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What Happens When We Are Too Self-Protective?

Being guarded can make us feel safe, but may also be risky.

"We use our minds not to discover facts but to hide them. One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean, the ins and outs of it, its interiors.” —António R. Damásio

It is relatively easy to be numb, distracted, or otherwise cut-off from our own experience. This often starts when we are younger, and we find ways to ensure that it stays the same. This can apply to any domain of experience, including body sensation, perceptual, projective and imaginary, self-referential, relational, psychological, spiritual, philosophical, and emotional ways of witnessing, living and reliving experience.

At the end of the day, folks often come back to authenticity and openness to a new experience. Cognitive flexibility is being able to use multiple lenses, while also being affectively and existentially present. The emotional and mental sense of felt reality is persuasive and compelling. Yet from other points of view, it is elusive, mystified, even trivial, irrelevant at times and potentially a problematic distraction. Many strive for authenticity, but it can also be fetishized.

When we live through emotionally powerful events, which require cognitive attention in order to cope with at least minimal efficiency, and more attention and planning to cope with masterfully, we may be tempted to, or even need to, put our emotions into the background. We often must defer meaning-making until such time as the stress level and information processing demands lift until there is again the bandwidth for a reflective, emotionally meaningful experience.

Being able to provide emotional and cognitive information processing during challenging experiences is a reasonable approach, managing the demand from both and smoothly coordinating how things unfold, while also acknowledging the effect of uncertainty, which can throw a wrench into our best efforts to plan.

If we learn early in life that we should be phobic of, apprehensive about, avoidant of, or unaware of emotions, we may perceive people as fundamentally dangerous and to be approached with caution. This, of course, is true on some level but presumes difficulty figuring out who is trustworthy and how to assign responsibility, restore fairness and equilibrium, seek justice, or simply let it go and move on as a way to seek emotional safety. Letting it go―or more accurately, coming to terms with such things―is often, but not always, easier with a degree of recognition.

By guarding ourselves against vulnerability to avoid certain risks, we feel safe, but become vulnerable in different ways, subject to both manipulative and mistrustful influences in the jungle of human relations. This happens because being attuned to our own vulnerability gives us information not only about ourselves but about other people. From time to time, many people rely on simple assumptions about how social reality functions in order to help guide planning and decision-making. These oversimplifications can be useful guidelines but can lead us astray.

To some extent, we all must protect ourselves, as we can all be hurt. Show me someone who claims to be invulnerable, and I will show you a mirror. We may see in ourselves an imaginary, powerful other who cannot be hurt, and we identify with that fantasy (so the story goes), so we can feel safe enough to function. The cost is that we may not fully appreciate what is happening to us, and by us, while it is happening, though the vast majority of people are normal, clear-sighted, and thoughtful (if a bit at a loss for what to do, or sure about what to do but unable to fully execute).

When we numb ourselves from our emotions, sometimes we lose track of time. We can lose track of clock-time, for hours or days, and we can lose track of calendar time as the days, years, go by. We can lose track of narrative and developmental time, for our personal history as well as for contextual facts, which may be lost or blurred, misremembered, or forgotten, or may be held in useful, understandable frameworks.

The social relevance of time can be elusive as well, and we can feel a sense that change does not exist. Our sense of self is tied to our sense of time. Time is related to change, and our relationship with change is essential.

Opening oneself up to feelings of tenderness and self-recognition permits us to connect more deeply with others. However, it also entails taking risks which we may prefer to avoid. Tenderness and anger can ebb and flow in response to one another, making it difficult to engage in dialogue, for example. Changing avoidance patterns can be useful, but requires time and effort, and the relationship between risk and reward, when it comes to change, is often unclear.

More from Grant Hilary Brenner MD, DFAPA
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