The desire to protect what is valuable is a universal urge. We want to keep our home and family safe from danger. We also expend much effort to preserve our authority. If our competence is attacked, we will take time to defend it and correct any misunderstanding. We guard the things that are important in our life.
We are also protective of our capacity to communicate, negotiate, and organize. We seek to protect our reputation for being honest, diligent, and trustworthy.
Unfortunately, we can also protect some of our bad habits. This concept may seem paradoxical, but the practice of preserving bad habits is quite common. We see it in cases where very intelligent people repeatedly do stupid things. Sometimes we witness quite mature and responsible people exploding in anger and hurling hostile accusations at their adversaries. We also discover very productive people demonstrate an uncharacteristic streak of laziness and indifference that results in many missed opportunities. Outwardly strong people, for example, may exhibit periods of helplessness. These inconsistencies strongly suggest that certain bad habits and motives are carefully protected by psychological bodyguards. No mature person enjoys suffering or embarrassment, and none of us would turn down any reasonable opportunity to avoid either. However, if fits of anger enable us to control other people, the benefits of this obnoxious behavior may be very appealing to our ego. If a show of conspicuous weakness and helplessness works to procure sympathetic attention and pampering we otherwise would not receive, then we may use this means again to procure comfort. If chronic depression entices others to treat us gently, then we have an incentive to stay that way.
Human nature repeatedly proves the principles of behaviorism. Whatever we discourage by disincentives and punishments will diminish. Behavior we reward will increase. Even dog trainers know this and continually validate these practices in their work. In this way, we create figurative bodyguards for our bad habits. This is a major reason why mature people often engage in very immature behavior and why some people resist giving up their carefully cultivated helplessness. It is also the reason many will not give up their pessimism and depression—and why anxious people remain hesitant and insecure even in safe environments and surrounded by people they can trust.
Caution is essential here, lest we become cynical or indifferent about all genuine tragedies and losses. We need to approach any real unpleasantness with gentleness and consolation. However, when anyone—including ourself—begins to use suffering as a way to avoid personal responsibility and excuse a lack of maturity, then something very dysfunctional is occurring.
The mature approach to genuine loss, tragedy, and mistakes is to learn from them and find better methods to manage them. It involves taking advantage of every current opportunity and available resource. It means leaving the past behind and embracing the present and future. We must learn to accept the “fact” of our distress and then engage in making the most of current strengths, virtues, and good prospects. This cannot happen if we are busy celebrating our misery or flaunting it as a way to attract sympathetic attention, indulgences, and fawning support.
Healthy and intelligent change can be difficult even though the benefits of them are obvious. Manipulating others by using tears and helplessness is very easy, and the pampering comes very readily. Controlling others by using anger or withdrawing our approval and affection becomes a seductive habit that is far too easy to use. The longer we benefit from the rewards of using these methods to manipulate others and avoid personal responsibility, the more likely these habits will become permanent.
The cost of replacing these manipulative strategies with maturity will seem very high. First, we must confront the painful truth that we have been exploiting people and our situation. We have abused the goodwill and generosity of others as a way to obtain what we should have earned. We have lied to ourself about the severity and permanence of our weakness and disabilities. We have nursed our grudges and preserved a neurotic sensitivity so that we can continue to claim we are a victim of the abuse of others.
Of course, our victimization—while genuine—is self-inflicted! By proclaiming our misery to be awesome, we convince ourself that our only option is to continue to suffer. By rejecting opportunities to learn to use our constructive resources to heal our wounds and repair our losses, we will never move beyond our misery. This great affectation of helplessness and hopelessness is the royal path to psychic self-destruction.
As soon as we recognize the game we have been playing to preserve our suffering, we can start the healing. However, we will need to be prepared to counter all the arguments that excuse our lack of achievement and condone our use of distress to procure special benefits. We will also need to cope with the guilt about how long we abandoned our responsibilities and hid behind our disability, discouragement, and distress to avoid being self-reliant and accountable for our needs.
This means we must be ready to counter the full force of the bodyguards that reassure us that all our problems are due to other people who have abused and neglected us. We must also stand ready to abandon the self-deception: “Since ‘they’ did this to me, its up to them to make it right. And since the chances of this happening are remote, I have no choice but to resign myself to neverending frustration and disappointment.”
It should be obvious that this “logic” can only preserve our misery and prevent healing.
The bodyguards of our anger will try to convince us that our anger is legitimate and honestly earned due to the terrible injustices we have suffered. Therefore, we get to keep it. This justification makes our anger authentic and appropriate—and means we never need forgive. Unfortunately, “honest” anger is just as destructive as “dishonest” anger. The same reasoning applies to dirt. Whether we accumulate good or bad dirt on our clothes, the result will be the same— we are soiled, and we will need to clean up, not just accommodate the dirt as inevitable.
The bodyguards of our depression and self-pity will try to convince us that our sadness is due to our tremendous sensitivity about how much we care for what is right and good. Our disappointment, therefore, is legitimate and justified. While this may be partly true, we can also pursue whatever is good and praiseworthy with enthusiasm and hope. Abandoning the sadness will clear the way for constructive activities that overcome our disappointment.
The bodyguards of fear will attempt to reassure us that our wounds and hurts are so severe that we dare not risk any more effort to overcome our hardships. They will remind us of how weak and fragile we are. One more devastating bit of criticism or failure will crush us. We must, therefore, dedicate our existence to defending what little we have and avoiding all possible threats to our security and comfort. Unfortunately, the walls we build to protect us work both ways. They also isolate us from friends, opportunities, and the support of spirit. Our fear becomes a prison of our own making that preserves our frustration and emptiness—not a healthy choice.
The bodyguards of guilt will remind us every day that whatever we did, it was not good enough. Whatever problem we have, it will always be due to our lack of intelligence or virtue. The great opportunities we missed will disgrace us forever. Our lapses of kindness and integrity can never be forgiven. Collectively, these are the unpardonable sins we must live with. Though we may try to compensate or make amends for these mistakes, we can never do enough. Those who embrace these delusions add even more power to their bodyguard by presuming that this is what they deserve, and that God wants them to suffer as atonement for their sins. This assumption adds martyrdom to guilt, making it a life-long state of misery with no seeming escape.
We need to understand that these “bodyguards” can reside in our consciousness only with our permission and protection. The moment we decide to kick them out of our mental household, we cut off their access to power. This may result in an intense struggle, but if we keep our wits and determination, we can send them into permanent exile.
These bodyguards are, in the last analsyis, nothing more than the stuff of lies and self-deceptions. Confronting these bodyguards and driving them from their stronghold is a paramount instance in which the truth does, indeed, set us free.