The Role of Self-Protection

Our brains are designed to maximize pleasure and reward and avoid pain and punishment. We experience social pain the same way we experience physical pain; our brains don’t really know the difference. When we experience social pain and perceive something as a threat, we have a very predictable neurological response (i.e. fight or flight stress response or “the amygdala hijack”). Essentially our brains go into automatic self-protection mode; we “armor up” to protect ourselves and prepare for battle ~ hardly a good foundation for connection and collaboration!

When we are armoring up to protect ourselves, we are not operating from our best thinking. Neuroscientist, Dr. David Rock, explains this phenomenon with his SCARF model:

Status – how we stack up against other people

Certainty – our ability to predict the future for ourselves

Autonomy – our power to control our own destiny

Relatedness – our sense of trust in the people around us

Fairness – our trust that we are being treated as well as others

When we perceive a threat to any one of these SCARF areas, our instinct is to protect ourselves. Here are some examples how we might show up when self-protection is in the driver’s seat:

  • Protecting our turf rather than collaborating
  • Judging others or throwing them under the bus
  • Clinging tightly to the way we’ve always done things
  • Being inflexible and unwilling to consider change
  • Trying to control others
  • Perfectionism and intolerance for error
  • Hoarding information
  • Overly skeptical and assuming people have poor intentions
  • Focusing on all that is wrong
  • Acting like a victim and blaming others

The key is to recognize this automatic phenomenon and realize when you are acting out of self-protection and tend to it. And when you think others might be in self-protection mode, get curious about why they might be behaving a certain way; look for opportunities to help them not see you or a situation as a threat.

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