Subject Yourself or Protect Yourself?

Girl hiding in scarfRecently, my son told me of a situation he had decided to avoid. To sum it up, he said, “I’d rather protect than subject.” I thought this encompassed many lessons in a concise way.

How often do we subject ourselves to situations we know will be unpleasant? How often do we choose to see people we know will deplete us, go to an event we would really rather skip, or say yes when every cell is screaming no?

Healthy self-care depends on our ability to set boundaries. Assertively creating the life you want includes saying no—and sticking to it, as opposed to saying no and letting people cajole you into saying yes. By staying true to your goal of treating yourself well, you can push out of the comfort zone of not disappointing anyone and actually say no as many times as is necessary for someone to hear you. Typically, this takes a few repetitions. The good news is you just have to repeat yourself. There’s no need to say it in a different way. The easiest response is often, “I am sorry I won’t be able to do that; I have other plans.” No one needs to know what your plans are. You may want to spend the afternoon staring into space, writing a dissertation, or taking a nap. It doesn’t matter. Just saying the same sentence again and again in a kind, patient, gentle way will do the trick.

Good self-care also requires a willingness to look at one’s life and see where it could be more balanced. Are you spending an inordinate amount of time at work? Are you experiencing compassion fatigue from caring for a relative? Does your life feel swamped with errands and chores? Are you studying into the wee hours? Exercising to a state of exhaustion? By taking a look at the major areas of your life, you can quickly see if you are giving short shrift to rest, relaxation, social time, solitude, quiet, dancing, nature, journaling, music, or anything else that rejuvenates your body, mind, and spirit. Start by carving out even five minutes to sit quietly, have a cup of tea, or close your eyes. Making the conscious decision to take time to be still can be far more challenging than staying on the activity treadmill. Once you give yourself the gift of stopping and simply being, the rewards will keep you coming back.

Protecting yourself from your own internal litany of self-criticism is also important. How do you talk to yourself? Are you quick to put yourself down? Sometimes, protecting yourself means learning to be more tender with your own feelings, including your emotional responses to life’s slings and arrows. Creating an inner dialogue of supportive, positive, loving messages will have a profound effect on your relationship with yourself. A good way to start is to read a list of affirmations and write down a few that really resonate with you. I am especially fond of Louise Hay’s approach: Look in the mirror every day and say, “I love you. I really, really love you.” As supremely simple as this sounds, it is amazingly powerful.

On a more mundane level, self-protection entails daily rituals of eating, sleeping, and getting some fresh air. How conscientious are you with these basic life tasks? Most Americans get far too little sleep, which sets the stage for disease, crankiness, and deep fatigue. How is your diet? Are you eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day? It is not that hard to do. Try a handful of baby carrots, a bowl of bean soup, some fruit and cereal, a stir-fry or salad. Each of these foods will improve your mood, bolster your immune system, and provide you with the energy you need to better navigate your day. Make eating well a priority and watch your sense of well-being improve. While you are at it, make sure you eat frequently enough. Eating infrequently is another emotional saboteur, as low blood-sugar levels wreak havoc on your ability to feel stable, patient, and resilient. So, don’t let more than four hours pass without a snack or meal—and please eat breakfast.

On the topic of food, there is an ever-increasing amount of research being done on the beneficial effects of probiotics on all aspects of health—especially immunity and mood. Whether you eat sauerkraut, tempeh, yogurt, kefir, cheese, or dark chocolate (yes, chocolate is a fermented food), having some of these every day ensures a healthy gut.

Last, but not least, being aware of how things affect you is crucial to doing everything I’ve mentioned. Whether it is awareness of how you respond to someone’s tone of voice and asking them to speak to you differently, paying attention to feeling tired and actually going to sleep, or eating before you are starving, the greater your awareness, the greater the chances you will take better care of yourself. If you find yourself rushing through your day, try to carve out some solitude for yourself. By sitting with your breath and watching the parade of thoughts as they pass across your mind, you soothe your nervous system and begin to understand the transitory nature of everything.

Remember, you are a work in progress. The next time you think you have subjected yourself to someone or something that was disturbing, unhealthy, or even toxic, use it as an opportunity to be more aware in the future. Growth and change happen incrementally. Be thankful you could be aware of the situation’s effect on you, and resolve to head it off at the pass the next time.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Nicole S. Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM, Holistic Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • olivia

    November 29th, 2013 at 10:44 AM

    Yeah the ideal would always be to protect and not subject, right?
    But then again there is something to be said for soing something that you may not be the most comfortable with and then choosing to learn from those choices.
    I am not an advocate for doing something that would blatantly hurt you or cause pain… but those are the things that help us see just how strong we are and just how much strength that we actually have.
    It is all a learning process, a chance to learn and grow. Sometimes you do have to subject yourself to those things that could be a little outside of the normal comfort zone to grow a bit.

  • Grant

    November 29th, 2013 at 4:08 PM

    we all self sabotage. just seems to be the nature of the human beast. I try to as much as I can go into protevtive mode but at times it feels like I am always living on the edge and looking for ways that add more excitement. That’s what I call subjecting myself to the pain for the short term pleasure that I get out of it I suppose.

  • polly

    November 30th, 2013 at 5:03 AM

    Much of the time this all boils down to balance, and how much balance are you willing to place in your own life? I don’t think that it can always be one or the other, that there is always a choice. Sure you try to protect yourself from the things that you know without a doubt that will be harmful, but are you always going to know every single thing before you are blindsided? There are those people who live the sort of lives where they are constantly being subjected to trial after trial but I think that much of that has to do with their own lifestyle choices, not because they are simply unlucky. But if you are doing everything right, you might stikll be tried but you can walk away from them relatively unscathed.

  • Lillian s

    December 2nd, 2013 at 4:47 AM

    The natural instinct is to protect… but at some point in time we are all going to mess up

  • franky

    December 2nd, 2013 at 4:53 AM

    The one thing that I don’t understand are those families who seem to have it all and yet are still always butting heads. I guess it’s the nature of the beast but I have to ask myself sometimes why all of the discontent?

  • Allison

    December 3rd, 2013 at 4:49 AM

    It’s one thing to guard against others, but then how do you guard against the feelings that you already have about yourself? Sometimes I think that the things that I think about myself are way more harmful then the things that other people could believe.

  • Nicole

    December 20th, 2013 at 9:51 AM

    Thank you all for sharing your thoughts.

    Allison, I agree it’s what we think and how we treat ourself that is the essence of self-protection and self-care. The trick is to take small steps and give yourself credit for everything you do to change your internal messages.

    As the neurologists like to say: Neurons that fire together wire together. That is essentially what the yogis have always known: what we practice we become. In other words: practice saying kind things to yourself. When you hear any negative voices being self-critical, gently ask them to stop and substitute something neutral or positive. In time, you will notice a big shift.

    Sanskrit mantras are another great tool to combat self-destructive behaviors and thoughts. You can find a short introduction to them on my website:

  • Ella

    May 26th, 2014 at 4:43 AM

    There are many people here talking of having choice, or of doing something we do not wish to do as “self-sabotage”. It is all too easy to suggest that a person just “says no” – and that is the end of it. Assumptions have been made right from the start of this article, that imply that the person who finds it hard to create “boundaries” is at fault. That all they must do is repeat the word “no”, and somehow they will be able to get on with doing things the way they want. The person who had attempted to make them do something different will just “go away”…

    WHAT if this weren’t the case? Have you ever stopped to think that some people may be coerced into doing things they are unhappy with because of REAL, GENUINE FEAR? I am talking, here, about the child who is made to do exactly as their parents say, because if they don’t, they get hit, or screamed at. The wife who is so afraid of her violent husband that she simply CANNOT face leaving the relationship – after all, her husband has beaten her before, so why not again? What about the person who is genuinely “blackmailed”? For example, a girl with an ugly birthmark, who knows that if she does not do what her so-called friends say, they will spread rumours all round school about her birthmark (which she prefers to keep hidden).

    Life is NOWHERE NEAR AS SIMPLE as you articles of “advice” would like to make it seem. Sometimes, people face truly monumental challenges – things that would be daunting to anyone and everyone. It is NOT so simple, then, as to “just say no”. What if, by saying “no”, you knew you would be hit, screamed at, ostracised, humiliated and belittled? What if the negative consequences of saying “no” – the repercussions – outweighed the potential benefits?

    For some people, the situation is a genuine “catch 22”. They do not have the support, the resources, the assistance that they need. They are unable to act alone, out of genuine fear (possibly for their very life). For them, saying “no” is an impossibility.

    You assume that people live surrounded by others who are good, well-meaning and well-intentioned. Domestic violence, for example, does NOT occur in well-meaning relationships. Instead, the violent partner CONTROLS the other – they know, and monitor, ALL their partner’s behaviour. How, then, would your suggestion that a person says “no”, and then adds “I have other plans”, work? After all, the violent partner KNOWS ALL OF THEIR SPOUSE’S PLANS! So, this excuse just would NOT work!

    In cases such as these, the feeling that we have about ourselves are immaterial. Quite often, they have been instilled, and enhanced, by the people we are around. However, to the wife who faces a beating for disagreeing with her violent husband, what SHE THINKS ABOUT HERSELF AT THAT POINT IS IRRELEVANT. The fact that she will BE HIT is the imperative. Ditto the child whose parents will yell, scream, and slap, should the child refuse to do as they say… Such individuals are forced into a position of “submission” by abusers who manipulate a position of power, trust or authority. Whatever they may feel about themselves internally, it is NOT this that traps them (although I agree it may not help)… what keeps making them do things they may not wish to do is a REAL, SOLID AND VERY GENUINE FEAR OF ACTUAL, PHYSICAL, VERBAL AND EMOTIONAL VIOLENCE.

    Now, I’d love to hear what any of you would have to say about how “easy” THAT is to say “no” to!

  • deb

    September 1st, 2015 at 4:59 AM

    Sounds like you are a “victim” and give your power away. Seek out help.

  • Sara

    May 4th, 2016 at 9:26 PM

    Ella, you are absolutely right. In the situations that you describe, the suggestions of this article are not appropriate. Self-care is not going to enable someone to escape the consequences of another’s violent behavior, nor will it help children who are entirely, appropriately, emotionally dependent on adult caregivers. I’m a social worker, so I know that the way forward in those types of situations is extremely difficult, risky, and require tremendous courage and support. Much of the time, in the situations you describe, any “solution” carries a very, very high emotional price tag for the victim.

  • Jayne L

    May 28th, 2014 at 4:59 AM

    I definitely agree that self care is so important, especially when it comes to one’s mental health!

  • alisa

    September 19th, 2014 at 12:42 PM

    It is hard to write an article and cover every nuance of the subject unless you are writing a book. Lol I have been to a few assertiveness training classes and they all taught the “broken record” technique. There are many ways to assert yourself as an adult. I have found “sticking to my guns” effective. But there will be times I need to awitch to a different approach. Children need to be taught to speak out if things are troubling them and to a safe person but that is an entirely new article in itself. I enjoyed the read Thank You.

  • Linda

    September 21st, 2014 at 4:50 PM

    Ella, unfortunately, you are right. I think the article offers excellent advice for those of us who have simply, voluntarily, taken on too many responsibilities. As you point out, many people (in fact most of us at one time or another) are in positions, at least temporarily, which do not allow us much choice. I think, even then, some suggestions here, such as eating right, getting enough sleep, taking 5 minutes to listen to music or a walk around the block can help a little. I think one key is learning to say no to everything we can say no to, calmly and without guilt. Women are not good at this, but it can be learned. Another is to quietly research and plan the next step. People in abusive situations need help to escape and start the next stages of their lives. I understand that fear in this situation is totally justified. It’s better to call this feeling a healthy respect for reality. There is help though, and there is a next step.

  • Joanna

    June 15th, 2015 at 12:20 PM

    Yeah, this is good article to read with useful advice why is it essential to be compassionate to yourself. If you can take care of yourself then you can take care of other people well, and understand them. It is also very important to be honest and let people know when we can’t be available for them. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves so we don’t project this expectation on other people and expect from them that they have to take care of us.

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