Safety as a Missing Ingredient of Positive Psychology and What It Means for Coaching Supervision

positive psychology in supervision

Safety as a Missing Ingredient of Positive Psychology and What It Means for Coaching Supervision

I’ve been asking myself a question recently: is there something missing from Positive Psychology; and if there is, what impact does that have on coaching supervision? 

These questions came up to me after reading an article by John Franklin from Positive Psychology Coaching in Practice

Franklin noted the absence of Safety or Security as a category in the core Positive Psychology theories: Seligman’s PERMA theory, Ryff’s Psychological Well Being Theory, and Deci & Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory. 

It struck me as both an accurate and vital observation.

Not only that but I noted a lack of a Physiological category.

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the two lower categories—Physiological needs and Safety need —are missing from some of the Positive Psychology models. I wanted to dig deeper and try to understand whether these categories matter to some of these models. 

It’s worth noting that since Franklin wrote his article there have been some changes. Some models, like the PERMA model, have been adjusted to include physiological aspects .

An example of this is PERMA-H, which added the category of Vitality. It covers the need to have a healthy, vital life, such as having a good night’s sleep, healthy food, and exercise. Given that, the Physiological aspect has been covered to a certain extent.

As a result, this article concerns itself more with the lack of a focus on Safety

Franklin has a theory about why there is a lack of consideration in this particular aspect. He suggests that these Positive Psychology theories and models were developed at a time where America was incredibly prosperous. Quite simply, safety and security weren’t prominent in these psychologists’ thoughts.

In addition to that, the main theories and models, Ryff aside, were developed by white males in a prosperous America where safety and threats of liberty were not as high as for many other categories.

If we look at African-Americans and other minorities as well as women, it would be generally agreed that they are more likely to suffer threats to their safety and liberty than the white males who wrote the Positive Psychology theories and models. 

During the time when these theories were devised, authority of many kinds could be a significant threat to people of colour and lower societal backgrounds. Because of this, safety is not something that minorities could (or can) take for granted.

Had the theories above been developed by these groups, perhaps safety as a theme would have been more prevalent.

An argument against this is that the Positive Psychologists considered safety to be covered within the other categories. If that is the case, then let me challenge it and share my perspective. 

You can be in a position where all other categories are fulfilled — you have positive emotions, positive engagements, positive relationships; positive achievements, and you have meaning in your life — you have all of that, except Safety and Security.

Imagine you are walking down the street, and someone suddenly attacked you. It can be physical assault, sexual assault, or some other type of assault, but this event can undermine everything else you have. Even in the world of domestic violence, victims can be living their best lives, yet they still have threats to their safety. In these, not only is physical safety under attack but psychological well-being as well. It may be scarred or, worse, be completely destroyed. 

With these, I feel that Safety and Security are missing in a lot of Positive Psychology models. Luckily, two models see these aspects as significant — Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Franklin’s Theory.

Franklin talks about security, but with a sense of hierarchy because of Survive Needs and Thrive Needs. In the same way, Maslow also has a hierarchy where you must first have the bottom or essential categories in place. However, here too, I would like to challenge this strict hierarchical notion — the top categories can influence our survival more than the bottom ones do.

If we consider Victor Frankl’s work and his idea of man’s search for meaning and survival, we see that people are not simple beings; they seek meaning in their lives. Humans long for hope, a reason to live, why they should continue to exist. It is crucial for survival.

I often think that these hierarchical models overlook the importance of will. Even when the essential categories are deprived or depleted, humans with the higher categories fulfilled will find a way to survive. 

Of course, I realise that not meeting the bottom needs is more likely to kill us, given that they are required to live; air, food, water, and shelter. However, so long as we have the minimum to survive, they do little to affect our psychological well-being. The top categories can make up a lot of the lower levels. 

That is why for me, it is more of a column instead of a triangle. There is a flow of up and down. The triangularity rests on the idea of importance, the column on flow and support. 

For example, in concentration camps, arts and engagement were essential to help survive the severe deprivation of the physical and physiological aspects. In this sense, the top categories help someone thrive more than the bottom. It is argued, by survivors, that one of the things that helped them survive was having that sense of meaning.  I think that the top levels are crucial to survival and that a lack of them will significantly impact our ability to survive.

How do these relate to coaching supervision? 

Safety and security.

These aspects are essential to acknowledge when coaching, for coaches first need to create a safe space for their clients. Although being strong and solid is a great way to form security, sometimes it takes vulnerability to become a coach. Vulnerability to hold silence; vulnerability to open a question that you have no answer yet, and accept that you just have to deal with what lies ahead; vulnerability to listen. These come up with a lot of coaches I talk to. That act of asking non-leading short and simple questions can make us feel vulnerable as coaches.

Because of this, a key role for supervisors is to help create and maintain this sense of safety and positive vulnerability.

Additionally, if we want to strengthen the chain, we can start identifying what’s going on in the client’s world and what’s making them feel unsafe. We can also look into what might be going on in the coach’s world that might be making them feel unsafe that they are bringing to the coaching space. Being able to explore this and develop methods using Positive Psychology will be very useful.

It’s important, I would suggest, to acknowledge not just the importance of safety in the coaching and supervision space but in their lives and the broader world.

That is why, for me, Safety is vital in the supervision space.

Moving away from hierarchies

Next is the concept of hierarchy. If we bring this to the supervision space, we can use the importance of both top and bottom need categories to better look at how coaches can grow. Often, coaches wanting to take a step forward in their life find it hard to do. Sometimes this is because they might jeopardise their lower hierarchical level needs in exchange for fulfilling the higher ones – losing a lucrative client base to do the work they really want to, for instance. Yet thinking of it so that one benefits the other and that we can survive easier by giving meaning to our life will help the coach feel safer to explore the wider beyond. 

That is why, for me, seeing the Hierarchy of Needs from a new perspective will help in the supervision space.

In concluding, this article has been my own attempt to be vulnerable in sharing my embryonic thoughts on this subject.  Safety and security are vital ingredients for a good life even if all the other categories are in place and as someone who has experienced domestic violence I know this all too well. They are also hugely important for effective coaching and supervision.  But it’s also clear that they can often be taken for granted by a profession that is in large part insulated from the threats presented by poverty, inequality, corruption and other social challenges and I believe we have to be cognisant of this in our practice.

Author Details
As a coach Hattie works with singers and business people, helping them transform into confident performers who are unafraid to put themselves out there. In her supervision she works with coaches who want to take the same vulnerability and strength into their coaching practices, also mentoring them for ICF accreditation.
positive psychology
As a coach Hattie works with singers and business people, helping them transform into confident performers who are unafraid to put themselves out there. In her supervision she works with coaches who want to take the same vulnerability and strength into their coaching practices, also mentoring them for ICF accreditation.
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