Break out of the loop of insecurity by experiencing a safe space

Paul Hagan presenting at DareConf 2013

“I don’t know why I bother. You guys just don’t get it.”

I never said it to their faces, but I might as well have done. I was a web developer for a small design agency who did print work: annual reports, campaigns, branding. They made good money by competing on price for design and marking up production, where clients didn’t notice it. Now they wanted to sell web design in the same way, and the internet was undermining their business model.

They never seemed to listen to me enough. I thought they were dinosaurs. Why couldn’t they see the right way to do things? Why were they always promising the world in pitches? And why did they keep telling me my “communication style” was a problem? (That seemed like an excuse to reject my obviously superior ideas.)

I remember:

  • fighting with the directors about how to run projects
  • refusing to answer the phone, share an email address with the whole studio, and work on an ancient Mac
  • sighing a lot and feeling stressed
  • complaining to my friends about how clueless the company was and how they didn’t understand me

I felt resentful and frustrated. So why was I choosing to spend my time there?

We need appreciation and respect

For most of us, work isn’t a safe space. At work:

  • we want people to like us and approve of our work
  • we question our own worth
  • we’re mean to others

What’s going on here? We need appreciation and respect. When these needs aren’t met, we feel:

  • insecure
  • lonely
  • depressed
  • anxious
  • ashamed
  • disconnected
  • resentful

When we experience these feelings, we can’t feel compassion for others, so we judge, blame, and attack the people around us.

Welcome to “the loop” of insecurity

When we criticize others for not “getting it” and at the same time seek validation and approval from them, we’re in what Karen McGrane calls “the loop”. Inside the loop we feel insecure, so we attack others, as if that will help meet our need for appreciation and respect. We focus on these two needs—which, tragically, we’re still not getting met—at the expense of other equally important needs. Most of us have been socialized to hustle for appreciation—at the expense of other people—from school onwards, through the routine humiliation of classrooms, exams, job interviews, and workplaces. (For many of us, school is the original unsafe space.)

How can we get our needs met without judging others? Inside the loop, we can’t see how we’re behaving, so it’s difficult to escape. The loop is both a cause and an effect of unsafe spaces at work:

  • While we’re in the loop, the space we’re in is neither safe for ourselves nor for those we’re attacking.
  • Until we’ve experienced a safe space, we’re unlikely to break out of the loop.

Our other unmet needs get drowned out

We have other unmet needs, including:

  • self-respect
  • connection
  • compassion
  • trust
  • honesty
  • integrity
  • safety
  • choice

Although these needs are just as important as appreciation and respect, we don’t notice them when we’re in the loop because we spend our energy on feelings of anger, judgment, and shame. We can only acknowledge these needs when we’re in a safe space.

In a safe space we’re accepted for who we are

The closing panel at DareConf 2013

In a safe space you believe that you are enough. You have value as a person, irrespective of the choices you make and other people’s opinions of those choices. Consequently you’re worthy of love, respect, and compassion—from yourself as well as from others. People accept you for who you are, and so do you.

When I try to create a safe space—eg at DareConf—safety means:

  • people participate because they choose to
  • we accept people as they are, without judgement
  • we treat people with compassion

To make that happen, I establish ground rules:

  • everyone is here because they’ve chosen to be, and may leave at any time (including during a presentation or a conversation)
  • you must accept other people’s contributions with an open mind, in the sprit of, “yes, and…”
  • you must take responsibility for your feelings (it’s OK to feel uncomfortable)
  • you must not judge, blame, or attack others (or we’ll ask you to leave the space)

We can learn self-compassion in a safe space

Group discussion facilitated by Justin McMurray at DareConf 2013

In a safe space we experience courage: people are honest about their imperfections and vulnerabilities. When we experience sharing in this way, we can learn the elements of self-compassion:

  • common humanity: we’re all imperfect and vulnerable
  • mindfulness: by being present we can pay attention to the voices in our heads, and separate our thoughts and feelings from ourselves
  • self-kindness: whatever our imperfections and “mistakes”, we can choose to be kind to ourselves (ie, tell ourselves that we’re enough)

By practicing self-compassion we can learn to get our needs met without judging others. Which allows us to have compassion for others, opening up connection, meaning, and collaboration. When we meet this wider set of needs, we feel:

  • empowered
  • confident
  • engaged
  • energised
  • grateful
  • inspired

To get others to participate, we need to appeal to their reality

Creating a safe space is difficult because to get people to participate—that is, to trust us—we need to appeal to where they are, not where we want them to be.

When I was at the agency, if someone had suggested I work on my self-compassion, I would’ve rejected the idea and responded as if it was an attack. I wasn’t even aware that I was judging others, let alone that I was being hard on myself. If you’d asked me what I wanted, I might have said something about wanting clients and colleagues to appreciate the value of my work. Or perhaps something judgmental, like wanting “better” clients.

So although the ultimate theme of DareConf is self-compassion, we’re inviting people to participate in #dareconf mini to learn practical skills that seem less personal:

  • collaboration
  • coaching
  • leadership
  • reflection
  • compassion for colleagues
  • how to realize your dreams
  • how to scale startup culture
  • how to manage your time, attention, and relationships at work

To practice these skills, you need self-compassion—and you’ll learn that through experiencing what a safe space feels like.

Judgment is a tough habit to quit

Even now, writing this piece, my first thought was to explain why other events were “doing it wrong.” It seems easier to criticize somebody else rather than take the risk of sharing my work.

Back to my agency job. After a particularly difficult run-in with the directors, I decided to leave before it got worse. I knew better than these guys—and actually, all the web agencies I’d come across—because none of them “got it”. I could sell web design much better than them, I told myself. I can remember explaining to people that I could do better than all the agencies in London. Seriously.

I’d been confident that my colleagues were doing it wrong, but when I tried for myself I realized that I had no idea how difficult it was. In fact, I couldn’t do it. And I learned that what I needed was a different type of work that connected me to something greater than myself, rather than just paying the bills.


Come to #dareconf mini, 20 January 2014 in London. Book by Monday 18 November to save over £100.