Safety, Trust, and Oppression

(draft. more edits will follow.)

Human beings have an innate need for safety. Our safety depends and relies on trust. Happiness is based on how safe we are, and how much we feel we are able to make free choices.

Agreeing on a level of safety with others so that we all feel safe requires a negotiation. The way we’re individually wired differently in our brains affects that negotiation. The agreement of only two people is limiting each person’s freedom.

As long as everyone within this safe system is fully aware of this negotiation, as long as we have open dialogue about our needs and wants, this is ok. As soon as some part of our lost freedom is unconscious or not agreed in dialogue, we feel oppressed.


Oppression: monologue where there could be dialogue. (Augusto Boal)

Oppression is limited freedom without conscious and explicit agreement. As our human needs and wants are complex, contextual and situational, we require ongoing dialogue to feel we’ve made a choice. As soon as we feel someone has made a choice to limit our freedom without our consent, we feel oppressed. Creating a safe environment for more than one human being for more than one specific situation is bound to lead to oppression unless we have open dialogue about our needs and wants.

Safety Builds On Trust

Our need for safety is satisfied by trust. The more we trust, the safer we feel. If we don’t or can’t trust, we feel unsafe and get anxious. The more we trust, the safer we feel. As human emotions and needs are complex, this is a non-linear and multi-dimensional relationship.

I’ll give you an example: I’m currently sitting at Kraków airport, enjoying unexpected free time as my 6:30am flight home after ALE14 was cancelled. My plan to be home in Berlin before my wife and daughter get up, to have another bite of sleep and then breakfast with my loved ones got shattered. What’s going on inside me? Let’s check:

  • I trust that airberlin will manage to get me home safely (oh, I’m spotting safety making a difference!) with a flight at 11am.
  • I don’t trust my ability to spend this time effectively as I didn’t sleep long and I don’t know if the airport facilities will provide me with a good breakfast within an hour. I know I will get a headache without that.
  • I trust my ability to stay focused long enough to write this post. I’m happy to have found a place outside in fresh air, with a beautiful sunrise to observe while I’m thinking. I know I’ll freeze soon.
  • I trust my computer to have enough power to last long enough for this writing session.
  • I trust that my wife and daughter will still be happy to see me for lunch.
  • 15 min ago I was standing in a queue without any information but that my flight was cancelled. I knew there was an option for another flight with another airline, I didn’t fully trust airberlin to get me onto that flight. They didn’t. A friend who wants to go home to Kopenhagen via Berlin got a place, they picked travellers with connecting flights first. As that is aligned with my values, I think that is a fair decision.

You’ll notice that there are multiple kinds of trust: in myself (capacity to be happy, capacity to be loved, …) in the situation (the place I’m sitting, noise, air, temperature, view, food, …) and the greater context (the airline, Berlin, home, my family, …). They relate to different areas of safety.

Internal and External Safety

Safety is an integration of two basic perspectives: internal and external. How safe do I feel with myself? How much do I trust myself to make healthy choices? How safe do I feel in the situation and the context? How much do I trust the situation and the context to provide me with valuable options?

My overall level of safety is an amalgamation of internal, situational and context safety. To be specific: I have no immediate influence on the context, some influence on the situation, and a lot of influence on what’s going on inside me.

Me Suffering in a Situation and Context

Me Suffering in a Situation and Context

Internal Safety

How do I influence what’s going on inside me? My prefrontal cortex, the part of my brain where I have conscious thoughts, make choices and have awareness and control of my emotions, dances or fights with the limbic system in my brain. The limbic system, my instinct, is guarding my safety. It triggers fight or flight reactions when I feel angry or afraid. It evolved in a context where survival was of topmost importance (to ensure procreation) and threats were infrequent. The world we live in triggers us with anxiety (Will I catch my flight? How will I get home?) and anger (How dare they cancel my flight? Why didn’t they inform me so that I could have stayed in bed?) all the time. Unless we train our prefrontal context to detach ourselves from the emotions we experience we’re lost in feelings, start judging ourselves and feel ashamed. Happiness can’t happen.

Vicious Cycle: Fear, Shame, Judgement

Vicious Cycle: Fear, Shame, Judgement

Aside: Mindfulness is the answer. We can observe ourselves having an emotion and make a choice if we actually want to feel it. All it takes is some simple training.

As much as I trust myself, as much as I’m aware and mindful of what’s going on inside me, the better I’ve trained my prefrontal cortex to do that, the safer I feel inside. The interesting side effect: the more I trust myself, the less I need to trust the environment.

Situation and Context

Situation is what I can immediately influence, context is given and (currently, until I leave the situation) outside my influence. How does safety work here?

My trust in my ability to influence the context depends on how well I’m able to control my emotions. My internal level of safety determines my available options. Emotions blur my perceptions. When my brain is in fight mode, I’m angry, hormones make sure that my full attention is on attack. I’m not able to see alternatives. Same for flight mode: adrenaline kicks in and enables my muscles to run. Blood goes from my brain to more important parts of my body, I’m physically, not mentally alert. I can’t think. Or rather, I’m forced to think very straight: Run! Amygdala has taken over, I’m running on instanct.

When I stay calm, observing my emotions and not allowing them to take control, I can use my full prefrontal capacity to gain awareness of my options. I’m peaceful. Relaxed. I breathe. I act because I choose to, not letting evolution play a program that was effective in a distant past. Flight cancelled? Project failed? Relationship crashed? Breathe. Think. What are my needs, and how can I get them satisfied in a healthy way? I engage in dialogue and understand the needs of others in the situation. We discover a way.

The context is outside of my immediate control. I may be able to change that, embracing part of the context into the situation I can influence. All that might require is a change in perspective. And then, it might not. Reality is what is. My ability to influence the world is limited. I can accept that.

Pain is inevitable, suffering is a choice. As long as I feel I’ve made choices, I’ve been in charge and can take responsibility for the situation I find myself in, I feel free. The less that’s the case, the more I feel I’ve been coerced into it, I feel oppressed.

My Inner Reality Determines My Outer Reality

The more I feel safe and trustworthy inside, the less external safety I need. The more confident I am to be able to calmly choose between emerging options, the better I can embrace the ambiguity of life. The better I train my prefrontal context to dance rather than fight with my amygdala, the less afraid I am of what’s outside me, and my need for defined processes, established structures, roles and responsibilities and predictability in general dissolves.

Me Confident in a Situation

Me Confident in a Situation and Context

A side effect: The more I’m aware of my needs and wants and the better I’m able to detach from the emotions I have, the clearer my perception of reality gets. I’m not only able to see more options, I see more of all that is. Having gone through this learning process, I now realise how different our individual perceptions of reality are. And I accept that you may have a perception that contradicts my perception, and that that is ok. It’s human. We’re wired that way. The wonderful bottom line: In community we may be less afraid. Ambiguity scares us when we’re alone.

Human Systems and Oppression

Whenever we design a human system (your marriage, your team, society, …) we want to make sure everyone feels safe. That’s good, and very essential. For every dimension or kind of safety (how much money/space/time do we need? how do make decisions? …) we will go for the lowest amount of external safety possible given the needs and wants of all involved. As we’re not the same, and have different safety needs, this necessarily limits everybody’s freedom. As everybody’s needs and wants change over time and in different situations, we need to have continual dialogue to avoid oppression.

Any human system designed to be safe for all which has fixed rules which don’t flexibly adapt to situational context… is oppressive.



  1. Trust Artist Tools vs Presence - Trust Artist
    September 5, 2014

    […] is quite similar, especially in groups. To allow every group member to feel safe, groups limit their comfort zone to the intersection of everybody’s comfort zones, agreeing on what everyone is comfortable […]

  2. Trust Artist Vulnerability: Where Courage Meets Fear - Trust Artist
    October 7, 2014

    […] like this picture because it nicely displays the dynamics of safety as they play out in uncertain environments, and which role trust in yourself plays under these […]

  3. Trust Artist Make Sense of Trust - Trust Artist
    June 2, 2015

    […] Like many qualities of our experience in a complex adaptive system, trust is dependent on the situation, the context and our […]


Leave a Reply