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The Interconnection of Safety and Belonging


Happy, Healthy New Year’s Wishes for You!  Most of us have heard this phrase multiple times over that past week.  Where exactly do happy and healthy start??  I believe the felt sense of safety is the common denominator.

We are all looking for relief from the stress of the past few years, but some of us also continue to help ourselves or others cope with and learn from the adversities and toxic stress from our past. Research tells us that connection to competent and caring people and strengthening capabilities will decrease the negative impact of adversities and stressors. However, individuals cannot grow and thrive in isolation; the environment in which they exist needs to be supportive and safe.

Our brains are built for survival. We are constantly scanning the environment and comparing what we sense and feel to past experiences of danger or threat.  In fact, science has revealed that without a sense of safety, our pre-frontal cortex cannot develop or use the executive functions needed to carry out decision making, goal setting, planning, task initiation and self-control.  Schools, human service agencies and businesses all want people to be able to function at a high capacity in order to succeed. We know that people learn better and work better in environments where they feel supported and safe.  

Because we are wired for survival, we seek safety in many ways; we seek physical, psychological, emotional, and moral safety.

Physical safety is our sense that our body and the bodies of loved ones are not threatened in anyway.

Psychological safety is the sense that we can express ourselves and be genuine without the threat of humiliation or judgement.

Emotional safety is the sense that we can express or share our emotions freely without shame or punishment.

Moral safety is the sense that we are surrounded by people who share similar values and a sense of right and wrong.

I believe that all safety is related to a sense of belonging.

Pause and think about it. If we are not physically safe but have other people who share the experience with us, research shows that we will not have as many negative effects from the trauma.  Bessel van der Kolk sites research showing people who experienced trauma and have a strong social support system have fewer symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bruce Perry often explains the concept of “flocking” as a response to a threat; it supports our sense that there is safety in numbers.

If we do not feel emotionally safe but are surrounded by others who also do not feel emotionally safe, then we may be able to find common ground, grow and thrive together. Successful peer support groups show improved outcomes.

Moral safety means we tend to cluster with groups who we believe have our same values and morals. Gangs, unfortunately, thrive on this concept, however faith communities and volunteer agencies also thrive on this concept. To me, moral safety embraces the idea that at times we will make self-sacrifices for the betterment of the group.  Parents may give up some social or hobby activities to spend time with and support a child’s endeavor.  Community members volunteer free time to help support others. We are working and giving of ourselves for something we believe in as a group.        

It all comes down to feeling a sense of belonging.

I propose there is another type of safety related to the sense of belonging; I call it “social safety”. My definition of social safety is when we not only feel like we have the support of others but that we also feel belonging which includes reciprocity- the give-and-take that occurs in strong relationships. We receive help from others but also offer help at times. Finding support from and contributing to the group creates the sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. It is feeling truly connected to other people.
I also believe there is a hierarchy with safety; different types of safety build upon each other.

Physical safety must first be established. Our body (and the bodies of loved ones) are free from harm, and we have basic resources to keep us out of danger. We cannot form healthy attachment or connection without physical safety.

Psychological safety means we are also free from verbal threats, but it must include feeling secure, accepted and valued in a relationship.

Emotional safety follows; when we do feel psychologically safe, we can more freely share emotional experiences.

Social safety can only occur when we feel physical, psychological and emotional safety within a group; it is here that we begin to feel like we can contribute.

Moral safety is achieved when we feel a strong sense of commitment and will support the common beliefs of the group because we feel physically, psychologically, emotionally and socially safe within the group.

Some ideologies in our society are slowly dissolving social and moral safety.  Western views often honor independent achievement over group participation and support “looking out for number one” or sacrificing others for personal gain. Science, though, is telling us: social connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, increase our achievement motivation and actually improve our immune systems.  Feeling safe allows us to build connection with others; that connection actually brings a higher sense of safety, social safety, which in turn supports our ability to be creative, make choices, plan and follow through with tasks that help us individually and as a group.

We are biologically wired for survival and for connection. We need to focus our efforts to bring all levels of safety to different kinds of communities- families, schools, workplace, agencies, faith-based organizations, neighborhoods and cities.  When people feel safe and are a contributing part of something larger than themselves, thriving occurs.

Pause and think about this. It wouldn’t solve everything, but wouldn’t it help if everyone knew that they mattered in the life of someone else.

It all begins with feeling safe.

Written by:

Cheryl Step, MS, LPC, NCC, NCSC



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