The Puffer Fish: A Study in Self-Preservation
I recently saw a puffer fish at the aquarium. Famously, when a puffer fish senses danger, it puffs out to protect itself with its sharp thorn-like bristles. The fish can now protect itself and defend itself from predators.
Possibly the most natural instinct is self-preservation. This innate proclivity manifests in many different ways in both animals and humans. It’s what makes sure that we eat and sleep properly, motivates us to make a living, and drives reflexes like keeping our hands away from a burning stove. It protects us from harm and ensures our well-being.
One common area where our instinct for self-preservation kicks in is with shame and embarrassment. The same way that we shield our bodies with our arms when falling off a bike, we also try to shield ourselves when we are embarrassed. This can be achieved through various methods, some helpful and some not so helpful.
Throwing Someone Under the Bus
I had a client who attended a family function. While there, he noticed that his brother had left, so when my client got bored, he left as well and went to hang out with friends. After an hour, he was ready to return to his family function. But then he looked at his phone and saw frantic “Where are you?” text messages from his mother. He knew that he was going to be in hot water when he got back. Doing what he thought was the smart thing, he ignored the messages and remained with his friends for another hour.
Upon his return, my client’s mother greeted him with the most spectacular glare he’d ever had directed at him. Before his mother could even open her mouth, he yelled, “My brother has been gone for just as long, but you never say anything to him!” As you can likely guess, the aftermath wasn’t the result he was hoping for.
What Went Wrong?
When my client and I spoke about how the night went, he reflected on how things could have gone better and what his other options were. We also looked at what caused his initial reaction to his mother. He admitted that when he sensed his mother’s anger, he tried to use his brother as a shield.
I tried to explain two different points to him. The first is that there is always room in-between stimulus and response. Sometimes, we can capitalize on that moment and catch ourselves before making a mistake. We get to choose how we react if we can learn how to take the time to do so.
The second point that I made was to consider what our options are when we do choose to react. In a situation where we feel the need to protect ourselves from the attacks of others, we have options. The option that my client chose was to use someone else as a shield to attempt to protect himself from his mother’s wrath. This approach is popularly referred to as “throwing someone under the bus.”
Another alternative my client could have chosen would be to deflect his mother’s attention to something else, causing a distraction. However, similar to bringing his brother into the picture, this behavior shifts anger directed at us and aims it at something else. The problem with this tactic is that it never solves the problem. It leaves everyone unsatisfied at best and hurt at worst. Hurt occurs especially in cases where we bring someone else into the picture; we don’t accomplish our real goal and another person suffers. On top of that, when all we do is deflect the issue or justify ourselves, it prevents us from ever really growing. We avoid introspecting, and avoid taking the time to consider if there is something that we can improve or fix, and we come out of the experience even more set in our ways than before.
The Better Way
Sometimes we try to justify what we’ve done: “What I did was fine because of…” When we do this, we frustrate the other party but feel proud of ourselves for successfully thwarting their attack. While there may be occasions where this is the right thing to do, in the context of a relationship with someone else, it’s rarely advisable. Doing this in a relationship creates resentment on the other’s part and can often cause them to expect from you a certain pattern of unreliability or excuses.
The best option, albeit the most difficult, is to admit guilt and apologize. This may not always end in everyone smiling or hugging it out, but it’s the healthiest approach and provides the optimal long-term results.
When we find ourselves under attack for something we did, we have a basic choice. We can allow our natural animal-like instincts to protect ourselves like a puffer fish does by puffing. Or, we can defer to our intellect and ultimately make the better decision. Apologize.
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