How to Recognize SAFE People

It’s great to have casual friends, like the relationships we might have with neighbors, work colleagues, and acquaintances in our community. But along with this, we need real friends: close friends, people we can be vulnerable with.

As recent research has shown, loneliness not only lowers the quality of our lives — it affects our health, and therefore, the duration of our lives. It is now commonly understood that loneliness is a key risk factor for early mortality, having the same impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and even more dangerous than obesity.

Here’s the thing: casual friends, neighbors, and work colleagues do not end our loneliness. It that were the case, people in urban environments wouldn’t be so lonely. For many people today, their lives are filled with people contact, but not friends. We need real friends, not just associates.

As a pastor of a church, I’m very aware that one of the great benefits of being part of a spiritual community is the depth of fellowship that people can experience there. It’s what I see so many unchurched people missing. At the same time, I also see that too often, relationships in church can be insincere and fraught with conflict and various kinds of dysfunction. Over the years, I’ve come to see that one of the most important tasks of people in church leadership is to guard the integrity and health of relationships among members.

Let’s be honest: even in churches, there are a lot of people who are NOT SAFE. By that I mean, we intuitively sense that if we told them the truth about our lives — the whole truth — they wouldn’t know how to deal with it. They would judge us, try to “fix” us, look down on us, and maybe even distance ourselves from us.

SAFE Acronym

How do you find SAFE people? First, let’s get clear about what we mean by “SAFE.” Let’s use the word as an acronym:

S – Sincere: SAFE people aren’t fake. They don’t try to present themselves as being different than they really are. You sense an honesty and openness about them.

A – Accepting: Around SAFE people, we feel a permission to be ourselves. They might not approve of everything we do or say. They might even — when it’s appropriate — express their concern about us and our behavior (see “forthright” below). But it’s always done with the awareness that our relationship is not at risk. They will love us and include us in their lives even if we struggle.

F – Forthright: We don’t have to guess what SAFE people are thinking and feeling. They will tell us. This means they might have to share a concern with us, but we know they’ll do it honestly, and in love.

E – Encouraging: SAFE people actively seek to build us up, not tear us down. They speak encouraging words to us, and we trust that they will not divulge anything we tell them to others.

The Challenge for People in Recovery

For people in recovery from addiction, finding relationships like these is essential. Many addicts have built walls of isolation around them, and don’t know where to turn for support and authentic friendship. Obviously, getting involved in recovery groups and finding friendships there is ideal. But even within a group of like-minded, recovering people, some are more likely to be supportive and helpful than others. Discernment is called for.

And what about other relationships, beyond the confines and relative safety of a 12-step or LIFE group? What about old friends, neighbors, or family? Some people have very limited access to recovery groups, and must develop safe and intimate friendships with people who don’t have the shared experience of a recovery journey. How can you discern who to trust? How can you recognize “safe people” who are candidates for genuine friendship?

A Starting Point for the Answer

This may not be the WHOLE answer to the question, but it’s an important starting point: Only people who are willing and able to live in truth — absolute honesty about the dark realities of life (including their own) — can be trusted to be SAFE.

In his excellent book “Living the Truth,” Keith Ablow has this to say:

“Love everyone, but only trust those connected to truth. While everyone is worthy of your concern and empathy … only those who have recognized the source of their suffering, examined it, and grown from it are trustworthy. This is because putting down one’s shields, looking in the mirror, and facing the early complicated chapters of one’s life story is the only way to feel pain and grow beyond it.

“People who continue to deny their suffering, insisting all is well with them and always has been, can draw you into highly charged, unresolved dramas recycled from their past. And those unresolved dramas can contaminate any story you try to write with them.

“How do you recognize those who are trustworthy? Look at how much they rely on shield strategies to get through life. Do they drink excessively, ceaselessly pursue fame or riches, use drugs to get through life, gamble, take inordinate risks, change the topic constantly to avoid addressing anything emotional? [I would add to this list: Do they rely on excessive religiosity, and spiritualize every situation?] Do they say everything’s ‘great’ for them now, that they have the ‘ideal marriage’ or ‘perfect children’ or ‘wouldn’t change a thing’? Remember, people carrying lots of shields can’t embrace you. They can’t really love you. They’re too busy running from the truth.”

Being open and vulnerable with people involves taking risks. Your honesty may be threatening to them, because it exposes their charade. But having a few authentic relationships is worth the risk! Again, I quote from Ablow:

“Keep this in the front of your mind: whether you are embraced or isolated for living the truth, the price is always lower than the cost of running from that truth. Shared fictions – within families or among friends – are false, temporary comforts. The emotional toll of avoiding reality only gets steeper over time. And the last thing you can afford to lose is your authenticity, yourself.

“Living the truth will attract those who welcome honesty and will provoke or frighten those who fear it. But sometimes those who are fearful can be inspired to overcome their resistance and put down their own shields when your communication with them is open, understanding, and forgiving.”




Note: this is an edited and updated version of an article I wrote on here by the same title a number of years ago.

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