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Running with Knives (Part 2): the Self-Preservation Instinct

We each have a self-preservation instinct, to preserve our body, its life and effective function. This instinct, therefore, focuses us on physical safety, well-being, material security and comfort. Anxiety or stress may combine with this instinct to drive us to conserve or hoard energy and resources in response to demands from the environment or other people.

“Enneagram 27 Subtypes” | Integrative9.com

My therapist and I are both big fans of the Enneagram.

It’s pretty clear that I’m an Enneagram 1, but each Enneagram type also has a dominant subtype, or instinct. My therapist asked me which subtype I thought I was (the choices being self-preservation, one-on-one, or social), and I said I thought maybe I was a dominant social type. She smiled politely while shaking her head, and said to me, “self-preservation.”

We laughed together and I immediately knew she was right.

So much of my struggle with anxiety comes from the unknown, and being worried about being unprepared. I’m a worst-case scenario thinker, I expect the worst to happen so that if it does, I will be ready. Hence, why I always carry a knife in my pocket when I go out for a jog.

This is part two of a series on trauma, explaining how an event that happened 17 years ago still affects me today. (You can read part 1 here, where I share my story of almost getting abducted while walking my dog at night.)

In this post, I’d like to focus on the aftereffects of that traumatic event, how it changed me, and how I’m trying to strike a healthy balance between being overly fearful and feeling safe.

After watching my attempted kidnapper drive away that night, I went back inside and probably went into a bit of shock. I felt numb. My parents called the police and I remember a policeman asking me to describe the man. It felt so arbitrary, I knew they weren’t going to catch him based off of my generic description of his estimated height, weight, and hair color. I was so mad at myself for not memorizing the license plate number of his car.

The next day I went to school as normal and I don’t really remember thinking much more about it, except that my mom made sure I agreed I was never again going to walk our dog alone at night.

I do remember making a rule for myself that from that day on, I would never be out alone at dark – whether it was walking a dog, going to the store, checking the mailbox, or going for a run… and I followed that rule religiously from then on.

Of course there were times when I couldn’t quite avoid it entirely. Sometimes I’d be leaving from a friend’s apartment after dinner, or from working the night shift at the library, and I’d have to walk back out a ways to my car in the parking lot at night, by myself. I would always have my car keys in hand, ready to use them as a weapon. My old car had a key where you pushed a button and they key popped out of the side, like a mini switchblade – I figured it might be good enough to do some damage if I needed to poke an attacker in the eye.

I am usually always aware of my surroundings. Is there someone walking behind me? Is it a man? Which way would I run if he started chasing me? Does it look like I could outrun him?

I began to view most men as potential threats – if I was at home alone and the doorbell rang and it was a man, I wouldn’t always answer it. I’d let my dog bark and bark and bark until the guy left. If I did answer it, I was keenly aware of where the man was standing, and if I felt like I sensed any danger from him.

If I was getting into an elevator, and realized it was going to be me and a man alone inside, I would either wait for the next one, or have a very stressful 10-second ride to my floor as I hoped I did not get attacked.

It’s hard to say whether my prepare-for-the-worst, self-preservation personality was caused by my traumatic event, or if I naturally had those tendencies in me anyway. My guess is that it’s a bit of both, but that my traumatic experience intensified those tendencies, especially when it came to my physical safety.

It’s only been very recently that I’ve been working on finding the balance between recognizing the dangers out in the world, and being able to live in the world without fear. I do think it is important to be on guard against potential threats, but I don’t think it needs to be something that causes anxiety all the time.

For example, I think it’s a great idea to take a self-defense course. I think it’s a great idea to not make it a habit to go out alone at night. I even think it’s okay to be mindful of where your potential escape routes are, or to know what you would use as a weapon if you had to.

But I don’t think I need to constantly expect that all men are going to attack or kidnap me. I don’t think I need to automatically be afraid if I see a man walking on the other side of the street. It’s true that there are many stories of men attacking women, and with the #metoo movement, we realized that these types of things were much more prevalent than we thought.

But it’s so easy to get focused on all the evil in the world, that we forget that there’s good in the world too. If we only focus on the bad things around us, that’s all we will see – and the world becomes a scary and overwhelming place.

Twitter post

For a while, there was a trend on Twitter where people were posting the question, “you are alone in a room with three adult men, but you feel safe. Who are those men?” I think the point of the question was to show that many women couldn’t even name three men they would feel safe being alone with in a room. I think many women, similar to myself, kind of adopted the mindset that they just couldn’t trust men – across the board.

But when I really think about that question, and I think about the men that I know, I feel fortunate to be able to say that there are many men I could feel safe being alone in a room with (and not just my dad or husband!) I have close friends, coworkers, teachers, and spiritual mentors that are men that I would definitely feel safe with – and for that I’m thankful.

I’m still working on finding the right balance between being cautious and being able to enjoy life, but I do know that constantly living in fear and anxiety is not the way I want to live. There are scary things out in the world, and while it is tempting to want to live inside a risk-free bubble and avoid all of it sometimes, I know I would miss out on a lot of good things too.

Thanks for reading.

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