The Culture of Safetyism

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Over the last 30 years humans have made a point to eliminate all types of pain, both physical and mental. Both have been managed in one of two ways, medications or avoidance. Medication’s negative effects are well documented, leading to addiction and overuse. Avoidance’s negative effects aren’t well known, but has just as troubling long term ramifications.

Past generations have felt so scarred by their hurt feelings much in the same way scars on our body are a reminder of physical pain. This mentality has created a society that wraps our children in bubble wrap and anyone not doing so is seen as having unsafe parenting techniques. As one might expect, this worry of physical pain floods over to mental pain. Creating situations where most try to prevent hurt feelings from happening all together. What we’ve forgotten is that it’s our ability to learn from these mental challenges that allow us to be functional adults. Some of our deepest scars are where our greatest strengths are developed, and the people that have learned from the hardest mental scars are the wisest among us.

Much research these days is showing that our feelings can be thought of more like a muscle than we originally thought. Most people are familiar with muscle memory and the idea that the more you practice a task, such as catching a baseball the better the body becomes at doing it. Believe it or not, the brain and your feelings work in the exact same way. The more a mental challenge is encountered the better the brain can become at handling that situation. Notice I said, “can become” not “will become”. The brain can become better because we need to learn from our challenges rather than avoiding them. This is what happens when you have a good therapist, you talk and get a better perspective and learn to handle situations better the next time and you get some nice validation when you realize you handled something well. Just like when you exercise and a trainer tells you to use better form, and gives you an “attaboy” after mastering an exercise that was once challenging for you.

I can’t help but draw a line connecting the exploding rates of adolescents with depression, anxiety, performing self harm, or committing suicide over the last decade along with the need to be safe at all times both physically and mentally. Jonathan Haidt actually regards this trend as a new “culture of safetyism”. Some interesting information on this can be found from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.

First, members of iGen, born after 1995, are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and to commit suicide or self-harm, than millennials, born between 1982 and 1994. The other distinguishing factor, Twenge found, is that this new generation is “obsessed with safety.” They drink less, smoke less, and have less sex—and they believe that “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault but from people who disagree with you.” Lukianoff and Haidt cite a 2017 study that found that 58 percent of students said it was “important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas.”

Society, educators, and parents all have a role to play. Some larger than others. What we can tell from the research is that what we’ve all been doing hasn’t been nearly as effective as we hoped. What I can suggest is, rather than focusing so heavily on preventing any hurt feelings in the first place, spend time creating an amazing support system such as family, friends, teachers, and unbiased third parties (ie. life coach), so that when feelings are hurt the child will be able to prepare their mind for what’s to come. We all know that at some point they’ll have to figure it out on their own anyways! We’re better off letting them get some reps in before society expects the world from them.