Without realizing it, you use self-preservation skills every day.
You’re feeling burnt out, so you take a mental health day off from work. You think you’re catching a cold, so you hydrate and rest. You’ve had some toxic interactions with a friend recently, and you’re taking space to consider what the relationship means to you.
When you manage your energy or otherwise protect yourself from harm, you’re preserving your own happiness and health. In these self-preservation examples, you’re acting off learned behaviors and taking action to keep yourself safe.
No matter how self-aware you are, there are lessons to learn about what self-preservation is and how it can improve your life. It’s always possible to get in deeper touch with the feelings and interactions that serve you (and those that don’t).
What is self-preservation?
The definition of self-preservation is protecting yourself from harm. In many instances, it’s instinctual, like pulling your hand back from a hot surface so that you don’t burn yourself. Neuroscientists cite biological instincts as driving factors behind this kind of self-preservation, like running from predators in a fight-or-flight response.
But it’s not every day that you need your instincts to save you from physical danger. So what does self-preservation mean in daily life?
This term can describe any action you take to protect your physical or emotional health. Something as simple and routine as eating breakfast to give you energy for the day is just as much an example of self-preservation as something more extreme, like not driving in dangerous weather.
Self-preservation in mental health
Self-preservation’s meaning is more than physical. It can also apply to keeping your mental health and emotional well-being safe, whether that’s setting boundaries, maintaining your self-esteem, or taking breaks. Avoiding toxic people and situations both preserves and protects your energy.
But self-preservation in psychology can also refer to social self-preservation theory, which is about appeasing others or submitting to their needs out of guilt or shame. Instead of getting vulnerable in your relationships (or even with yourself), you try to preserve the best image of yourself in a constant act of protection. This can keep you from being honest about your needs or feelings, instead being a people-pleaser that puts others first.
How to know if someone is struggling with self-preservation
You might use your sense of self-preservation to keep yourself safe, happy, and healthy, and that means those skills are a positive influence on your life. But if trying to protect yourself puts another person at risk or harms your ability to connect with loved ones, it might be damaging. And if you can never put yourself first, you might need to address a lack of self-preservation.
Take some time to self-reflect and try to spot healthy self-preservation in your life. Determine what you already do, or could do better, to protect your well-being. And at the same time, pinpoint whether you practice potentially destructive behaviors, like overextending yourself even though you’re exhausted. These are indicators you might benefit from focusing more energy on self-care.
Here are some more signs that your self-preservation might be in danger or in need of improvement, according to Psychology Today:
- You freeze when someone confronts you
- You ignore your instinct to rest
- You’re burnt out and irritable because you don’t know how to say “No” to extra work
- You avoid doing chores and running errands
- You’re often reckless or don’t think before you act
- You keep toxic people in your life
- You don’t have solid core beliefs to go by
- You have poor financial wellness
5 self-preservation skills
To improve your self-preservation, you’ll want to focus on improving several skills that help you put yourself first and increase your mental fitness. Building a resilient mindset and prioritizing your health are the first steps to a foundation that protects yourself.
In situations of acute stress or anxiety, your innate fight-or-flight response helps you stay out of harm’s way. The nervous system activates, putting your body on alert: your heart rate accelerates, and your hair stands on end. This is how you know there’s a stressor in your surroundings you should prepare to confront or avoid it. Your body may tell you to slam the brakes to prevent an accident or back away from a snake you see while hiking.
But this sympathetic nervous system response won’t suggest eating a healthy meal or ending a relationship that’s full of red flags. These are ways to take care of yourself that you have to choose for yourself to improve your well-being and prevent stress from occurring. And when you learn self-preservation skills, you become better at assessing and prioritizing your needs.
Here are some ways to get in touch with your self-preservation instincts:
1. Get to know yourself
Learning what makes you unique is the only way to determine your unique inner needs. For example, your colleague may thrive in high-pressure environments and churn out their best work, while these conditions cause you unhealthy stress levels. Recognizing that difference is the first step to preventing burnout and making decisions that benefit you.
Use Inner Work® — the practice of looking inward to our authentic selves and experiences — to find out what makes you feel uncomfortable or threatened by exploring your mind and body. Journal at the end of the day and write about your experiences and how they made you feel. You might track patterns, like discovering that conversations with a particular friend leave you feeling emotionally exhausted. This can be a sign that you need to protect yourself from those discussions, perhaps by putting a boundary up on how much you and that friend talk.
You can also learn about your body and mind through meditation. Get into a comfortable position in a quiet place, and try not to pay attention to your thoughts to let your body and mind relax.
It also helps to track what you feel, which can be anything from fatigue from the day or tension in your back. Recall those sensations. That back pain could be a sign you need to stretch or exercise more, and excessive fatigue could mean you need to rest. Being in tune with your body will help you give it what it needs.
2. Set boundaries
Maybe your boss assigns more work you can take on, or your partner always limits you from sharing your opinion. These are unhealthy situations worth protecting yourself from because they can have big impacts. Too many tasks can lead to stress or low-quality work, and not being able to express yourself fully with your partner can damage your trust.
Create boundaries when other people try to push you too far. You can set a boundary by clearly communicating how an action makes you feel and what you need. This can mean telling your boss, “I’d love to help more, but I’m already at capacity,” or your partner, “I feel like you don’t respect me when I can’t openly share my opinions. Can we take a minute to explore my side?”
Stress negatively impacts your emotional health, and physically, it can cause everything from muscle pain to respiratory problems. To preserve your well-being and find mental clarity, control stress with some relaxation techniques.
Try breathwork, like taking slow, deep breaths when difficult situations arise. You’ll recenter your focus, loosen up your chest, and oxygenate your body. You could also walk around the block, turning your attention to your senses. Note how the air smells or the cool atmosphere feels on your skin. Alternatively, put on relaxing music or talk to a friend about the stress you’re experiencing.
Whatever relaxation method you choose, the goal is to release tension and mitigate stress that could damage your body and mind in the long term. Find self-care practices that work for you and help you preserve your best self.
4. Eat and hydrate properly
Maybe you forget to eat when you work long hours or don’t drink enough water throughout the day. Not only can these habits make you feel tired or foggy, but they’re symptoms of poor self-preservation.
Proper nutrition and hydration keep the mind and body functioning optimally, preserving your health. Eat a balanced diet that provides your body with the nutrition it needs. If possible, speak to a registered dietitian or nutrition coach for guidance on how to take better care of yourself. It could make a bigger difference than you think.
5. Prepare for change
Setbacks and changing plans are inevitable in life. You could get laid off, need to move, or decide to leave a relationship. Practice better self-preservation by preparing for the unexpected, whether that’s equipping yourself with a strong support system or improving your financial wellness.
Bankrate’s 2023 emergency savings report found that 22% of Americans have no emergency savings. And, according to Nerdwallet’s 2023 Consumer Savings Report, 45% of Americans would be unable to cover a $1,000 emergency expense without relying on credit of some form.
Start by working toward financial security. Talk to an advisor to learn how to start saving and set budgeting goals. This way, you’ll have the funds to cover an unexpected bill or emergency expense. This financial safety net can prevent you from stressing to take care of these unexpected costs.
Your support system is also an important part of dealing with change. Surround yourself with people who support and care about you, and will continue to do so when you face challenges. Make friends who understand you and are always a phone call away if things go wrong. Never underestimate the power of social health.
Self-preservation isn’t selfish
If you’re trying to discover what self-preservation is, you might find some conflicting answers. Sometimes, it seems like taking control of your life is selfish or narcissistic. But a dictionary might say that self-preservation is about keeping yourself alive and out of danger.
Both definitions are correct in their own right. But if you’re looking to improve your habits and protect your energy, self-preservation is a positive thing. The goal is to establish a stable, healthy existence that allows you to care for your well-being and interact with others comfortably. You’ll preserve your mental fitness, work on your physical health, and avoid self-sabotage.