Protecting vs. Punishing: Some Essential Differences

by | Dec 3, 2019 | Power Dynamics

People sometimes tell me that they worry that setting a boundary with someone is a “violent” thing to do. “Isn’t it a form of exerting power-over someone?” they ask.

Yes, it is.

At times, exerting power over others or a situation may be the most protective and life-affirming option available.

To understand this more fully, let’s examine the essential and critical differences between the Protective Use of Force vs. the Punitive Use of Force.

The Punitive Use of Force:

  • We exert power over other people in order to punish them, make them feel bad; judge, shame and humiliate them.

  • The underlying belief, mindset and attitude is that people learn best through suffering and are naturally harmful to one another. Therefore, you have to make people behave in prosocial ways by making them feel as much shame and fear as possible for whatever they did so that they “never do it again” and everyone else watching learns vicariously to avoid such horrible treatment.

  • This approach increases fear, shame, judgment and self-righteousness.

  • Psychologically, people become fear-based, inhibited and very invested in being obedient, controlled, compliant, conforming people so that they can be safe from such hurtful and harmful treatment by others. Alternatively, they become defended, desensitized, grandiose, entitled and abusive themselves.

  • The outcome is an increase an internal split between the socialized self and the authentic self, increase in lying and deception, and an increase in unbridled self-interest without care for others.

The Protective Use of Force:

  • We exert power over other people in order to protect them from themselves, or to protect others from the harmful and hurtful influence of their actions and choices.

  • The underlying belief, mindset and attitude that sometimes people do things that cause themselves and others pain because they aren’t aware of their own needs, have been hurt by others, and don’t know any better way of helping themselves.

  • This approach increases awareness, care and self-responsibility in all involved.

  • Psychologically, people become more open-hearted, more trusting, curious, self-reflective and attuned to themselves and others equally.

  • Our focus is on scaffolding learning, growth and togetherness and we use exactly as much force as is necessary in order to keep everyone safe from one another. Then we follow-up with empathy, care, grace, kind engagement and a chance to try again.

  • The outcomes are increased care and consideration for self and other, increased ability to repair rifts and heal harm, and meet human needs.

The essential difference lies in these 3 things:

  • If you see this other person as your enemy, it’s punitive.

  • If your focus is on judging their character, it’s punitive.

  • If your intention is to make this person suffer, it’s punitive.


  • If you see this other person as human, like you, worthy of dignity and care, its protective.

  • If your focus is on protecting the rights and well-being of all parties involved, it’s protective.

  • If the impact is that it helps people heal, grow and learn, it’s protective.

Want an example? Watch this gorgeous Mama Dog to illustrate the life-affirming, relational use of authority and power-over.

Notice how this Mama advocates for her own needs, asserts her authority, wags her tail and stays relational and loving towards her pups, while teaching them to calm their energy down before engaging with them further.

Notice how she uses her attention, her energy, her presence, her love and care.

Power is not inherently bad.

In fact, I deeply believe that if we are going to make a meaningful difference in this world, that we are all being called to live more empowered lives. Doing this means making peace with power so that you can trust your own ability to protect yourself and others from harm.

Transforming the status quo means modeling the behaviors we’d like to receive, while interrupting, containing and stopping behaviors that cause harm to self and others.

And, how is that going for you?

Where do you struggle with power dynamics or personal empowerment? I’d love to know. Leave a comment below.

1 Comment

  1. Robin Taylor Hartwell

    This is an amazing video and a lovely post. Thanks so much, Yvette.


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