Who are you protecting?

About a month ago, I was walking along the shore near my house when I came across a sign. It read, “Construction Zone / Heavy Equipment Moving / KEEP OUT.” And yet, just beyond the sign was a beautifully serene scene. The bay was calm, the sun was out, and the breeze was gently blowing. The sand was bumpy and uneven, but there was no danger in sight.

The next day, several large yellow dump trucks made themselves known as they careened across the sand, evening out the bumpy landscape. They were noisy and harsh and it was clearly not a good time for beachcombing.

This went on for a few weeks. The trucks would show up, move some sand around, and then leave. But even after the trucks had gone for the day, the sign and the tape stayed up, keeping would-be beach goers from experiencing the joy of the sunset and the waves.

When we’re invested in the process of therapy (and other types of self-improvement), something similar can happen. The deep digging that’s done can unearth a lot of stuff we’ve been so far successful at avoiding. When we’re really doing the hard work involved in changing ourselves, our own personal construction zones can feel thick, confusing, messy and just too much at times. So we survey ourselves and say, “nope!” We put up the yellow caution tape and plop down the “danger” sign right in the middle of life.  The heavy lifting, the psychological rearrangement, and the difficult emotions that come up can make us think, “This is it. This is who I am. Until I get better, I’m damaged. So stay away.” We go on with our business, keeping people at an arm’s length. After all, we wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt.

We do our best keep people away. We tell ourselves “It’s for their own good. They don’t know who they’re dealing with.” It can feel important, even generous, to let people know, “Hey, I’m going through a lot. You don’t want to come close. DANGER.”

It’s an understandable idea, really, and a common one. How many times have you heard (or said?) the following:

I’m not really looking for anything right now; I’m working on myself.

You should stay away. I’m no good.

I don’t want to be a burden to you, don’t bother.

When ‘x’ happens, then I’ll be better, and I’ll be okay. 

How many times have you turned down a date because you felt like you weren’t “done” working on yourself? How many times have you isolated yourself because you didn’t want to expose others to your own unrest?

From the rationale that you are protecting others, these thoughts and behaviors can make sense, and they can even seem like the right thing to do. But the catch is this: The more we keep others at bay, the more we wall ourselves off from interaction, and the more the idea that we’re not okay gets reinforced. 

Think about it: You are invited out for a group date, and you decline, instead spending the evening watching netflix or running on the treadmill. You might say to yourself, “This is really what I need right now. Maybe when I’ve worked through my issues or lost 20 pounds, then I’ll be ready.” As a result, you spend the evening alone with your thoughts of not being okay, and there’s nothing there to counterract those thoughts. In fact, the behavior (running, isolating) might even make those thoughts louder. The louder the thoughts, the faster you run.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a night of netflix or an evening of sweating at the gym, but the place that those thoughts and behaviors come from might be problematic. If you’re avoiding social or romantic opportunities because you think you need to fix yourself first in order not to hurt others, I’ve got news for you: You’re not protecting them, you’re protecting yourself. And trust me, I get it.

When we close ourselves off from others, it is indeed an act of protection. But it’s our own soft, imperfect selves that are the object of our protection, because we feel vulnerable. So vulnerable, in fact, that we would rather turn our ringers off and hide than allow someone in to see the turmoil we’re experiencing. What if they don’t come back? What if they laugh or say something mean?

These are real fears. We’ve all had the experience of opening up only to be met with criticism or cruelty. Hopefully we’ve also learned a bit about how to discern the poets from the swordsmen…

“When you meet a swordsman, draw your sword: do not recite poetry to one who is not a poet.” -Zen Buddhist aphorism

Ah, but I digress. Sweet, sweet, vulnerable, soft, messy people we are. Imperfect, changing, growing, learning. Precious. Worthy of protection, no doubt. But be careful not to deny others the chance see you.  Show the poets your poem. Take down the caution tape when the heavy lifting is done for the day, and let others see the natural, unfinished beauty of you. You might be surprised when they show you theirs too.