Creating Space to Open Pandora’s Box

Anton Tischbein (1720-1784), Epimetheus aabner Pandoras aeske, 1771

I’ve been reading, listening to, and working on a few things lately seemed to be interconnected in some way. They all are related to being vulnerable or supporting others to be vulnerable in order to help them, and in some cases those around them.

Often, too often in fact, organizations, families, and other groups of individuals have topics they avoid because they might make some people uncomfortable. Life, however,  is uncomfortable and talking about difficult things may actually make it better.  Talking, not shouting at each other. 

Sometimes the prohibited topics are explicitly stated as being prohibited (“don’t ask him what happened with his job”). In other cases it’s the environment that may have been created, intentionally or unintentionally, that implies difficult things are not to be talked about. This could be through fear of something real or just perceived. Such environments sometimes exist not because of intimidation or outright hostility, but rather that a sense of safety wasn’t created.

Simon Sinek talks about the Circle of Safety in his book Leaders Eat Last. He explains that an organization needs to create a sense of belonging, that employees are safe at work, and that this will lead to trust and cooperation. If something goes wrong, an employee is more likely to own up to their mistakes in such an environment. They’re also more likely to provide valuable ideas and input because they’re less likely to be afraid of ridicule or pushback in such an environment.

I have this environment in my office. It’s why I was able to be open about my depression with my director. My manager was new at the time and I didn’t know if she was a “Circle of Safety” kind of person or not, but it quickly became abundantly clear that she wanted to make sure I had a sense of safety to speak with her about my depression and ask for help. She made it possible for me to come to her not only for support with my reduced time, but also for me to talk to her about my own concerns about the quality of my work and how my colleagues might perceive me, for me to ask her questions about things I thought I should know but didn’t, even for me to talk about  my long-term struggles with the illness. She is definitely a “Circle of Safety” kind of person.

Sinek is referring to creating that sense of safety and belonging in a work or other organizational environment, but it’s not limited to that. The same is true within families and groups of friends. Chanel Miller wrote in her memoir about the support she received from her family. After the assault, they helped to create a space where she could feel safer, where she could feel supported, listened to, believed. They created a “Circle of Safety” for her.

When we don’t want others to talk about difficult things or we don’t feel that we can, we sometimes refer to the fear of  opening Pandora’s Box. This comes from an ancient Greek Myth and has come to mean doing something that could end up having large negative ramifications.  

There is a part of this idea that had never occurred to me before, but recently Brené Brown mentioned it during a podcast with Tim Ferris.  She said, “ “Pandora’s Box is closed right now, but are you under the impression that you’re living outside of the box or in the box?” Think about that. Individuals or groups within your organization, community, or family might be inside that box that someone or everyone may be afraid of opening. 

We need to create those “Circles of Safety” for others who are in the box. We need to ask them if they want help opening the lid or, if they open it themselves so that they can finally get out, we need to throw off our own discomfort with the difficult and provide them with an opportunity to feel safer.

You know what comes from that? Inspiration. Love. Empathy. Honesty. Collaboration. Loyalty. Courage. Resilience. What comes from that are people who will help us solve problems, make us smile, support our dreams, and open the box when we’re the one trapped inside.

Featured image by Anton Tischbein and used under a public domain license.


  1. Mike Diakuw says:

    What a resonant post. Both, “circle of safety” and the “inside/outside” metaphor.

    Boxes are tricky. You may put yourself in or out, but you may also be at the mercy of people who are “gatekeepers” for Pandora’s Box.

    Really well done!

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