Finding a balance between safety and challenge

Sometimes the world seems daunting. But if we stay too safe, we can inhibit our development. Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

In therapy, one of the most important balances to be struck, is the balance between safety and challenge.  On the one hand, progress cannot happen if a client does not feel safe.  On the other hand, if the client is wrapped in cotton wool, and kept away from all challenge, how will they develop?

There is an analogy in the world of sport.  When fitness training, there is a balance to be struck between the prevention of injury, and the placing of good stress on the body.  On the one hand, sport cannot happen if a participant is injured.  On the other hand, if we stay perpetually on the sidelines, then our body will never get the experience it needs to become stronger.

A tortoise solves the problem of safety with a shell.  It carries a heavy shell around with it all the time.  If danger looms, then it retreats back into the shell.  If it feels safe and wants to make progress, then it sticks its head out, and moves around.  The only downside of being a tortoise is the weight of the shell.  Most tortoises do not move very fast.

In the same way, sufferers from mental health issues have their shells.  When we are anxious or depressed, we can retreat into safe zones for long periods of time.  These safe zones can be physical (for instance, staying at home alone), or behavioural (for instance, maintaining obsessive habits of order and control).

But humans are also social beings.  To have the relationships which are essential for our long term health, we need to come out of our shells, and interact with a world which sometimes feels risky.  This brings us to the important balance being discussed: whether relating to our therapist, our friends, or other people in general, we need to strike a balance between feeling safe, and extending ourselves.

Sometimes I feel the need to retreat into my shell, and I don’t want to interact with others.  At these times, I may be resting and recovering.

Sometimes I feel inspired to extend myself and associate with others.  This feels more challenging and risky.

In order to stay safe, I need the protection of my home territory.

But in order to grow, I need to leave my home territory, and go out learning, interacting, sharing, daring.

When I look at my systems of safety, I can see that some are helpful, and some are not.  Sometimes I over-eat for comfort, or under-eat for control.  Sometimes I shut others out through fear.

When I look at my systems of challenge, I can see that some are helpful, and some are not.  Sometimes I gamble for excitement, or run away for adventure.  Sometimes I connect with risky people or behaviour, and take an entertainment ride on their backs.

If I find myself swinging wildly between safety and challenge, and if it is causing mental health problems, then perhaps I can find a better balance.

Perhaps I can do some thinking.  Perhaps I can make my safety shell lighter and more efficient.  And perhaps I can choose challenges which extend and strengthen me in healthy ways.

My way of living is up to me.  Sometimes I experience wild swings of mood, one minute wanting to hide, and the next minute wanting to push.

Can I design a life that gives me a better, more consistent balance between safety and challenge?