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  • Dayna Sharp, LCSW

Connect and Protect, Our Most Basic Instincts


Dilemma of intimacy, anxiety in relationships
Schopenhauer's porcupines illustrate the most powerful human survival drives: Connecting in relationships in order to meet our physical and emotional needs and Protecting ourselves from harm.

Human beings are born to connect. We are social and relational. As infants, we can see about 8-10 inches away--about the same distance needed to gaze into their grown ups' eyes while being held. It's also been found that a baby's smile also allows them to be an active participant in the bonding relationship. Babies are born to connect--because connection with an adult is necessary for survival. An infant is dependent upon their relationship with their caregiver, not just for getting their physical needs met, but also for the emotional security they need to explore their worlds and take the healthy risks they need to grow!


We are also wired to protect ourselves. It's part of the same survival system--our fight, flight, freeze response. Babies can't run away or fight, but they can cry. Babies can also shut down, going to sleep when overstimulated. They instinctually protect themselves. As we grow older, we share the same protective instincts as other animals: to protect ourselves by fighting, running away, and when the threat is unescapable, by playing dead.


Getting to Know Our Connect System


Innately, connecting with another person is how we seek a sense of comfort and safety. For this reason, when we are hurting, we often feel better in the presence of a trustworthy other.


Getting to Know Our Protect System


The different parts of our protective survival system--fight, flight, freeze evoke different emotional states in our minds and bodies: fear, anger, and depression. When faced with an actual threat, these emotions and bodily sensations help to let us know that something is wrong, and to give our body the energy to act. Our heart beats fast because our blood is pumping so that we can fight, or run, for example.


With this knowledge, it makes sense that our feelings are a form of communication. They are saying: something's not right! When we can recognize that message, we can then use our rational brain to ask ourselves: Is something actually not right?



When Our Connecting and Protecting Instincts Blend


Life becomes more complicated when the very people who we instinctually tried to connect with, as part of our survival needs, are also the people who we had to protect ourselves from. What happens when we someone who we're deeply connected with hurts us? Our Connect and Protect survival systems become blended together. And as a result, relationships, which are designed to feel safe and comforting so that we can meet our physical and emotional needs, also feel unsafe and trigger our protective instincts.



Have you ever felt yourself longing for a relationship (Connect), but pulling back when someone gets too close (Protect)? Or maybe you avoid relationships entirely (Protect)? Perhaps you're in a relationship (Connect), but find yourself routinely angry with your partner (Protect)? Or maybe you're in a relationship (Connect) but find yourself feeling anxious that they might leave (Protect)? Or maybe you're in a relationship (Connect) that you feel nearly numb about (Protect) but feel too exhausted or tired to leave (Protect)?


Each of these situations are a case where your Connect and Protect instincts might be blended.


Working WITH Your Connect and Protect Instincts


Understanding how your different survival systems work can help you to better understand yourself and your emotional/physiological experience. Recognizing feelings as a communication can help you to effectively respond, keeping yourself safe and able to return to balance. Keeping in mind the power of our Connect instinct can remind you to take time for supportive relationships every day and especially in times of stress.


If your Connect and Protect instincts might be blended, it's helpful to know that. This way, your "protect" feelings aren't coming unpredictably, out of the blue, but instead, they are letting you know that there's a part of you that doesn't feel completely safe in relationships. Understanding this about yourself can help you find more compassion for the hurt parts of yourself, for those protecting parts--and the more compassion you can grow for them, often the less they need to protect.


How Therapy Helps


Therapy is all about working with our Connect and Protect instincts! It's about creating a safe space to connect with your therapist, and to discover the ways that you instinctually protect yourself. With a sense of curiosity and compassion, you can understand how you came to be so protective, and ultimately realize that those kind of protections are no longer needed. As your protective instincts fade, and you become more free to act more fully on your connect instincts, you will find more freedom, security, love and joy.


Call Creating Space Counseling and Wellness today to see if you can make more space for connection! 856-281-1664




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