When other people do things that compromise your health or safety, do you know how to protect yourself? This is a crucial life skill that many never learn, though there can be grave consequences when harmful behavior goes unchecked. You can empower yourself to avoid situations that might put you at risk of illness or injury – or even just make you feel uncomfortable. Some examples of these situations include:
- Breathing second-hand smoke
- Riding with people who speed or drive aggressively
- Going places that seem unsafe
- Viewing violent or degrading movies or television programs
- Being around people who abuse alcohol/drugs
- Tolerating (verbally or physically) aggressive behavior
People who have grown up in dysfunctional families are particularly vulnerable to such “endangerments.” If your parents smoked at home, it might seem normal to live with bad air quality – even if you have a health condition that will get worse as a result. If as a child you were routinely transported by drunk or reckless drivers, it might be easy to assume that you still have no other option. And if you were yelled at or frequently put-down, you might be resigned to this type of mistreatment in your adult relationships.
Responding effectively when you feel uncomfortable or unsafe requires you to mobilize your healthy, self-protective instinct – which can be weak (or even absent) due to some of the following factors:
- socialization that teaches children they must always defer to authority, even when those in charge cannot provide adequate care or control their own behavior
- rigid gender role expectations that require females to be passive and compliant, and males to be impervious to fear or pain
- chronic or acute mistreatment that destroys self-esteem, so you end up feeling unworthy of others’ consideration and respect
- exaggerated concern about hurting or offending someone by pointing out endangering behavior – even if the person is showing no regard for your feelings in the process
- being caught off guard or trapped in one of these situations, so it might be difficult to protect yourself even if you are an assertive person.
What it comes down to is recognizing your right and responsibility to take care of yourself… because ultimately no one else can do it for you! Make a decision that your health and safety are more important than any other person’s “freedom” to put you at risk. Then decide which specific behaviors or situations need to be dealt with….
If someone in your life tends to speed or drive aggressively, let them know that you will tolerate this no longer. This is all the more important if you have children, who also might be getting routinely endangered (and scared and traumatized) by the unsafe driver. If the reckless/aggressive driver gives you some acknowledgment and expresses a willingness to change, see if he or she follows through with this. But if the unsafe driving continues, you might have to decide not to travel with this person anymore. This can cause a stir if the unsafe driver is your spouse or partner, but just think of how disrupted everyone’s life will be if you end up paralyzed or in a coma.
If you decide you can no longer ride with someone, just state, “From now on, I will have to do the driving when we go out together.” Or, arrange to take separate cars and meet at your common destination. In addition to gaining immediate protection from the unsafe driving, you will be showing the offender a “natural consequence” that (over time) might influence him/her to modify this unacceptable behavior.
Another issue that most people would do well to take a stand on is second-hand smoke, which deprives us of oxygen and can cause myriad health problems. You can have a policy that you will not breathe cigarette smoke for any reason, and decide on this basis where to visit and socialize, etc. If you have friends or relatives who smoke in their homes, arrange to get see them only in public places where smoking is not allowed. When people visit your home, matter-of-factly let them know that you cannot have smoking indoors – even if they have done so in the past. Make a firm decision that you will not get into a car where someone will smoke, and if necessary arrange other transportation to avoid doing so. This can also be a factor in determining where and by whom your children are cared for, because they especially need to be protected from second-hand smoke. Finally, if you live with someone who smokes in your home, officially let him/her know that you need to have a smoke-free environment. Do not debate the issue, or let the other person “guilt” you into backing down, e.g., by arguing that it is too cold or inconvenient to smoke outside. If you have trouble thus asserting yourself, consider seeking counseling for assistance with this issue.
If you have friends or relatives who drink too much or get belligerent when they drink, you can decide that you will only see them early in the day or in alcohol-free venues (e.g., bookstores, parks). You do not have to announce that you are avoiding their drinking; you can just “only be available” to meet for breakfast or for an afternoon movie. If the person pressures you to get together on drinking occasions, you can just respond, “That really won’t work for me.” Addicted people might act hurt or affronted when you set these limits, but it is usually not constructive to try to explain yourself. Just decide what you’re comfortable with, and stick with it!
Regarding abusive behavior, physical aggression should not be tolerated for any reason. If someone pushes or hits you; throws or breaks things; or in any way threatens your life, this constitutes an emergency. Take whatever measures you must to escape immediate danger (e.g., physically remove yourself and any children present, call police), and get help from a mental health crisis center, domestic violence shelter or employee assistance program. You will know that the abusive person is taking responsibility only if he/she expresses remorse without trying to justify the aggression, and promptly seeks professional help for the out-of-control behavior.
Verbal and emotional abuse is not such a crisis, but nevertheless must be stopped. Once you decide not to accept any more of this behavior, you can end it by “interrupting” every episode so it becomes much less easy/comfortable for the other person to keep up. Here are some of the things you can say:
- “It is not okay for you to yell at me.”
- “That remark sounded hostile.”
- “I don’t deserve the nastiness (…name-calling, etc.).”
- “You are putting me down; please stop.”
- “No more comments about my weight.”
- “If you are angry, there are appropriate ways to tell me (vs. yelling, berating, etc.).”
Do not argue or explain yourself; simply get a statement in mind and repeat it as many times as you need to. If the verbal abuse persists, quietly remove yourself from the interaction. Your unstated policy can be: If someone mistreats me, they are not going to have the pleasure of my company. Excepting people who have serious problems with hostility and aggression, most will modify their behavior if consistently shown consequences (e.g., being confronted, finding that you are much less available).
When it comes down to it, we must respect ourselves enough to demand good treatment from others. With the operating assumption that your safety, health and emotional well-being are “not negotiable”, decisions about how to protect yourself will follow naturally. When you set limits or steer clear of an endangering situation, you are sending yourself an important message about your own value and worth. You might be accused of “over-reacting” – but this usually means that your needs and feelings are being discounted. So keep your resolve to take care of yourself, because you’re the only you, you’ve got!