In the worst times of my life, I’ve found that my immediate network falls into two groups of people: My People, and The People Who Take It Personally. It becomes very clear, very quickly, which group someone belongs in.
In his book Boundaries and Relationships,* Dr. Charles Whitfield calls this latter group unsafe people, and describes them as those who: “may not really listen to you or hear what you are actually saying, although they may pretend to do so. They may or may not make eye contact with you. They often reject or invalidate the real you and your inner life experience. They may be judgmental or false with you. They are often unclear in their communications. Their boundaries may be blurred, and they may often send you mixed messages. They may be indirect with you, often triangling in another or others when they are in conflict with you. Rather than being supportive, they may be competitive and may even betray you. Overall, the relationship just feels contrived.” [Kindle Location 1747].
I came across the above passage and it really stood out—while I’d experienced what he describes, I’d never formally recognized in my own mind what it means for someone to be unsafe. It certainly doesn’t imply that they’re toxic or abusive in relationships, but rather that they probably aren’t the best people to turn to or place your trust in.
The takeaway for me is that unsafe people will generally not own what’s theirs, will not be accountable for their own projections, feelings, boundaries, mistakes, and ultimately will not be true, trustworthy or loyal friends.
The way I see it, those who are unsafe aren’t bad or ill-intentioned, they aren’t predators or psychopaths (who should be avoided at all costs), out to manipulate or control for their own agenda. But they do have an agenda, of sorts—to be righteous, to be right, to be victims, to not take personal accountability for their actions, words, choices or feelings and to project their fears and negative thoughts about themselves out onto other people. They may be extremely nice, friendly, generous, attentive, and loving, but I find that they’re often lacking in self-awareness, healthy boundaries or both, and they tend to see problems as the fault of others (or the world at large). Their loyalty isn’t assured. They’re more inclined toward judgment and projection than compassion and empathy. When it seems appropriate to them, they may very well betray, dismiss, demean, devalue, accuse or stomp on those who they see as a problem or threat. Their values are different—not wrong, just incompatible with mine.
It’s possible to have good relationships with unsafe people, even close relationships. But at the same time, it isn’t wise to trust them with your intimate secrets, thoughts or feelings, to expect them to be loyal or empathic, to place confidence in their judgment or authentic responses, or to be vulnerable around them. They could snap if provoked, they could intentionally cross your boundaries if it serves them and get angry if you protest, they could betray your trust, they could kick you when you’re down—not without conscience, but with a large dose of rationalized entitlement. Their rationales and assumptions can be elaborate and rigid. Unsafe people may even feel guilty for their actions—and then project that guilt into even more antagonism toward you, the person they mistreated. Projecting blame, unable to simply own their choices.
I had a number of people show themselves as unsafe during a particularly traumatic crisis I went through some years ago. Seeing me at my most conveniently vulnerable, rather than support me, express empathy and understanding or step forward with practical help, they chose to violate my boundaries, attack, dismiss, judge and demean me, accuse me of all sorts of juicy faults, withhold needed help and demand that I admit to my failures. They took what happened to me personally and blamed me accordingly. It was upsetting and damaging, the way those friends and family members turned on me, and it changed how I feel about all of them. As opposed to those I considered My People, who were all just as sincerely concerned for me, who wanted to make sure I made healthy choices for myself just as much if not more—and yet only made me feel safe, supported, loved, valued, understood and trusted to do what was best for me. Those were the people who got me through it.
I now recognize my accountability in both types of relationships. I can choose to confide in unsafe people and get burned for it, or I can choose not to let them into my inner circles, keeping a comfortable, relaxed distance. I can choose to build my support system of only safe people, My People, and understand and accept that even though someone is counted as my nearest and dearest, they may not fit into that definition. It’s up to me to know the difference. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to separate the two.
Safe people don’t intentionally cross lines—nor do they get offended, accusatory, antagonistic and defensive when they unintentionally violate a boundary and are called on it. They don’t project their baggage onto anyone else—they own it, and for the most part leave it out of the equation when it comes to others. And if they can’t leave it out, they own that. They don’t use someone’s vulnerability or weakness against them, taking the chance to devalue, accuse, find fault with, lecture or dictate to those who are suffering. They don’t bring piles of steaming judgment to the table, forgetting the compassion and empathy in the other room. They don’t feel entitled to tell you EXACTLY what’s wrong with you (in their opinion, stated as truth) and how wrong you’ve been for years now. They don’t store up kindnesses and grudges to pull out when they feel like they need ammunition. They don’t create triangles by bringing third people into conflicts—and they don’t handle all conflicts in a dysfunctional way by never speaking openly about the conflict nor owning or apologizing for their part in it, ensuring that there’s plenty of drama and little real resolution.
My safe people aren’t afraid to admit they’re wrong, that they made a mistake, that they’re sorry. They have generally healthy boundaries, and are conscious and respectful of the boundaries of others. They recognize the consequences of their choices, and they allow others to make choices, screw up and confide honestly without judgment, accusations, blame, shame or dismissal. And my safe people never, ever crazy-make others.
To be a safe person doesn’t mean being a perfect person or perfect friend. But it does mean choosing respect and validation over dismissal and disrespect, empathy over judgment, compassion over impatience, trust over fear. It means not taking what happens to others personally, and not assuming that what you think or feel is true or right. It means being self-aware, having the intention to listen with an open mind.
I’m grateful beyond words for My People, who allow me to not only make mistakes and falter, but to ask for and receive help, advice and validation when I do, unconditionally and authentically.
And I’m grateful for The People Who Take It Personally—for teaching me that there’s no place in intimacy for blurred boundaries, disrespect or judgment, and for reminding me how lucky I am to have safe people in my life.
*Whitfield, Charles L. Boundaries and Relationships: Knowing, Protecting and Enjoying the Self. Kindle Location 1747. Health Communications. Kindle Edition. 2003, 2010.