What are common threats to psychological safety? Unfortunately, they happen all too frequently in the workplace: sarcasm, lecturing, put-downs, outbursts, public humiliation, negative tone of voice or body language, inconsistency, unfairness, rigidity, favoritism, endless rules and regulations; infantilizing treatment, blaming and shaming. We are all vulnerable to these kinds of behaviors from others but people who have been psychologically unsafe while growing up are particularly vulnerable to being profoundly reinjured by psychological torments and to adopting behaviors that have been inflicted upon them in the past.
People who have been repeatedly psychologically violated will have adapted to the emotional abuse but are likely to have done so using maladaptive coping skills that are then repeated in the present. They need to be respected for their ability to manage tormenting situations in the past but they also need to recognize the need for change and in all likelihood, a need for an expanded version of emotional intelligence skills. They are likely to suffer from a great deal of cognitive confusion about goals and about methods for achieving those goals – many of them will have been successfully brainwashed in abusive homes. As a result, they will benefit from an environment that teaches and models a different way of thinking about and being in the world.
Many of them will have suffered disrupted attachment experiences and anything that triggers attachment disruption again - such as the loss of people who are currently important in their lives, as when staff members suddenly depart – is likely to trigger similar feelings of profound distress like that which existed in the past. Depending on the nature and quality of childhood relationships, they may require relational experiences in the present that are essentially corrective. Their lives may have been corrupted by experiences of betrayed trust so they are likely to have difficulty trusting trustworthy people in the present. If you recall what we discussed about the high incidence of exposure to childhood adversity in the staff and in the general population, then it should be clear here that we are not just referring to the clients who present to social service and mental health settings, but to everyone. This is why creating a psychologically safe environment is so important – it is important for everyone in the community.
Psychological safety refers to the ability to be safe with oneself, to rely on one’s own ability to self-protect against any destructive impulses coming from within oneself or deriving from other people and to keep oneself out of harm’s way. This ability to self-protect is one of the most shattering losses that occurs as a result of traumatic experience and it manifests as an inability to protect one’s boundaries from the trespass of other people. Another loss is a sense of self-efficacy, the basic sense of experiencing oneself as having the ability to relate to the world on one’s own terms without abusing power and without being abused by it. A sense of personal safety is achieved as the injured individual learns how to be effective in protecting themselves from violations of their personal and psychological space. An environment that is psychologically safe encourages self-protection, attention and focus, self-knowledge, self-efficacy, self-esteem, self-empowerment, self-control, self-discipline, consistency, initiative, curiosity, achievement, humor, creativity, and spirituality.
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