This post also appeared on the Good Vibrations Magazine.
One of the most important ways to help foster positive changes in peoples’ behaviors is to use a risk reduction approach. Rather than requiring 100% compliance with an unyielding rule, this philosophy says that any movement in a more healthy or safe direction is a good thing, whether it ultimately leads to completely letting go of risky behaviors or not.
While it may seem counter-intuitive at first, risk reduction consistently works better than a rigid rule. After all, if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, then we need to help ourselves and others take that first step. That’s a lot easier to do when we stop expecting people to somehow be able to leap 1000 miles all at once.
But even more than that, a risk reduction perspective helps us help people change their lives because it keeps us from judging them for not being perfect. Carl Rogers coined the phrase “unconditional positive regard” to describe the ability to value, accept and support people, not for what they do or how they meet the goals we want for them, but simply for being human beings who deserve respect, compassion, and care. Positive regard from someone whose opinion we value is one of the most powerful motivators and it is incredibly helpful when changing how we choose to act.
Unconditional positive regard is one of the cornerstones of a risk reduction model because people know when you’re judging them. Judgment is both a reflection of and a cause of shame, and shame ruptures the “interpersonal bridge“, which is another way of saying that it damages relationships and hinders connection. If you genuinely want to help people change their lives, shaming them for their imperfections isn’t going to help. If you want to cause secrecy, guilt, fear, lies, and resentment, then by all means, keep on shaming.
A risk reduction perspective also asks us to look at the ways that we each make choices that someone else might consider less than ideal. Instead of judging someone who doesn’t always use condoms (for example), we might recognize that we sometimes eat food that isn’t great for us, or don’t exercise as much as we could, or don’t get enough sleep, or distract ourselves and avoid our families by watching TV, working too much, playing video games or drinking.
The fact is, almost everyone does something that might be judged as problematic. And all too often, when we get upset at someone else’s imperfections, what we’re really reacting to is our awareness of our own. Maybe we’re trying to deny our own Shadows. Maybe we’re trying to distract other people from noticing our flaws. Whatever the motivation, the louder we try to blame someone else, the more we show our own shames. It’s ironic, since that’s usually the reverse of what we’re trying to do.
It’s almost always more effective (and it’s always more compassionate) to come to these situations with a risk reduction attitude. And I’m willing to bet that most of you are already doing it in some parts of your lives. Do you wear a seat belt when you’re in a car? That’s a risk reduction strategy. It won’t guarantee that you’ll survive a car crash, and it certainly improves your odds.
In my experience, a risk reduction perspective and sex-positivity go hand in hand. They both invite us to see things from the other person’s point of view. They both challenge us to set aside our judgments and accept that other people make very different choices. They both foster positive regard for other people. And they both make it easier to set aside our triggers and projections when we see someone else reflecting our Shadows back to us.
Most importantly, both risk reduction and sex-positivity have plenty of room for boundaries. One of the ways that they are each attacked by people who don’t understand them is with the accusation that they are “anything goes” philosophies. That’s a red herring because most folks know that we need boundaries to protect us, so claiming that these models are anti-boundary makes it easy to get people to reject them. Rather than promoting the idea that “it’s all good,” risk reduction and sex-positivity both ask us to genuinely assess our situations, our choices, and our actions. They both make it easier to be honest with ourselves about our goals and desires. They both allow space to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than blaming ourselves for them. And, perhaps most importantly, the more we develop our skill at either risk reduction or sex-positivity, the more we improve our ability to say “no” in an authentic and genuine way.
Saying no is the foundation of both boundaries and freedom. It’s the root of boundaries because, ultimately, a boundary is a place where we say “no.” No, I won’t do that. No, you’re not welcome here. No, that will not happen. Those are all ways of setting boundaries.They take a lot of practice and a risk reduction stance makes room for moving through the learning curve, simply by recognizing that it exists and it takes time to build skills.
And at the same time, the ability to say yes to something, to truly consent to it, requires the ability to say no. The freedom to do something only exists when you have the freedom to not do it, and vice versa. Since a risk reduction orientation helps us to say no and learn to set boundaries, it ultimately leads us to a place of genuine freedom. And that is the goal of sex-positivity, too.
So the next time you see someone doing something that you think is unwise or dangerous, or the next time you catch yourself doing something (or having done something) that might not be in your best interests, try to not get in an uproar over it. See if you can set aside judgment and shame. Instead, look for ways to reduce your risk the next time you’re in that situation. Bring some fierce compassion to it and for goodness sake, cut yourself some slack. Odds are that you’ll find that things move a lot more gracefully and in a more positive direction.