The Foundations of Personal Psychological Safety

Ilya Berdyshev:

The Foundations of Personal Psychological Safety

Dear Friends!

Today we are opening a new course. We thought long and hard about what to call it. We would very much have liked to have called it ‘Survival School’, or even ‘Survival School for Gypsies’. Back at the turn of the 1990s two Soviet newspapers printed material on such themes. One was devoted to adolescents, the other at people bothered by the police. And then we thought that the word ‘survival’ sounded too negative. Firstly, after all, for most gypsies here in the North-West the question does not apply, and, let us hope, will not do so. Secondly, practically any Russian can fall victim to the arbitrariness of cold-blooded thugs or unscrupulous police officers. As the old Russian saying goes, ‘Renounce not the beggar’s bowl, nor the prison cell’ [i.e., ‘There but for the grace of God…’]. Therefore, we concluded that the most important thing here was the provision of safety, personal safety –in others words, psychological safety.

Perhaps some would say psychology’s no good to you if someone beats you up. And this is true, and no one is going to argue with it. In critical situations we of course have the right to defend ourselves using all available and legal means. But our course has another aim. How can one try to do everything possible and impossible so as not to fall victim to mindlessness and violence? Of course, it is in gypsies’ blood to sense danger and keep a good distance from it. But unfortunately, and readers will probably agree with me here, danger often comes suddenly, when you least expect it. It often materialises in a dishonest, mean and underhand manner. This is where you need to bring all your natural abilities into play, to prevent clashes and attacks. But if it has already happened and you are defenceless, in an inferior position against an aggressor, what else can you do so as to stay alive?

It is particularly important for women and children to know what to do in critical situations. It is they who are most often involved in such situations, when there may be no men around to defend them. In other countries, incidentally, for example, America, this is studied in schools from the first form in ‘educational programmes’. Our educational programme will be partly based on the experience of people who have been victims and those who have successfully avoided this. We know we cannot teach you how to avoid danger completely every time –at present no one can do so. ‘Everything is in the hands of God,’ as they say. But something will probably be useful for you to know; something may come in handy in critical situations.

Let us, then, begin. Our first theme is ‘The Psychology of Human Aggression’. Aggression is, to put it simply, rage. Academics today speak of normal, useful and benign aggression, and of abnormal, harmful and destructive aggression. When something doesn’t work out for us, and we get angry, but do not give up, going on with determination, though it may be very hard, and achieve what we want in the end, though our strength may be running out, this is useful aggression. Here it is like a motive force, without which no one can achieve anything. Here aggression is a manifestation of energy and perseverance. Another type of useful aggression comes when we are attacked and do not give up, but defend ourselves. Without this useful aggression a person would simply perish without a fight.

Harmful aggression is always aggression that has nothing to do with perseverance and self-defence. It is always something more, that goes beyond the limits, something that does not fit the cause. Let us imagine the following situation: it is rush hour on Friday evening on the metro. The carriage is overflowing. It is rocking. Someone accidentally bumps into someone as the train brakes sharply. How would the person bumped into react in such a situation? Most people would do so calmly, without a word. A minority would grumble a little and say: ‘What are you apologising to me for?’ But some would attack you as if you had wanted to hit them just then. In some people this is more like irascibility: they fly into a rage, shout a bit and then subside. Having calmed down, they may even ask forgiveness. Other people ‘flare up’ very often. And a third group are constantly angry; many of them look themselves for a reason to vent their aggression on others, and even do so without any reason.

What are the sources and causes of destructive aggression in people? They include accumulated resentment, intense fear, bad character, bad upbringing and various mental disorders that can be very serious. Here it is important to remember that many such people tend, as they saying goes, to shift their problems onto someone else. For instance, your boss sacks you. You cannot answer him back, and everything simmers inside you as if in a boiling cauldron. You go home and there waiting for you is your son with his problems. He’s been up to something again and you’ve got to go in to school. Everyone can guess what happens next. The angry Dad may lose his temper and vent it on the child –someone younger, weak and defenceless.

What provokes painful aggression? Fear, fear, and again fear. When a dog is afraid, it acts threateningly, bares its teeth and snarls. It is frightened and it defends itself. In Man everything is much more complicated. He has long since forgotten, or, as academics say, displaced many of his fears. But the thoughts do not go away. This is how the mind works –they are hidden away somewhere, and for the time being remain under the surface. But ‘the meter clicks’, and the fears often appear to us in dreams, which are sometimes very strange. But they can also be expressed in sullen and bad spirits, in anxiety. When people are anxious and feel bad, they sometimes try to get rid of this anxiety. Some drink alcohol and others work hard to forget, but a third group need someone to hit.

As we finish the first lesson, let us sum up. So, aggressiveness can be of many types –both useful and harmful or painful. In most people it is situational –it appears in cases of offence and insult and reciprocal offence and insult. Less often, people are pathologically aggressive and seem to wait for someone on whom to vent their anger in order to feel better. Finally, there are people who are frightened and for that reason can often dangerous and aggressive. It is important to know all this in order to determine the approximate character of the aggressiveness aimed against you and, consequently, to act opportunely and appropriately with such people, so as not to provoke conflict –in other words, to guarantee this very safety. How to do this is something we shall talk about next time.

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