Press pause on automatic protective strategies to avoid self-sabotage

Do you ever ask yourself “why did I just do that?” or “why didn’t I handle that how I really wanted to?” Often times, we rely on protective strategies which we developed long ago; they work so seamlessly most of the time that we pushed them out of our awareness and stopped monitoring them altogether. When your responses to situations surprise you, and seem out of line with how you want to be, it may be time to take a look at the protective strategies that you are using to make sure that they are still working for you. In this post, I am going to explore where our protective automatic beliefs about and responses to our environment come from and how we can re-work them to serve us better in daily life.

From the time each of us is born, we begin to learn about our surrounding world and the rules of engagement that we have to follow in order to get our needs for safety, nourishment, care, love, and acceptance met. We look to our parents, our peers, and our community to help us understand how to act, how to think, and even how to feel in response to the context we are in. When we are children, there is a lot riding on “fitting in” within our family unit, our peer group, and our community. We aren’t able to fully care for ourselves, and so, we create lots of protective shortcuts in our mind to help ensure acceptance and care from others. These shortcuts--”when this happens, I do this”--are like invisible rules that we follow. Over time these protective shortcuts become so automated, that we don’t even notice when we use them, and so, they enter into the realm of automatic protective responses.

When we grow up, we may move away from home and the community that we were once a part of, but we still carry within us the ways of being in relationship with ourselves and others, that we learned as children--we continue to rely on the same protective shortcuts although our life circumstances have changed. In our adult life, these protective strategies may not only be unhelpful to us, they may be a form of self-sabotage that leaves us feeling stuck and unfulfilled in our relationships with ourselves and others. There are a number of common automatic protective responses to the world that I see in my work with clients. Do any of the ones outlined below sound familiar to you?

Discomfort with feelings:

  • An inability to openly express hurt, disappointment, or anger in relationships.

  • Stuffing difficult feelings down when they start to surface - to the point where you don’t even realize you feel them at all.

  • Expecting others to guess how you feel.

  • Communicating your feelings indirectly; through passive aggressive or sarcastic comments.


  • Feeling responsible for the feelings of others and guilty for “making people feel bad.”

  • Always putting the needs of others before your own.

  • Not bringing up problems within a relationship for fear of hurting the other person.

Difficulty with trust in yourself and others:

  • Not trusting anyone, or trusting everyone indiscriminately.

  • Viewing yourself as being at the mercy of life circumstances and always waiting for the “the other shoe to drop.”

  • Believing that any success is “just pure luck” rather than reflective of your abilities and hard work.

  • Believing that your self-worth is dependent what you do rather than who you are.

  • Being overly critical of yourself and your perceived “shortcomings.”

  • Believing that if others really knew you, they wouldn’t like you.

  • Feeling like you are very different than others, that no one can understand you, or that you are destined to be a loner.

You might be asking yourself-“how can these strategies be called protective?” Let’s take the example of a very common strategy that I see being used all the time-stuffing feelings down. This strategy likely developed early on in a family where positive feelings were openly expressed and validated, while difficult feelings were ignored, minimized, or discouraged. A child growing up in a such a family may have noticed that when they expressed feelings such as sadness, hurt, disappointment, or anger they were met with disapproval.

This disapproval hurts, and threatens a child’s sense of security within their family, and so they develop protective strategies to ensure that their “unacceptable” feelings do not get in the way of receiving love, acceptance, and care. There is a lot more to say about the mechanisms at work here, and I will dedicate another post to exploring this further. But for now, the point is, just because it was a good idea to stuff feelings down when you were growing up, doesn’t mean that this is a helpful strategy today. Psychotherapy is one way to gain self-awareness of the automatic protective strategies that you put on autopilot long ago. This awareness will give you the opportunity to understand yourself and your actions better, to choose which strategies still make sense in your life and may need to be strengthened, and which ones are no longer working for you—helping you to stop self sabotaging.

Leave a comment with the automatic protective strategies that you notice yourself using regularly-and I will write more about the strategies that matter to you.

#selfsabotage #RelationshipProblems

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