Image for The Gathering Pod A Martha Beck Podcast Episode #125 The Secret to Safety
About this episode

The secret about how to claim that elusive feeling of safety is hiding in plain sight. But it is disguised! Listen to this week’s Gathering Room to learn all about how to feel truly safe.

The Secret to Safety

Martha Beck:

At this time of recording, I just got back from South Africa where we went, my whole family went, except for Adam, who decided he wanted to stay home, and that meant we took our two-and-a-half year old, Lila. And you know how you set things up? And I don’t actually remember deciding to take a 15-hour plane trip with a two-and-a-half year old. We did it at some point. And then as the trip grew nearer and nearer, we became more and more afraid, and we were thinking, “What? What were we thinking? How could we have done this? Well, please get us out.” But the tickets were paid for and we were committed. So we all got on that plane. And let me tell you something, I look back at my fears and I laugh and I laugh because it was so much worse than I expected.

Oh yeah, we were innocent when we thought it won’t be that bad. Oh, it was that bad. She’s in a sporty tantrumy phase. That was one thing, but then took Ill just before, well, during our trip back. And yeah, that will be a tale. Check out Ro and me on our Bewildered podcast if you want to hear the entire gruesome story. Just know that my fears about the trip with the toddler were not nearly as big as they should have been. And then I thought, here’s the thing, fear tells you this might happen, this might happen, this might happen. Oh my God, this might happen. And it’s true. All those things may happen. More things may happen than you even thought. And what fear never tells you is, and you’ll be so glad you did it, it’s going to be so wonderful that you did it. That’s what I remembered about this trip. Because I would do it 50 more times, same conditions, because of the richness of that experience and the way it got us out beyond the limits of what we were used to doing.

And it got me thinking about how almost all the best things in my life are based on things that I did, that I was absolutely scared spitless to do. And bad things often happen to me. Here’s the thing, I talked to a lot of people who are saying these days, the catchphrase safe space, “That’s not a safe space for me. I need a really safe space.” I love that. I think everybody needs safety and gentleness. And I long for a day when people always feel safe and free from attack when they go forth in the world. At the same time, if what you’re looking for is absolute safety in your circumstances, it’s not going to happen, because you’re going to die. As long as you’re identified with a physical form, as long as you’re afraid of anything, as long as you’re afraid of loss, change, disease, decrepitude, anything that has to do with the passage of time and the typical pattern of a human life, there is no safe space that will keep you from all of those things.

And there’s no way you can force yourself to feel safe in an unsafe place. You can’t force yourself to feel safe. No one else can make you feel safe, no matter how hard they try. Yeah, because they can be doing everything that they possibly could, and you could still be afraid of stuff. That’s your prerogative. So what do we make of all this? Well, here’s the thing. There’s an alternative to feeling safe. And ultimately it’s far more rewarding. And it’s this, when you don’t feel safe, be brave. The alternative to feeling safe is feeling brave. Actually, that was a misnomer. It was a miss speech. We don’t feel brave. Safety is something you feel, brave is something you do. And brave means doing what you would do if you had no fear. If you felt safe. What would I do if I felt safe?

So on and on in my life coaching career, the only thing I’ve ever said to anyone boils down to, if you’re doing something in your life and you hate it and it’s toxic to you and it makes you miserable, maybe do a little less of that. And if you find something that thrills you and fulfills you and makes you happy, maybe do more of that. Just a little, like 10 minutes more of what you love and 10 minutes less of what you hate every day. And then increase it. I call it one degree turns. Every week do 10 more minutes and 10 more minutes until all your minutes are spent doing things you love, not things you hate. Pondering safety and the necessity of bravery in a world that is never safe has led me to amend that, and this is why I finally understand why people keep paying me to tell them that. Because it’s so obvious, do things that make you feel good and don’t do things that make you feel bad.

Here’s the caveat, here’s the final touch. Even if you are afraid. That is how you make your life what it’s meant to be. You find something that fills you with joy and longing and the dream of something bigger, and then every day you move toward it. So most of the day, here’s what I would suggest, most of every day, do what helps you feel safe because you need that. You can’t be always out there facing your demons. You need to rest a lot. But every day, do at least one thing that requires you to be brave. So every day, do as many things as you want that allow you to feel safe, but do at least one thing that requires you to be brave. And actually, when people start doing it, there’s something I call the wall of fear effect, and that is, when you first start doing what you’re afraid to do, the things that you fear actually come up a lot.

I do think that there’s such a thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that sometimes the elements conspire to bring us what we fear because we’re so focused on it, maybe in a woo-woo manifestational way. I know that, for example, I’ve told you the story before, of how I was afraid to do public speaking. And so I thought, “Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” Enrolled in the debate club in high school, tried to give a speech and fainted dead away. It was horrible. It was humiliating. It was the worst. We got our child on that plane and things began to happen. Projectile vomitings, screamings. At one point, Ro just turned to me and said, “They hate us. Like everyone on the plane hates us.” And I was like, “Yes, you are right. They do. We’re going to try as hard as we can to calm her down and keep everybody happy.” And there we sat with the hatred of all these airplane passengers. I’ve been in their place. I know what it’s like to have somebody else’s baby next to you. That’s why we were so worried about it.

And she didn’t scream the whole way or anything. She was generally an angel. But that is due to Rose’s continuous unsleeping efforts. And also Karen on our flight over to South Africa. She wore us out. I was safely ensconced, because I had to teach seminars in South Africa, because I was like immune and put in a different place, but I was still afraid. Anyway, my point is that being brave at first, you hit your wall of fear and the stuff that you were afraid might happen happens. You do something that’s not well received. You write a book, you can’t get it published at first. You put yourself on the line in a relationship, you profess your love and the other person doesn’t love you back, or they’re a slime ball or something. And it’s so unfamiliar to act brave. And then you see this negative reinforcement and you’re like, “Well, that was stupid. I’m never going to be brave again. I’m going to do what makes me feel safe. I’m not going to do anything that makes me be brave.”

This is why you have to aim your brave acts toward things you really yearn for with your whole heart and soul. It’s a strange thing about South Africa, but that place has me by the soul, or is blended with my soul in some way that I cannot honestly shake it off. I have to go back. And the other people in my family feel the same way. It doesn’t make any sense. So we’re like, “Yes, this is stupid. This is crazy. And it’s in the direction of what we love, love, love, love, love.” And then you’ll notice that when you keep going back and you keep going back, and the bad things keep happening, it’s less interesting. You’re less impressed by it, because you know you’re just going to do it again. I love Liz Gilbert’s story about, she tried so hard to get a story published in magazines, when stories were in magazines, way back when. And she wrote hundreds and hundreds and thousands of words and sent them off to different magazines. And she would get rejection after rejection after rejection.

And she talks about standing by her mailbox holding a bundle of rejection slips in her hand and just laughing and saying, “It’s so funny that you people think you can get me to stop. I’m not stopping. I don’t care how many times I’m rejected. I will not stop. This is what my heart desires.” Not that rejections didn’t hurt, but the desire was so absolute that she was just committed to acting brave no matter what. So then you start to notice that the act of being brave is something you’re now getting used to. So that instead of thinking, “Oh, I can’t do that. I’m afraid of that.” Now when I see something, I’m like, “Oh, they want me to go do a …” I’m making something up. “They want me to go do a speaking tour in Rome, and I don’t speak Italian.”

If somebody gave me that offer and I was really excited about it, I wouldn’t think, “But I’m afraid.” I would go, “Oh, damn it. I’m going to have to be brave because I really want that. But it’s not safe and I don’t feel safe. Oh, I’m used to doing things that scare me.” Because frankly, every single day getting up in the morning, I wake up and I think, “What? It’s Sunday? Oh, and then the gathering. Oh, I love the gathering. Oh, I’m afraid.” Because I’m always, the anxiety, the little pop-up fears, “Hello, what if you fail?” I always fail. I never do everything right, but I’m so used to getting up and doing things I’m afraid to do, that I just go, “Oh yeah, this is one of those.” So I’ve talked to a lot of people lately who have been really, really brave. I know a stunt woman who told me that the more she did stunts, the more she got some pretty serious injuries, and some less serious injuries that still hurt. And she said, “You don’t get less afraid. You get more afraid to do the stunts.”

And I was like, “Well, what do you do?” And she said, “You just gently put your fear to one side and then you go ahead and you do something brave.” I was talking to someone who has never traveled at all, but she’s got an opportunity to travel and she’s scared. But she’s decided to put her fear aside and go do it because she did that once before when she started her own business, and it worked. Ro, on the plane with Lila, when she said to me, “They hate us.” And I looked around and I said, “They really do. They do.” And she said this strange clarity came over her, and she just kind of went, “All right.” And she’s not a person who doesn’t feel other people’s animosity toward her. She’s very sensitive to it. And she was like, “Here we are. Bring it.” And she was brave. And we got across the ocean.

And at the end of the trip, and the trip back was worse than the trip going. But you find out as you do this kind of thing over and over, that bravery itself is your haven. When you get your bravery out of its mothballs and you brush it off and every day you use it, “I’m going to do one thing that I have to be brave for,” it starts to be the safe place that is not found on this earth, outside of you. So that is what I had to say about that today. Every day do a bunch of things that allow you to feel safe, but every day, do one thing in the direction of your desires that requires you to be brave, and then you’ll find yourself building a haven that no one else can give you. So let’s look at the questions. It’s so great to be back with y’all again. Woo. Okay, Mosca Mbali says, “How do I reach safety from a completely shot nervous system from such an unreliable upbringing? I’m so tired of being strong and crave safety. How do I escape the constant hum of anxiety?”

I so identify with this. I also had a very unreliable upbringing. And by the way, I’m going to say again at the end of this gathering room, but come to my course on The Art of Calm, which is starting in July, and the registrations are already open. Run over there because all my study and research for the last year and a half has been about this subject, and I’m putting all my best tricks in that course, long before the book comes out. So there’s so many things I want to tell you right now and I can’t tell you. But if you came to the course, I will tell you everything. Then in short form, in a nutshell. Really, really, really actively create safe places as much as you can. So what I do, I noticed that I was doing this all day… I have a set of things that help me calm down. On the, Do you have autism? tests, I rank in the low autism level. And there’s something called, stemming, that people with autism do to help calm themselves.

I notice I have a number of things that I do, like literally rocking. It’s awesome, really calms you down. Curling up with a heavy weight blanket over me. That’s great. Being alone in the trees, that’s great. Playing solitaire. Watching people mix paint online. There are all these weird little things that I do that actually calm down my nervous system. So if you had an unreliable upbringing or you’ve been through a lot of trauma as an adult, what you have is a hypersensitive amygdala in your brain that just is always firing off fear messages, and then alerting your whole system, going into fight or flight. And then you’re wired and crazy and then you crash because you can’t sustain that. And then you are like limp and can’t help yourself. And all of this just makes your anxiety go up and up and up and up.

So notice that spiral going up. Stop. Do something that stimulates your senses in a way that calms you down. Oh, Rose was just telling me about another study that says that Tetris, the game, Tetris is really calming to people’s nervous systems after they’ve experienced a trauma. So playing video games. Solitaire, as I said, is a really big one for me. And as I was getting this gathering room together, I noticed that I would work on it for about 10 minutes and then play a game of solitaire. And then I’d work for 10 minutes and then play a game of solitaire. And I would just, that little edge of anxiety would come up, I’d immediately drop down into a game of solitaire, where I feel safe. In my little solitaire app I feel really safe. So add a lot of things that make you feel safe to your life.

And then when it’s time to be brave, say, I’m going to put the safe spaces aside and I’m going to be brave inside this contained experience in like 15 hour flight or whatever it is you have. And then I’m going to go back to doing things that help me feel safe. So many things that help you feel safe every day. One or two things that make you require courage every day. Natavia says, “How would you deal with health anxiety? I feel I’m surrounded by terrible news of illness everywhere. I’m pretty healthy, but I’m terrified of falling ill.” If you haven’t read Anita Moorjani’s book, Dying To Be Me, she was really terrified of cancer. And then she got cancer and then she had basically died of cancer, had a near death experience, and she saw the nature of her own real being, which was this magnificent consciousness that filled the universe. And then she was told, “You need to go back into your body. And you’ll be fine.” And she did. And in nine days she went from being completely riddled with cancer to being cancer free.

And the reason I’m telling you all this is, that it’s not to say that if you got cancer, it’s your fault or that you can get yourself out of cancer if you have it, but just that what she learned was the nature of her true being. And it allowed her to let go of the fear of her body dying, even the fear of the pain of illness. So this is why I meditate. This is why I have a very strong spiritual side, because that goes beyond the health or sickness of the body. That can be sustained, bravery, that haven of bravery can be sustained within the context of an illness. This is another thing we’ll talk about in the course. The Art of Calm. Go register. So, my body is slowly degrading toward death. All of us are headed that direction. So if you can get into the space of bravery, it doesn’t mind the fact that hard things will happen. Fear, anxiety, they’re terrified of the bad things that can happen. Bravery knows the bad thing that can happen and says, “It’s worth it for the things I really love.”

And I think if we really are spiritual beings having a human experience, it was bravery that brought us here in the first place. You look at our life course, that’s not going to turn out well, that never ever turns out the way people want it to. But you know what? It’s going to be so worth it. It’s worth the trip even though the things we’re scared of, especially death, are all going to happen. Something in our soul said, “Sign me up.” Because the jewels that you get from the experience are so worth the pain that you go through when stuff goes wrong. And it always will. I believe that the jewels always outweigh… The jewels that are to be found in doing something we love, are always far, far more valuable than the things that go wrong are negative. Does that make sense? The value exceeds the expense greatly. Okay, Jessica says, “Will you tell us your favorite animal encounter from this trip, Martha?”

I think it was when, the very first day we were there, we went out into the bush and our tracker said, “Who does Lila want to see?” So we’ve been prepping her with little plastic animals, pictures, all these things, a giraffe. She has a little plastic giraffe. That doesn’t tell you what a giraffe looks like when it’s not in a cage and it’s just standing in a field, they are massive. They’re like oil Derricks. And we see this giraffe. So we go right to this journey of giraffes, that’s what you call a group of giraffes, and they’re standing there, these inconceivably huge animals. And Lila wanted to get out of the car, and the tracker was like, “Yes, giraffes will not hurt her.” So we put her down and she just took off after the giraffe, like running. We have a little video and Karen’s going, “Don’t run.” And Lila screams back, “I’m running.” I don’t know if she was just reassuring us or if she was defying us, but she ran toward this giraffe.

And she and the giraffe looked at each other, and the giraffe’s like, “I feel nervous. That is a tiny weird human.” And moved away. But to see those two creatures coming together, this two year old girl and this massive giraffe, and she was in pure joy. And I can’t help but believe the giraffe felt a little of that, because just the whole experience just glowed. So giraffes are not that rare and they’re not that dangerous, but my, oh, my, was that ever a moment? All right, Michelle and Magenta says, “What does one do when the volume of overwhelming stressors has one in a frozen state? I can get out of it and then I’m back to frozen again.” This was my condition for much of my life. I think a lot of my anxiety and my trauma manifested as physical pain, so I was really not just frozen psychologically, but I was frozen physically. I was stuck basically in bed all day.

And I remember trying to face things, like emailing my PhD advisors and stuff. And the fear, oh my God. So what you do is, you hack a little space in the ice with an ice pick, and you get a very small thing that requires you to be brave. And then you hack, it’s like ice fishing, you hack a little tiny hole in the ice of your fear and you drop a little line down. I would email my advisor, “I will give you a copy of my second chapter of my dissertation by next Thursday.” And then I would press, Send. And then I would just lie there, so panicked. I allowed my, what I call the anxiety spiral, which I’ll tell you all about in the course, but the brain can spiral into an anxiety that just gets worse and worse and worse, and mine had reached very high volume at that point. But I could just hack a little space in it and do one small thing and just, inch by grueling inch, I moved myself forward.

And every time I did that… Remember it was building the skill of being brave, even the skill, it was making me familiar with the process of being brave, which is honest to God, like taking out the garbage. I used to have a sign over my computer that said, “Just clean the toilet.” Because every time I would sit down at my computer to do my dissertation, to write the book that I was working on, then expecting Adam, the fear would absolutely freeze me up. And I would think, “I can’t be smart enough to get a PhD from Harvard. I can’t be gifted enough to write a book anyone would want to read.” And then I would think, “No, this is just a job. Just put words on the page.” I would never go in to clean the toilet and think, “Ooh, but what if I don’t do it well enough?” If it’s just my own toilet, right? Like, “What if I don’t use the brush correctly?” I just clean the damn toilet, and it’s not fun, but the toilet is clean and that’s what you got.

So I would look at it, I would be terrified and I’d think, “No, just do it like a task. Be brave the way you clean the toilet. Just do it.” Little by little it all happened and I got… The capacity to be brave expands from those little bits to being bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. I talked in a different gathering room about the zones of expansion and contraction in our lives. And this practice of being brave is really the way to make your safe zone go bigger and bigger and bigger until you feel safe in larger and larger areas of the human activity, and the physical world too. Anne says, “Would you recommend learning healthy coping skills to help if the brave act brings up feelings of shame?” Oh my goodness, yes. There’s a great quote by Audre Lorde, the feminist, the wonderful… She was a feminist, she was an anti-racist. She was just an all around genius. Freud, Freud to the floor, Dr. Freud. She wrote, and I quote, “I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own.”

Now, that was given to me by my DEI coach who also said, “I have no use for your shame either. Guilt and shame don’t spawn creative acts, so just don’t use them.” And I was like, “Really? I have permission to just put them down?” And that really, really happened on this ridiculous plane where people were just asking to be moved, looking daggers at us. “Can you control your child?” No, we couldn’t. She had a gastric bug. And when Ro was saying, “They hate us. They hate us,” we could have gone into shame. And I just looked at her and I whispered, “I have no creative use for guilt. Yours are my own.” And she was like, “Right.” It’s a decision you can actually make. You can actually make a decision. If somebody tells you, “Your shame is actively harming me, please stop it.” Guess what? You can stop it. So think like that. Think, “Okay, I’m ashamed of something. What if my shame is actively harming someone?”

Just play with that as a hypothesis. Could I just shut it down and go on to be helpful? I bet you can. I think you can. It was a shock to me to learn that I could, but so it seems to be. I’ve had so much less guilt and shame since my coach told me that. So I think this is a thing that can be done. Sally says, “Do we need anxiety?” And my answer is, we need fear, but we do not need anxiety. And maybe I’m parsing words a little bit, but fear is the healthy sense that says, “There is a lion.” And I really learned why toddlers love to hide. Because when there are lions around, the toddler that loves to hide is going to do better. So we need fear to say, “There’s a lion there, there’s a child there. Take action.” Important. But Gavin de Becker, my favorite authority on fear, talks about it being a clear guide to constructive action.

So anxiety has no action implication. It’s just like, “Aah.” Fear is like, “Go there, go there, get that done.” And that we need, that is a treasure, but it doesn’t torment us. Anxiety torments, and it has no action implication, and it is built on a spin in the brain that I will tell you all about in my Art of Calm course. It’s really interesting to know some of the machinery behind anxiety versus fear. And so no, we don’t need anxiety, not in my view. Fear is useful, anxiety not. Steph says, “Are there practical strategies to help you sit with the fear and do things if you’re afraid to be brave?” Yes, yes, yes. They will be in The Art of Calm. There’s so many practical strategies to help you sit with the fear. Gosh, I’m right at the end of the episode here, so I can’t really give you a bunch of strategies immediately.

But I can say very quickly that if you become present in your body and just say, “Here I am. I’m sitting in a chair. Nobody’s attacking me right now. I’m going to sit here for just five minutes and not feel endangered. I’m going to take the next five minutes and just hunker in my chair.” Do a little rocking, do a little stemming, feel better for five minutes. Just be present in the body that God has given you in the moment that exists right now, and anxiety tends to go away. Presence destroys anxiety. Yes, Tess says, “What can we do to help ourselves get started with brave acts? I sometimes feel I could choose comfort over bravery forever.” Well, that’s a wonderful observation. But the thing is, you can’t. We can’t. If you choose comfort over bravery, fear comes to get you. Your life gets smaller and smaller and your fears get bigger and bigger. And without being willing to be brave, that circle just closes in on you.

So find out what you long for, find out what you love, what you yearn for in your soul. Find a step toward it and be a little bit brave every day until you get past that wall of fear, and you start to go, “Oh, now I’m being brave. I’m kind of used to it.” It sucks. It will always suck, but you get used to it and then it starts to grow your life, and then it starts to make magic, and then it starts to bring experiences that you wouldn’t trade for everything in any of the multiverses. And that was my experience of having this little possum with us in South Africa. Such beauty, such joy. It happens, it’s there for all of us if we just do many things a day to help us feel safe, and a few things that require us to be brave. Bravery is your haven, go and claim it.

I love you. I’m so grateful to you for being here, and for your questions and for your energy. And I hope I see you at this course. The Art of Calm. It starts in July. Registration is open, so jump on over there as fast as you can and go to, the word calm, if you want more information. Love you. Thank you. Bye. See you soon.

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