced they are ‘necessary’ for the ‘greater good’.

The drive for security is so potent that we can be taken in by anyone who seems to offer certainty. In this way, ‘security’ and ‘certainty’ are virtually interchangeable.

‘Safety in numbers’ is tempting, but as Stalin eventually put it: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

The drive for money is so often a drive for safety too.

A more modern form of safety

Our need to feel safe and secure, just like our need for attention, permeates and secretly influences all areas of life. It can certainly affect our financial life.

Some people want money to increase status, to show off or to have and do nice things. But many want money because it represents safety. “I have enough nuts and berries to survive the winter.”

We want to feel safe. We lock money in ‘safes’. We invest in ‘trusts’ (and we only trust when we feel safe).

This is exactly what scammers play on. They know that if they can gain our trust, they can gain our money. When we feel safe, we become less vigilant. To revert once more to primitive terms, it is as if the cave is secure, and we are in it with someone we trust. We think, “I’ll give my food to this person for safekeeping. I can tell they will not only look after it but add to it.”

If our drive for safety is too desperate, we may stop thinking.

Many financial scammers are organized and businesslike. But they can be far more covert than that. Malcolm’s story shows just how easily we can come to trust those who mean us harm.

My vulnerable and wealthy client

Malcolm met Trisha in a bar.

“She was all over me from the get-go! [Alarm bells, anyone?] I told her I had all kinds of issues with anxiety, but she didn’t mind. She helped me overcome my panic. She cared for me [Malcolm was grieving after the death of a child] and made me feel so safe and secure…”

That really struck me. Somehow this woman must have picked up – quickly, skilfully, and imperceptibly – that Malcolm was that perfect combination of vulnerable and wealthy.

“She would calm me down, tell me silly little stories, soothe me. She was like the mother I never had.”

Somehow I knew a hefty “but” was about to fall.

And there it was.

“But I kept losing money. There’d be £100 in my wallet when she arrived, and the next day it would be gone. But I turned a blind eye because I felt I couldn’t lose her.”

Trisha had made Malcolm feel so safe he felt he couldn’t lose her – but he was losing money. Fast.

He related his torturous tale. Trisha had defrauded him out of £25,000, slept with other men, constantly told him that without her he would be “nothing” and, when he finally felt it might be safer not to be with her, tried to ruin his reputation at work and on social media.

He ended up taking out an injunction and at last she left him alone. Finally, he was rescued from his ‘rescuer’.

I sought to reassure him that he hadn’t been “stupid”, as he said, but that he had simply judged her by his own standards of behaviour. I also suggested that she had picked up on his primary emotional need, and seemed to meet it (at first).

A parasite contorting itself to fit the host.

Helping our clients find real, sustainable safety

We can all get sucked in by the dynamics of our needs. Some people and organizations can make us feel safer, but we need to be wary of the wolf in a sheepskin coat.

What problematic behaviours and feelings in your clients relate to the need to feel secure? Why doesn’t the client feel safe? What is stopping them feeling secure? And how can their need for safety and security be authentically met so that they needn’t look for it in the wrong places?

When we help our clients meet their needs in sustainable ways, comfortably lift trauma, and equip our clients with ways to stop panic attacks before they get started, we help them feel naturally safer. Learning to calm ourselves and others is vital too, and part of that involves becoming better at relaxing with uncertainty.

When we don’t feel safe we can become so frightened we lose the capacity to think clearly or make good judgements. The more we can all learn how the need to feel safe can be subverted, the healthier we will all be.

And you can catch up on all the articles in this series so far by clicking below:

Inside Uncommon Practitioners TV is a wealth of real therapy footage of clients being guided towards meeting their emotional need for security, among others.
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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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