The first time Kevin came to our group, he wasn’t completely convinced he needed to be there. He knew that using violence toward his partner was wrong, but he also didn’t think he should have to take everyone’s crap. As he dug deeper, Kevin discovered that his “tough” attitude was actually coming from a misplaced attempt at self-protection.

Another group member, Vanessa, carried an air of “don’t mess with me.” She made a practice of poking fun of others, but frequently her remarks stung rather than feeling light-hearted. “It’s better to play offense than defense” she’d say, noting the advantage she felt with her put-downs. In reality, however Vanessa’s sarcasm was really self-protection and it was damaging her relationships.

Self-protection for survival

All of us do things to protect ourselves physically, financially, and emotionally—it’s key to our survival. Passwords, credit alerts, and burglar alarms keep us safe. We stand up to bullies and take our time before getting close to new friends or romantic partners.

If we didn’t do these things, we’d be like my dog Hank—trusting everyone completely, for better or worse. Hank would let a burglar into the house and happily hold the flashlight for them if he could. Luckily for him, and me, the front door stays locked!

When self-protection becomes self-harm

Self-protection is fine and necessary, provided it’s appropriate. Trouble arises when our attempts to keep safe are out of proportion, or used to justify harmful behavior. If we’re easily offended, judgmental about other people’s differences, or quick to retaliate when we think someone violates our boundaries, we’re probably being overly self-protective.

If we’re easily offended, judgmental about other people’s differences, or quick to retaliate when we think someone violates our boundaries, we’re probably being overly self-protective.

Picture a dog in a pound who has been mistreated by one person and now tries to attack anyone who comes near him. He thinks he’s protecting himself from further harm, but in fact, he’s blowing his chances of finding a safe, loving home. His self-protection instinct is out of proportion and doing far more harm than good.

Like the rescue dog, we’re not doing ourselves favors if our tendency is to become aggressive, vengeful, or controlling at the slightest perceived threat. In fact, it’s a surefire way to lose relationships and all the good things they bring to our lives. When we push others away with our behavior, we also tend to get further away from being the person we actually want to be.

Self-protection as a coping mechanism

Four weeks into our group, Kevin began to understand where his tough exterior was coming from. He had been mistreated by parents who were critical, unsupportive, and often ridiculed him. The “lesson” he learned from these painful experiences was this: “I am never going to allow someone to disrespect me again.”

Vanessa, too, discovered the true motivation for her put-downs. Her father left when she was seven and a former partner had repeatedly cheated on her. The trauma of those two incidents of abandonment “taught” her to never be vulnerable.

Many of us who react too strongly in the name of self-protection have learned similar lessons—and make similar decisions—whether consciously or not. We think: “I’ll never let someone…

  • talk badly about me.
  • make decisions for me.
  • spend my money.
  • make me do without.

Or even, deeper down:

  • abandon me.
  • control me.
  • hurt me.
  • get close to me (and therefore be in a position to hurt me).”

Thoughts like this may have protected us from further harm at one time. But, as Kevin and Vanessa found out, they don’t serve us well later in life. We must intentionally heal our hurts from the past or we’ll almost always end up hurting others with our excessive self-protection.

The self-esteem antidote

As Kevin and Vanessa dug into their past wounds, they realized that they did more than teach them to “never let people disrespect or hurt them again.” Deeper down, those experiences had infected them with a doubt that they were actually worthy of other people’s love, attention, and faithfulness. As a result, any hint of disrespect or disapproval from loved ones felt like a huge threat to their worthiness and lovability.

Self-esteem is the key that frees us from using too much self-protection.

Self-esteem is the key that frees us from using too much self-protection. When we know that we’re worthy and lovable, and that knowledge comes from inside of us, it’s a thousand times more effective than a tough exterior. And, we feel far more at peace with ourselves and others than when every situation and person is dangerous.

As we build our self-esteem, we often realize that the “threats” we’ve been overreacting to aren’t as big as we first thought. We’ve taken the situation and added our fears and insecurities to the story we’re telling ourselves. In our mind, the molehill becomes a mountain.

Vanessa’s wife may enjoy different pastimes, but that doesn’t mean she’s rejecting Vanessa. Kevin’s kids may talk back, but that doesn’t mean they’re disrespecting him—they’re just being teenagers! By maintaining genuine self-confidence in their lovability and respectability, neither feels compelled to defend themselves.

Rethinking our defense strategy

Perceiving minor disagreements and differences of opinion as a life-or-death peril is a form of distorted thinking. In reality, a disagreement doesn’t mean that our point of view is invalid, that we’re unsafe, or that we’re inferior or worthless. We can keep our opinions and identity without needing to change someone else’s. Not everyone needs to act, think, or be like us for things to be ok.

In fact, it’s good to sometimes change our mind, give in, or compromise. It’s a mark of emotional maturity—we have enough self-esteem that we don’t need to pin our identity on a particular issue. Compromise is key to building healthy, strong relationships and playing a positive role in society.

Similarly, criticism or disrespect don’t require us to react with aggressive or controlling tactics to protect ourselves. Their words or actions won’t kill us, and they certainly don’t define who we are. We are the only ones who get to do that. Letting even downright hurtful acts fall off us, like water off a duck, is a useful life skill and an admirable trait.

Faith note

It’s easy to feel alone in this world. If we don’t look out for ourselves, who will? And who is powerful enough to really be our protector? God is, and he wants you to trust him with that role.

If self-esteem cures self-protection, how can we know that we’re worthy and lovable? Remember that God planned you, created you, and he sent his son Jesus to die so he could have a relationship with you. When we realize this, any question we might have about our lovability is answered. Then, our thick outer shield of self-protection can simply fall away.