The difference between safety and connection
I took a hiatus from social media last year. I was a heavy user when I was younger and have been on some form of it since I was a teenager. The way the internet joins us together is complicated, and although it allows a kind of connection that would be absent otherwise, I took my hiatus because of something many of us understand at some level-although there is a connection it facilitates, social media isn’t really a connected space.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. are contradictions for people who want to change the world for the better. #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo would not have spread the way they did without them, but misinformation, filter bubbles, and curated feeds undermine our ability to understand, engage meaningfully, and be in community with people who are not like us. People reach out on the internet for support in things like loneliness, depression, and mental health, but the connections formed there are often shallower and weaker than in “meat space”. Online harassment, trolling, and polarization are well documented problems, and evidence suggests high social media use correlates with poorer mental health.
For people on the political left, the idea of the safe space is well developed, but the connected space is not. So what does the connected space (and the connected community) look like, and how is it similar to and different from the “safe” one?
A different mindset (and heartset) with different outcomes
We think and act differently when we focus on connection instead of safety. We often talk about safety in static terms. We say things like “you are safe” and “you are not safe”, treating it like a binary and not a continuum with realities in between. With a safety mindset, we try to protect people by controlling the conditions around them. We act like we can protect them from the perils of a constantly changing world and our own (at times unpredictable) nature by clinging to a static state of safety.
Things are different when we focus on connection. Nothing is static-it can’t be. Connection demands constant presence and adjustment. For connection, we emphasize the process as much as the outcome and must be responsive to the changing needs of people in the moment. Sometimes we need safety. Sometimes we are better served by a little bit of risk. Sometimes we need opportunities to be courageous, grow, or heal.
A focus on connection doesn’t dismiss the idea of the safety-it deepens it. It includes safety and works to apply it when needed, but is not fixed in its commitment to it. Safety can help meet the short term needs of people in certain situations. Connection helps us understand and adjust to people’s long term needs and creates paths to growth and healing. This is what we need to both repair harm, and cultivate joy, pleasure, and intimacy.
Trauma and Mental Health
In part 2 of this series I write about how connection provided me a path to healing and resilience that safety did not, but beyond the role social connection has in stewarding healing and health for people in distress, a connection mindset is more powerful than a safety one because it adapts to the diverse and dynamic ways people respond to trauma.
A teacher colleague once told me, “If you’ve met one kid with autism… you’ve met one kid with autism”. They were right, and it’s similar with trauma. A blanket approach to trauma (like a resolute focus on safety) limits us because different people experience and respond to trauma in different ways. Two people may experience the same traumatic event and have completely different triggers or degrees of distress afterwards. Genetics, culture, and socialization all influence how we respond to trauma and what we need to heal. Connection, and a connection mindset helps us understand what we need for a person’s unique situation or experience.
Understanding patterns in trauma help us, but assuming they are universally applicable limit us. People talk about finding a “cure for cancer”, but there isn’t one cure for cancer; cancers are different diseases that manifest in the body in different ways; we need a variety of treatments within context to “cure cancer”. We also need different approaches within context to support people dealing with trauma.
A counselor once told me it takes about six months for someone to feel safe in a space or with another person. Before that, “safety” is more an idea than a feeling. Safety needs to be felt through connection, though your central nervous/limbic system, to be effective. It’s not about talking or thinking-it’s about feeling (thank you to Dr. Linda O’Neill for the insight).
Temporary safety is essential for someone experiencing a crisis due to trauma, but to steward a person’s long term ability to feel safe in what can be a precarious and dynamic world, it is better to focus on connection. Authentic relationships build a person’s resilience in uncertain spaces and places. They build our capacity to hold and transform pain; pain that is not transform will be transmitted.
When I was young, I had a serious and persistent stutter; it was severe enough for me to see a speech language pathologist and was one of the reasons I was bullied in elementary school. My stammer re-emerged when I was nervous and was one of the reasons why I was a shy, self-conscious kid. When I was 12 or 13, my piano teacher asked me to Emcee our class recital; public speaking was definitely on the edge of my comfort zone and what felt psychologically safe. My palms were sticky with sweat as I held my speaking notes, and I could feel butterflies fluttering in my chest as I worked to control my voice in front of the (in hindsight) small audience. I didn’t want to do it, but I did, in large part because my parents were in the audience that day to support me. It wasn’t a peril free space that gave me a sense of security in that situation, but the presence of people who I was connected too. Supportive relationships can do more to build our resilience than absolute safety.
Courageous Conversations, Dialogue, and Learning
Connection has benefits that go far beyond mental health. Much of the tension around modern safe spaces happen when they are applied to educational, growth, or dialogue spaces. For dialogue and growth, we need to be authentic in ways that expose our imperfections, privileges, and assumptions-we need to be vulnerable and take risks. Dissonance and misunderstandings are natural and essential parts of that process; connection gives us ways to process that dissonance and discomfort that safety does not.
I am not assuming all perspectives are equally valid or should be presented without context (including that of naming power). I am also not advocating for spaces where people are empowered to say things without care or consequence. Connected spaces don’t allow people to troll, talk to refute without listening, propagate things that are untrue, or manipulate; these aren’t behaviours of connection. It is also not a free-for-all of voices. In the connected space, we work to understand what voices are most important to hear in a particular context or moment. We can prioritize certain voices when appropriate, but we also make sure to make room for others, if not in the moment, in due time. In the safe space, some voices won’t ever be heard. In the connected community, everyone who is earnest about connection will be heard on their due time; it just may not be today for one reason or another.
When we focus on safety, we have mixed results in actually providing it, and it can be a barrier to creating connection. In “safe” spaces people feel pressure to “say the right thing” and avoid taking risks, which they need to grow as individuals and we need to have depth as a community. I’m a teacher, and I see this happen in my classroom all the time.
Last year we had an Indigenous woman visit my class as a guest speaker. She spoke candidly about the way colonialism affects her life and the lives of people she knows. After her talk, she opened up the room for questions or comments, but my students were hesitant.
Once our guest had left, one of my students made a b-line for me. The speaker’s stories stirred her so much she was compelled to talk to me about it right away; she had so many questions and things to say that she stayed ten minutes past the bell, making her late for her next class. Her questions were earnest and sincere; I asked her why she didn’t ask them to the speaker when she had the chance. She said she was afraid of saying the “wrong” thing.
People withdraw from connection when they feel uncertain because they are scared of social disconnection or judgement if they “say something wrong”. Ironically, we disconnect from people or situations because it feels safer for us than being authentic, imperfect or accountable; this is especially true when it lays our unseen privileges to bare.
What allowed her to feel safe enough (or supported enough in risk) to ask me the questions she didn’t want to ask the guest speaker? It was the relationship of trust (i.e. connection) she and I had built over the months before.
Much of time, activists fixate on power and oppression. The connected space knows how important understanding this is, but also that we are not purely rational beings in how we respond to it and that our emotional process is a part of our learning process. The connected space expands our understanding of intersectionality to include how power and oppression intersect with our emotional and psychological selves, things that cannot be separated from our experience in a world populated by people. When we focus on connection as part of how we navigate this, we can cultivate courage, and through it, growth. The connected space is the place to have courageous conversations, whatever that means for you. Like safety itself, it cannot be intellectualized-it needs to be authentically, and fully felt.
This is part 1 of the 4-part series “We need connected spaces more than we need safe ones”. If you’d like to read other parts of the series, you can find them here.
Buncombe, Andrew (2018, July 22). Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admits platform not a place of ‘nuanced discussion’ as top ‘New York Times’ reporter quits after abuse. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/twitter-maggie-haberman-new-york-times-quits-social-media-jack-dorsey-a8459121.html
Intersectionality. Wikipedia. Last updated 16:42, 2019 August 4. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality
Smart, Amy (Journalist). (2018, March 25). Victoria Mayor Deletes Facebook Because it “Rewards Anger and Outrage”. CTA News. Retrieved from https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/victoria-mayor-deletes-facebook-because-it-rewards-anger-and-outrage-1.3857692
Walton, Alice (2018, November 16). New Studies Show Just How Bad Social Media Is For Mental Health. Forbes Media. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2018/11/16/new-research-shows-just-how-bad-social-media-can-be-for-mental-health/#4fd538157af4