When Self-Protective is Self-Destructive: What is REALLY at Risk When We ‘Play It Safe’?

Note: Caution, inner wisdom, self-reflection and centering help keep us out of harm’s way; the term “playing it safe” in the article below refers to self-protection that is so thick that it borders on hardening of one’s heart; at no point does the author intend to suggest that ‘healthy choices’ include blurred boundaries, careless or risky behavior, or any actions or decisions that result in danger to mind, body or spirit at any point. Consequences are helpful in guiding decision-making.  All references are to mental and spiritual rather than physical . . . and all feedback is welcomed.  ~Dr. Iankowitz

The story might begin with three people walking down the street debating the question asked by the title. What would the optimist say?  The realist?   The pessimist? If honest, all three would have to agree on the following point:

Joy and pain are intimately intertwined. Playing it safe risks more than we bargained for.

Just take a look at it. When one’s sole purpose in life is to avoid pain, isn’t the price paid: “joy”?  I suggest that all three people in that debate would agree that joy IS the price tag for a ‘pain-free’ existence. Realistically speaking, to avoid pain one must avoid all risk – or adequately self-protect (multi-level experience) while taking the risk.  Do you disagree?

So, to take it a step further, let’s illustrate levels of risk and self-protection:

  • Level #1 (beginner) Accepting no invitations to any social events. GOAL: No risk of rejection. 
  • Level #2 (intermediate) Accepting invitations, going to social gatherings, and sitting in a corner to avoid interaction. GOAL: Minimize risk of rejection.
  • Level #3 (expert) Accepting invitations, participating (overtly), while maintaining emotional distance (covertly – but it becomes overt if we permit another close enough to discover we are emotionally unavailable). GOAL: (You decide) is this just minimizing or totally avoiding risk of rejection?

So then we ask ourselves about individual relationships, with respect to trust, safety and our ability to feel comfortable in the company of others. We may realize that we have different expectations, we act differently, give differently, make exceptions; we depend on or go out of our way for certain people based upon status combined with personal comfort: friends, family, acquaintance-ship etc. We may be outgoing, trusting, fun loving, masters at self control or self-distraction; we may take and/or offer direction well; we may be shy or bossy, controlling, aloof or guarded. Do you create a ‘safe’ zone for people to approach you? Valuable self-reflective question to ask – often.

When assessing our own place in the friends/family aspect of our lives, we ask ourselves some other pointed questions, such as:

  • Do I tell other people what to say and do?
  • Am I often referred to as “over-controlling”?
  • Do I lack self-control?
  • Do others boss me around?
  • Do I accept responsibility for too many/ not enough choices/reactions?

People who feel in control of themselves generally

  • don’t try to control others. If you believe you (or someone you love) may have self-control issues, click here for some hints and possible tips. 
  • spend meaningful time self-reflecting. They ask themselves questions – some more difficult than others; all of which lead to personal awakening, which is the first step to growth. 

Some self-reflective questions:

  • What motivated me to say or do this or that?
  • What do I feel when I hear ___?
  • What did I really mean when I said____?
  • Do I feel awkward more often than not when in the company of other people?
  • Do I ‘self-protect’ by keeping my finger on the figurative jugular of others?  OR by overloading others with words or ‘assignments’ etc?
  • Do I lie to myself or others on a regular basis?
  • Do I say, “To be honest . . . ” or “I really want to be open with you” even when I’m not and don’t?
  • Do I have great friendship building skills (or do I need a few guidelines?) If you’d like a few tips on how to begin or repair a relationship, click here. 

Before we can share our time and space with others, it behooves us to know ourselves. Just as there are two main goals that dictate how we spend our “alone time” (reflecting: a desire to grow; self-distract: to avoid growth), there are two main reasons why we choose to spend time with another person:

  • We want to build a healthy relationship   OR
  • We want to continue to distract ourselves from self-reflection (but trick ourselves into believing it is not our responsibility – forcing the ‘burden’ of this distraction onto the other person)

If we want to build healthy relationships, then the time we spend with others is joyful, filled with clarification, mutual sharing, learning, teaching, growing, relaxing and a wide range of positive energy experiences. We effortlessly shift from light, easy ‘superficial’ sharing, laughter and joy to discussions of greater depth and meaning. We feel the other person helps us by creating a ‘safe zone’ for us to feel safe.  One does NOT need to ‘self-protect’ from another person when there is shared trust in the ‘safe zone’ mutually created for both to freely express with an open heart.

If we truly want to self-distract (hide from ourselves) and avoid self-reflection, we might fear looking at ourselves (and/or the other person) honestly. If the illusion of fear is at the root of our decisions, we owe it to ourselves to explore the fear, along with its siblings: shame and guilt. Help is out there – and one doesn’t necessarily require a ‘label’ or a personality disorder to read articles, books or seek mental health intervention. Click here for possible resources that can help – with or without a ‘diagnosis’.

Most of us indulge in denial, to some degree, as a self-protective mechanism during key moments in time.  The issues arise when our desire to self-protect becomes THE MOST important motivating factor in our existence.

No matter where we are along the continuum of  our relationships, the reality is that, if we elect to ‘play it safe’ we risk joy – and we do this by our own hand believing the illusion that we are taking NO risk at all.

Playing it ‘safe’.  Level #3 (expert) noted above, is mastered by people who desperately fear intimacy. They are very ‘self-protective’, trusting nobody (not even themselves. In fact, these ‘self-protective’ people are usually very self-destructive – causing their own imbalance of mind/body/spirit). While avoiding all emotional vulnerability, an individual at Level #3 may even appear to maintain a marriage for decades, until s/he (or the partner) ‘wakes up’. If a couple unites ‘in self-protective safety’ (neither trusting the other; able to maintain a distant, ‘for show’ relationship that ‘appears perfect’ to casual onlookers), close family members and/or friends (if there are any), usually know the truth about the arrangement, but keep it quiet.

In this situation, if one partner outgrows the charade, things become ‘interesting’; but, unless both partners agree to embrace a trusting relationship, permitting and risking emotional vulnerability so they can share mutual loving and positive energy, the couple either agrees to maintain ‘status quo’ for appearances, or they go their separate ways. This split permits one to maintain emotional unavailability while the other is free to explore a new path.

Since you have read this far, let’s assume you are a relatively social, healthy, well balanced individual. You likely strive for balance, but may not know if you are undercutting your success with certain patterns of behavior. You might be asking yourself right now: “How can I know if I’m self-destructive, self-distracting and/or self-protective?”

To answer this, take a look at your social habits. Ask, “Do I feel most comfortable when surrounded by:

  • ‘yes’ people”?
  • people who lack the ability to help me grow”?

If so, you might explore why. The answers usually involve illusions surrounding fear, shame and/or guilt – which are ILLUSIONS.  Illusions are shadows. When the light shines ON THEM they disappear.  Think about it.

Next thing to consider: Am I, more often than not, filled with internal (or outward) negativity, anger, frustration, hostility, defensiveness, rage and/or any other energy blocking/energy sucking distractions?

If the answer is “yes” then skills to learn how to fine-tune ‘centering’ (so that learning and growth help you lift yourself out of toxic patterns) might be of value. For guided meditation click here. For self-help relationship building tools: Click here.

Life is filled with choices. If you recognize a pattern that is self-destructive, you have the power to choose to perpetuate or discontinue it.

Responsibility is yours.

  • Where there is a will there is a way.
  • You are in control of your life – whether you recognize it or not.
  • To decide NOT to decide is, in itself, a decision.  Own it.
  • If you choose to break one or more unhealthy patterns, you will begin to seek out healthy mentors.
  • If you choose to hide, you can of course facilitate that desire, as well – but at what cost?  What price is really paid when the decision is to remain out of balance?

Balance facilitates healing. Today, as the first day of the rest of our lives, we can embrace this very minute which provides us with a new opportunity to make choices that feed our spirit, and help to regain and maintain balance.

The more people who fill the world with balance, enlightenment, goodness and joy, the more positive our impact on the earth as a living, breathing planet of healthy energy.

One response to “When Self-Protective is Self-Destructive: What is REALLY at Risk When We ‘Play It Safe’?”

  1. As an old time Psychologist, now long retired, this piece made me sit up and take notice. It has much wisdom and good suggestions, is well written and covers a lot, and that is why I am disturbed by it. The points made would have taken me about 2 months or more of individualized therapy with a patient to cover and to deal with implementation. I wonder if either I was/am too slow in my approach, or if the writer has offered too much too soon? I will be most interested in the responses of others to try to better assess these questions.

    Liked by 1 person

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