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  • Harriet Brown

Protect Me From What I Want: The Art Of Self-Sabotage

In 1982 the artist Jenny Holzer made a large electronic sign that went up in Times Square, it simply said, ‘Protect me from What I want.’ A curious statement, which at first glance seems odd and designed to provoke debate. The most obvious interpretation is about consumerism; people wanting protection from the endless incitement to purchase. But for me, a therapist, there’s a potentially a more complex psychological meaning that has resonance for so many clients I see.

In many different ways people spend a lot of time protecting themselves from what they want, or what we would more commonly call self-sabotage. See if any aspects of these examples are familiar to you:

You promise yourself that Future You will fill out a job application at the weekend. You’re very confident about Future You’s plans. Then come the weekend you find yourself lying on the sofa watching a Netflix box set. The form with just your name and address filled in is open on your computer in the other room. And there’s a persistent voice in your head telling you, you wouldn’t get the job anyway and it was an embarrassment even thinking about trying.

Maybe you keep starting relationships, but when it gets serious you’re bothered by relentless questions that pop in to your head uninvited. Does their loving that film you hate indicate the tip of a bad taste iceberg? At certain angles do they have strange ears? Are you enjoying yourself? Or does the fact you’re constantly having to analyse whether you’re enjoying yourself mean you’re not actually enjoying yourself? You start to pull away, thinking this, like all the other relationships before it, isn’t right, because if it was, wouldn’t you just feel happy?

Or maybe you’re attracted to someone and when you're with them your gut tells you it’s mutual, only you're besieged by doubts when you’re alone. Maybe they just enjoy talking to you in the way someone enjoys talking to the least boring person at a wedding. Maybe you just think they find you attractive because you find them attractive? They probably have an athlete/rocket scientist/Masterchef finalist partner you don’t know about. You decide not to pursue things, having ‘realised’ you’re delusional and you don’t want to embarrass yourself further.

All of the above are examples of people protecting themselves from what they want, a job, a relationship, a much longed for chance at intimacy. Stephen Porges describes this as ‘replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection.’ So often people come to therapy because they sense they’re the streaker stopping play on the football pitch of their own progress. They look back and mentally beat themselves up, full of regret and pain, but at a loss as to why they’re doing it. But the fact is none of this is their fault, because at an unconscious level they believe they're in danger and are simply trying to protect themselves.

We are born with strong instincts for survival, from a young age we’re constantly assessing what’s safe and what isn’t. When it comes to physical safety, it’s a good idea to learn that eating a biro for breakfast isn’t a good idea. But when it comes to emotional pain things are trickier. If you’re made to feel worthless by a teacher, you may stop trying to achieve things as you associate it with feelings of shame. If your mother was distracted and cold and it made you feel abandoned, you can come to see intimacy as something to be avoided. Or if you’ve been relentlessly teased over your looks, you might ‘decide’ not to put yourself in a position where you could feel humiliated again. Much like we remember how to tie our shoelaces, this template of protective behaviours becomes second nature. We don’t feel like they’re things we’ve learnt in response to past hurts, but rather ‘just the way things are or just what we have to do.’ Our feelings become facts.

Unfortunately we don’t come with an instruction manual that explains all this to us. But real change can happen when we start to recognise, either alone or with the help of a therapist, why we’re doing what we’re doing. Instead of beating ourselves up for repeating the same patterns, we can start to have compassion for our seemingly strange and inexplicable behaviour. We can see it for what it is, a misguided bid to protect ourselves. If we recognise that these behaviours are motivated by childlike parts of ourselves that fear feeling shame or abandonment or humiliation, we can tune in to what we’re scared of. We can nurture another internal voice, a kinder one, that instead of trying to protect us from imaginary dangers, can soothe these scared parts. Like a kindly coach, it can allow us to see these dangers exist in the past, not the present and start to reach for what we want without fear.

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