What if we lived in safe social and cultural environments?

Kyle Henry
9 min readJan 9, 2020
I believe our social and cultural environment can make us feel hopeless and alone with our emotions

Before we go deeper…. let me first define a few important parts. What is a social environment? A cultural environment?

When I talk about a social environment, I define this as the communities and institutions that make up our life. The people and entities in which we interact, learn from and are shaped by in how we fit into our community and the broader society. Examples are workplaces, religious gatherings, social/friend groups and of course, family.

When I talk about a cultural environment, I define this as the ideas, norms, beliefs, means of expression and communication. In thinking about this now, I feel that the social environment is the physical components and the structures that organise the interaction and cooperation of people. The culture is what emerges. The culture is what we accept and believe. It is invisible to our eyes, but can be felt. It is the energy created by our thoughts, feelings and ways we connect and share. Even as I describe this, I can start to see how the fabric of culture can be a place of connection and a place of tension. As people and groups change within a society, it can lead to conflict, judgement and threat felt by others. It is easier for me to see how a small tribe of humans can have a general consensus on culture, it is harder for me to see how 350 million people can all agree on the same.

What does a safe social and cultural space feel like?

A safe place is somewhere you can be honest with yourself and others. If you are not honest with others, its low probability that you are fully honest with yourself (and vice versa). I believe that we are not honest because we don’t feel safe to be. We may have past experiences where we faced judgement and were not accepted, or we may have created the perception that its unsafe. Either way, its the feeling of being unsafe that leads to dishonesty. I believe it is very difficult to heal without truth and honesty. Truth is essential for locating our own power, having an awareness of who we are and what we feel and, of course, our relationships with others.

I have a friend going through recovery from substance abuse. She has come to me, as a supporter and friend, with promises of outcomes she will achieve and a list of things that “will never happen again.” My response to this has been that I accept breakdowns. I allow for mistakes to occur but what I don’t accept is lieing. It’s not that I personally expect everyone to tell me the truth, it is more about the fact that there cannot be healing where there is lieing. My desire is for her to lead her own healing process. As a supporter, I am creating the right structure and boundaries based on my experience. If she fails, if she slips up — what will be her response based on the promises she made? Likely, she will feel shameful, guilt and hide from any failure rather than being honest and open. The healing journey is unlikely to be a perfect straight line. Her orientation should be that she can choose positive inputs and commit to a positive mindset and support structure. Some days she may not feel positive, some days she may be inspired to try something else. Some days, she will feel like doing nothing at all. The point is a healing journey should support the actions we are inspired to do, within our own power along the way. Any rigidity or promises that allow for a mistake that disconnects the person that is healing from others, I would hope to avoid. This is my plan. I will see where it leads, but I appreciate this as one journey. This is one story among many, but I have my principles that are drawing from my experience. I’ve made all of the mistakes and I believe there is a great value in being alive and healed enough to share them. We all have to find our own path and find what is right. That is why the journey must be led from within each of us. Only we can search and discover and feel what works. I believe this deeply.

Continuing on the thread about my friend, I have been noticing the social and cultural environment she is in and how it suppresses her ability to be and to heal. In a social environment where breakdown is not allowed, it creates fear for those that are in pain. It creates fear that a breakdown will lead to any number of negative consequences. I heard my friend say in a very vulnerable moment, “I don’t want to lose my family.” This was directly connected to my request that she be honest with them. I don’t believe that anyone should be enabled, but there is a big difference between being enabled and being supported. There is also a big difference between being supportive and threatening someone who is healing that any further breakdown will mean negative consequences. The orientation alone of failure leading to further pain creates a negative charge and fear around the entire process. Healing is not a straight line. We can all do better to support those that are healing and if we are being truthful, all of us are struggling in one way or another. We all have emotions, we all have traumas and struggle to let go of the past and allow for the future. We all have feelings at varying degrees of what is called “depressed” — a sadness about the past or “anxiety”- a worry about the future. When we feel alone, when we don’t feel supported is when I believe we go into the darkest of places.

When I was 19, my ex-girlfriend committed suicide. I often get the question, “why did she do it?” It’s not a bad question, I’ve certainly thought a lot about it. She didn’t leave a note, and if she did, I’m not sure if she could have been able to describe all that put her in that place. That place, to me, can only be described as being in so much pain that there is no way out. It’s a state of hopelessness and despair. I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, much less someone that I loved. I wasn’t the best version of myself at that time. I wasn’t the friend at the time that I am in my relationships now. I have faced this truth after many years of running from it. I believe that I wasn’t the cause of her suicide. It was a deep lesson that I learned about not pushing my pain and my anger onto others. I used to do that. I used to lack awareness of my own emotional state and felt that my emotions were caused by and the fault of other people. I forgive my younger self for not seeing the things I do now. I am grateful for the lessons, though they were hard. Learning from experience runs deep in our hearts. There is incredible value in this wisdom. There is a sense of purpose that I can draw upon that brings light to my eyes and energy to my expression….Back to the story of my ex-girlfriend. We all desire a simple answer, but our emotional world is a web of experiences, memories, beliefs and feelings inside of us. We want to believe that we act for one reason or another. I just happen to believe its more complex than that and that it’s futile to try and understand why. I would rather inquire about if my action was from my authentic self or was it filtered by a wound, an insecurity or fear? Sometimes, when I’m speaking as my authentic self, I feel as if I’m a third party to the experience. I am saying things that I didn’t know that I knew, and it is effortless. I’m not trying. It is not my thinking brain, it is something else. It is a deep wisdom passing through me, in that moment to a place it is supposed to be delivered. I had an experience just like this, in Buenos Aires, as a friend and I talked on the rooftop of this hostel. As the sun went down over my last night in Argentina, I began to speak from this place. I didn’t resist and I didn’t try…. A little back story. My friend and I happened to be in Argentina together, he had left Chicago where we both had met and was living abroad temporarily. I didn’t know why he left, I had thought he just wanted to travel and try something new. Earlier that day, I was in an old cemetery of all places. I was with a group of his friends, but he wasn’t there. While we were walking around the cemetery and talking, I learned from his friends that his ex-girlfriend had recently committed suicide. He had experienced a very difficult period leading up to what happened, eerily similar to my experience. As I listened, I could feel something inside of me turn on with this knowing that he and I would have a chance to talk later. Everyone else was flying out that day and it was going to be just us back at the hostel. I didn’t realize at the time how profound this conversation would be. Reflecting now, I can see that this was just as healing a conversation for me as it was for him. I felt valuable, I felt spiritual, I felt meaning and purpose. It was this overarching feeling that I was supposed to be there, in that country, in that moment, as the sun went down. The end of the day, in all that beauty, symbolising the end of the lives of women we loved. Our heavy hearts were still here, but we weren’t alone. When the moment came on the rooftop, it was as if everything around me stopped. I didn’t worry about others hearing me, I wasn’t scared I might upset him, I just released and allowed for what was in me to come out. It was a gentle and loving expression. I can’t remember exactly what I said to this day, but I remember the peaceful look in his face. It was this easing of the muscles of his face, it was like for the first time he felt seen and understood. And that was before he even spoke. One of the beliefs that I mentioned to him as I spoke was that we are all patterns. We can change these patterns. Its definitely not easy, but it can only be done by us. My ex had her patterns and his ex had hers. Our presence in their life wasn’t going to change those patterns, no matter how much we want that to be true. We can give all of our hearts to another, but that isn’t the same as the love for ourselves. There are hundreds, if not thousands of factors that shape how we feel, our choices and our behavior. My ex-girlfriend and I grew up in a social and cultural environment where we didn’t feel safe to breakdown, to be vulnerable, to be ourselves, to be human. I believe that over time this can wear us down, it can put us into a dark place where we are hopeless and it feels like there is no choice.

Photos from that last night in Buenos Aires

I have never judged her for her decision to end her life, though many did. It hurt me deeply to hear my loved ones judge her for that. To think we can judge the pain of someone else is to lack mindfulness for our humanity. My pain and my experience are my own. I can’t pretend to know yours, but sometimes, when my heart is open and as the sun goes down, I can feel you and in that moment, we aren’t alone.