Human beings are hardwired for survival, and from the very beginning of our lives, we have been seesawing between the contrasting needs for security and freedom, both pulling us in different directions.
Renowned Belgian Psychotherapist Esther Perel says that some of us come out of our childhood needing more protection and some of us come out needing more space, and these needs continue to fluidize and fluctuate throughout our lives.
Sometimes a 9-5 schedule feels suffocating, and sometimes that structure is the very thing we need to keep our life in order. Sometimes a weekend of constant socializing can bring about a sense of aliveness; other times, it can spark a desire for privacy. Sometimes a flowing inbox can make you feel important, and other times it can overwhelm you.
I want to address a two-fold observation of these cradling needs—the professional and the personal.
In our professional lives, I have noticed that a lot of us stay in jobs and environments that are not helping us grow and draining our brain. We have become so attached to the security and the complacency it brings that we are scared to try an alternative.
Simultaneously, a lot of us can’t make up our mind about what it is we are truly passionate about and want to dedicate our time to, and as a result, we are vacillating between career paths and options, never giving an option a fair chance to run its course.
We are sabotaging our own sense of security by the illusion of freedom. The paradox is that we can find security only when we have had the glimpse of freedom, and if the security feels stifling, it makes us seek out more freedom.
Bureaucratic structures are infamous for making people often feel stuck—with red tape, chain of command, an absence of a creative platform.
It is no wonder that startup culture became so lucrative to people—it gave people freedom. When we suppress a need, security, or freedom, we come out desiring the other one with a stronger heartbeat.
Corporations are implementing volunteering opportunities, affinity groups, and sports teams to diversify the essence of their brand and in efforts to offer employees more freedom. At the same time, things like academic tenured-ships give academics a sense of security, as the free-floating anxiety of job insecurity is all too common for aspiring professors.
Perhaps those who demand a stronger sense of security seek jobs with clearly defined rules and expectations, and those who demand more freedom seek out jobs with more room for creative expression, with expectations and rules that are up for negotiations.
The former can be viewed as a furnished apartment, already providing you with structure and order, and the latter an unfurnished, giving you the opportunity to decorate as you please.
As we evolve, we obtain a better understanding of our desires in our career paths. A way to alleviate the tension between our contrasting needs is through introspection and by challenging the status quo of things.
In a free market economy, fair competition regulates the prices itself, and I think we can apply that free market principle to our needs as well. Without placing constraining regulations on these desires, we can allow the fluidity of the contrasting needs to naturally come to an equilibrium.
In romantic relationships, I have noticed that people crave connection, companionship and intimacy, but they also want to create an out, an evacuation plan, an exit strategy. Many people feel alive and secure in stable partnerships, and many view partnerships as a loss of self, as a threat to their independence and autonomy.
The dating scene is evolving—in the old days, people used to live in villages. Rules, norms, and expectations were clearly defined. As we moved into cities, the industrialization of our relationships began to take place.
Today, with the democratization of contraception, the freedom of engaging in poor behavior without consequences (like ghosting someone), and reducing the human sentiment to a swipe and a text, there is a vast area of gray we are all continuously navigating. What are the expectations? How can I share my time with someone and not view it as a loss of self? How can I communicate effectively about my feelings without attacking the other person? How can I be vulnerable and still feel secure? How can I continue to love myself even when I feel rejected?
These are all questions roaming around the perimeters of our romantic experiences. Some, terrified by the uncomfortable elements of dating, act dismissively and stay away from it altogether, many throw themselves into the mud and get their hands dirty, and some dance in between the two, often seeking some form of indemnity to neutralize the exposure of vulnerability.
But underneath the platform of these three sides, there is always an amount of fear that manifests itself in many ways. Some are so afraid of losing ourselves in a relationship that they act out of survival mode and create barriers to entry, fixate on small insufficiencies, and overly rationalize their decisions—in other words, create various forms of an exit strategy, out of their fear of engulfment, and the desire for more freedom.
Contrastingly, I have noticed that others are so terrified of feeling abandoned and being alone, that they are constantly trying to find ways to establish and activate connection — their need for feeling secure in the partnership overpowers all else. What sometimes happens is that those seeking more security end up being with people who seek more freedom, and as a result, there is a lot of friction and resistance.
In a world of dating apps and being reduced to a swipe or a number, you can’t help but feel small. Our fears, compounded by the options we are flooded with, have impacted our ability to make sound decisions. On top of the experiences we encounter, the way we were raised, and the environments we were exposed to shape how much security and freedom we desire in a relationship.
But I want to underscore that so much of what we feel and act is a replay of the coping mechanisms we developed to protect ourselves in the past, and learning how to break free from that conditioning and moving towards more productive belief systems is crucial for our healing and growth so we don’t put our partners, or even our friends, through trials and tribulations for our own unresolved grief, trauma, and unspoken expectations.
Perhaps to reconcile the tension between the two needs, we need to realign our expectations and allow ourselves to live in a mode fluid state, allowing water to take the shape of the container.
I wonder, could it be that we are expecting emotional and physical resources from one person that an entire village used to once provide? And could it be that we are so disillusioned by the commodification of love, with a plethora of “options,” that we are quick to dismiss someone’s unique contributions and qualities?
Where do we go from here?
Perel notes that we should consider doing an audit of our desires.
Are there parts of your life you desire more security in? Parts where you could benefit from more freedom?
If you desire more freedom, start a new sport or hobby or advance an existing one. Go explore, go to that social event, change the route you take to work, take initiative to make plans with friends, hop on that informational interview call, take risks, challenge yourself, say yes to more experiences. Don’t sell yourself short.
If you desire more security, create little forms of stability, perhaps through a routine. A friend of mine ditches all technology an hour before bed and reads. Or jog the same trail, eat the same breakfast every morning, wake up at a specific time, journal, make your bed, feed your pet, call your friend you haven’t talked to in a bit. Attainable things you can stick to that will help you feel grounded.
Security and freedom are just two of the many juxtaposing needs—I believe there are always such divergent energies in life. For example, Taoists believe that natural calamities like earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes are the results of disturbances between the yin and yang—the contrasting energies, the former being cold and mysterious, and the latter being warm and positive. However, there is hope in the fact that in time, the Tao (the way) will stabilize itself and order will return.
The cradling need for security and freedom can often feel unbalanced, and we must realize that these needs will pull us in different directions. It’s okay that this happens, as at some points in our life we are going to be pulled towards addressing one need over the other.
But if we want to create more harmony between the two needs, we have to address the needs more fluidly, introducing small doses of each.
How do we do that? I’m still figuring that out myself. Through introspection and balancing, I am editing my own story, over and over, erasing, rewriting, ripping out a few chapters.
I am learning that things aren’t as black and white as people would like you to believe, the vast area of grey we are submerged in is confusing to navigate, but it is exactly where we can create our own footprint.
As a byproduct of this process, I am also abandoning the dead parts of myself that are keeping me stuck. I believe that to evolve, you have to first unbecome and unlearn all the things that you have become conditioned to believing and doing.