It’s hard not to notice how much effort many of us put into protecting ourselves. It’s a basic survival instinct. If I don’t protect me, who will? What do I need to protect myself from? All kinds of things: people trying to take advantage of me, ranging from cold callers, commercials, the noise of well-meaning neighbors, drivers who aren’t paying attention, all kinds of unwanted intrusions. Even from our most intimate friends and family, words that can hurt, even if in the form of jokes. So I’m pretty good at being able to know how to put up walls around me if I need to that keep me safe and provide me with the possibility of charting my own life direction.
So it’s a good thing that we know how to protect ourselves. The problem that can develop is that we become unconscious of when we are protecting ourselves and enter self-protection mode on automatic pilot in situations where it’s not only unnecessary but counter-productive. So in relationships with people that we want to be close to, we may be creating a distance between us, a wall that we don’t want to be there, because it could prevent intimacy with them and produces a self-protective reaction in them that only serves to increase the distance between us.
In the professional or mediation setting, this dynamic can also be a problem where the parties are operating exclusively in self-protective mode and we want to help them come together in a more open way. If we are in self-protective mode ourselves, we all remain distant from each other and guarantee our ineffectiveness. If we can at least take down the walls between ourselves and our clients, maybe they’ll feel encouraged to do the same.
The challenge then is to become familiar with the many ways that we protect ourselves in our personal lives and make choices about opening up to others when it makes sense to do that. In that way we can use that understanding of ourselves to make choices as professionals that create the kind of relationships with our parties that we want to have.