Security is an Illusion

Though security is an innate drive, in reality it is temporary at best.

Posted Feb 20, 2018

Artwork by Alexi Berry. Used with permission

Recently the idea of security in life has arisen in several aspects of my life. I read Rick Hanson’s weekly newsletter, Just One Thing, the post titled, “See Deep Wants”. In it he suggests looking at the underlying wants that are driving you (and others). One of the underlying drives he gives as an example is security.

This has also arisen in some of the therapy sessions I’ve had of late. I’ve had several clients, who when faced with losing a parent who they have perceived as a security blanket, suddenly faces a lack of security. The realization they have no one to fall back on leaves them distraught.

When facing with clients seeking security, there is a dilemma. On one hand, as an existential therapist, I’m of the belief that security is an illusion. On the other hand, I’m aware that those who are considered the healthiest psychologically have a sense of security. Generally speaking, married people have less suicide, mental health issues, and live longer than those not married. Those who have faith in religion have better psychological outcomes than those that do not. Marriage and religion, generally speaking, provide a sense of security.

Maslow places safety needs, which are related to security, as the second most important drive for humans, behind only physiological needs (air, food, water, to name a few). He recognized the innate human need to feel secure. Although Maslow described many safety needs, the ones most relevant to security are stability, dependency, and the need for law, order, and structure (Feist, Feist, Roberts).

I don’t believe in security. I perceive it as an illusion, one that humans are comfortable with, and which they delude themselves with until something shatters it. Helen Keller, in the first half of a frequently quoted statement, put it such: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.” Marriage is a common example of security, that as we all know, is sometimes shattered.

In discussion of this topic with loved ones, colleagues and students, the argument was posed that we have some control. People move to safer areas. They take precautions with their finances and their lives. We use seatbelts and have numerous safety devices built into our cars, if not our lives. This is undeniable. There is some element of control that we all have. At the same time, there are elements we have no control over.

I always write my posts at least a week before publishing them. As I write and edit this, a tragic school shooting occurred only 30 miles from where I live. Parkland, FL. was considered the safest city in Florida in 2016. Certainly the residents had some sense of security. Tragically that was shattered. Students at the university where I teach, during a discussion, called for gun control or more help for the mentally ill. Of course there are measures that can be taken. But I can’t help but think as students and citizens alike attempt to find a solution to this type of tragedy, the effort is really just to restore their illusion of security. Research backs this up.

While I was researching for this post, I came across an article that claimed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents failed to catch 95% of the weapons smuggled by Inspector General testers (Koehler, R., 2016). A more recent article stated similar statistics at the Minneapolis Airport (Highberger, J., 2017). Yet the security measures we all endure when flying help us feel safe.

As a therapist I have seen many people who thought they had security have that sense whisked away by some sort of tragedy. Marriage, finances, job security, romantic relationships, family structure and friendships are all places where people have felt secure, only to have a realization it was an illusion.

Our days are similar enough, predictable enough, and safe enough that the illusion of security can seem more real than the reality. When something shakes one out of this false sense of security, he perhaps becomes acutely aware that security was but an illusion. As Windy Dryden puts it in her book, “much of life brings a gradual disillusionment and realization that such security can only be temporary.” (p.199).

Perhaps therein lies the solution. One must come to grips with security being illusory, or at best only temporary. One can enjoy the sense of security, while at the same time keeping in mind that it is an illusion, that the world is chaotic, and that at any time that sense of security may be stripped away. This is just another of the paradoxes of life, things that seem counter to one another because of the all or nothing, black or white perception that one’s brain attempts to fit everything into, yet exist simultaneously and in accordance. Though we certainly have some control that can make our lives more secure, perhaps it is as Helen Keller suggested in the second half of that often-quoted statement: “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

Copyright William Berry, 2018


Dryden, M., 2007, Dryden’s Handbook of Individual Therapy, Sage Publishing, Thousand Oaks, CA

Feist J., Feist G.J., Roberts, T., 2018, Theories of Personality, 9th Ed., McGraw-Hill Education, New York, N.Y

Hanson, R., 2018., See Deep Wants, Just One Thing Newsletter, retrieved from: on 2/13/18

Highberger, J., 2017, Minneapolis airport fails 95 percent of security tests, sources say, Fox 9, Retrieved from: on 2/16/18

Keller, H., 1957, Wikiquote, Retrieved from: on 2/13/18

Koehler, R. 2016, The Illusion of Security, Huffington Post, Retrieved from: on 2/13/18.

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