When our true selves are rejected, betrayed, or abused by a trusted loved one (usually a parent or partner) and we don't yet have the emotional tools to heal, it's common for a protective self to form. The protective self sees itself as separate from others. It becomes more of an observer of the world rather than an authentic participant. The protective self is usually seeking external validation for proof of its worthiness. To save or be saved. To fill a void it cannot express, to meet an old unmet need. It is largely based around control.
This is one of the most difficult things to understand, and it's where we really need mindfulness to see what's going on, to truly see our own behavior. The protective self has probably had the reins for a long time. It's your natural way of thinking at this point. It is "who you are." You can't work on something that you're not even aware of.
The protective self convinces us there is nothing wrong with us, that we've figured it all out. It says, "The problem was caused by external events, and the solution will be found in external things." It is often disguised in an innocent, childlike, confident, cheerful, victimized, or heroic way. This illusion keeps us stuck in the same patterns. While it's true that there's nothing inherently "wrong" with us (in fact, this is the entire point of my book Whole Again), the protective self is blocking us from experiencing the wounded feelings that actually need to hear that message.
Here's how the protective self works.
The wound is unfelt, blocked by the protective self. It takes an incredible amount of energy to maintain this makeshift solution. Since the inner world is damaged, the protective self keeps itself alive through external measures of worth: accomplishments, relationships, money, status, appearance, attention, people pleasing, being overly "nice," sympathy, sex, perfectionism, obsessing about an ex, stalking, approval seeking, alcohol, caffeine, drugs, grandiose fantasies, revenge fantasies, social media, blame, saving others, being saved, and resentment. (Do any of these sound familiar?)
When we tell the protective self, over and over again, "I'm fine! I'm good!" the wounded inner core doesn't hear or feel that. It's just the protective self growing stronger and stronger, as the wound fades into a numb obscurity, an invisible status quo. Traditional self-help techniques don't really work because our bodies have blocked us from feeling the parts of ourselves that actually need help. Feeling "good" is more about maintaining a high, not deeply feeling authentic joy.
This is why we feel unfulfilled by relationships, passions, and other important aspects of life. Sure there may be an initial excitement (or obsession) about a new endeavor, but it inevitably fizzles out. Because even when we get exactly what we want, it's all just hitting a protective shield. It is not reaching our true selves, so it never feels like "enough."
This is also why you can almost expect any spiritual or healing practices to fail, because it's not even contacting the part of you that needs help. It's just feeding your protective self. It is used as another external measure of worth. Perfectionists use it to become what they think an ideal spiritual person should look like, eternally seeking to be "good enough" for spiritual love. Codependents use it to dismiss their own needs and emotions, deciding they must rescue and help even more people in order to achieve selfless sainthood. Narcissists use it to start cults and show others how worldly and wise they are. Borderlines use it to seek sympathy and validation from a higher power for their poor decisions and then feel betrayed when their decisions inevitably backfire. Avoidants use it to stay lost in their imagination, viewing their own healing through the lens of invented characters.
Observing the way in which we approach healing (or healing exercises, like therapy or forgiveness or meditation) is a great shortcut to identifying our own protective self. For example:
- When codependents practice forgiveness, they might decide that means they need to take down all of their boundaries, trust everyone, and have beautiful tear-filled reconciliations with the people who harmed them. They may even feel the need to apologize to people who mistreated them. Inevitably, they are betrayed or mistreated again and then wonder how the world could be so unfair.
- When borderlines seek out therapy, they might constantly revisit (or invent) sad sympathy stories. In conveying their lives as a tragic play, they are accidentally seeking the therapist's validation and comfort. They will have "breakthroughs" and "process" each trauma but never actually seem to feel better.
- When those with C-PTSD meditate on the feelings in their body, they might try to "think" their way into these feelings. They use the protective tools they learned from their trauma (analysis, judgment, obsession) in order to label the sensations that they cannot feel: "I do X because of Y, so this feeling must be Z." By analyzing others and themselves, their protective self is still completely in control.
Stephen Wolinsky writes, "Any treatment to try to heal or transform a False Conclusion is a treatment, therapy or spiritual practice which is organized by the False Self based on believing the False Conclusion and, hence, can only yield a False Treatment, therapy or spiritual practice because the therapy or spiritual practice is being driven by believing in the earlier False Conclusions and premises."
So how can we become aware of this tricky protective self and break through it once and for all?
The two clearest signs of the protective self are:
- Focus on external things/people
- A sense or compulsion that you need to "do" something
It convinces you that if you "do" this thing or if someone else "does" something, you will feel good. It could be accomplishing another project, doing drugs or alcohol, spending money, seeking a relationship; the list goes on. You can tell when someone is stuck in the trance of the protective self, because they say things like, "If I could just get that [raise/perfect relationship/deal/ house/perfect body], then I'd finally be happy."
The protective self wants you to "do." I'm encouraging you to stop "doing" and instead sit with the deeply uncomfortable, frustrating sensations that arise when you don't take action. To notice when that urge kicks in. And when we notice it, all we need to do is kindly decline what it wants us to do.
There is really only one way to diminish the protective self: stop feeding it. Instead we need to feel what's there when we don't indulge it.
But once again, the problem with protective selves is we usually don't even know we're stuck in one ("you don't know what you don't know"). Even as we're trying to analyze and heal, the protective self is still the thing doing the analyzing and healing. The faster we can gain this "meta-awareness," the faster we can get started.
From Whole Again by Jackson MacKenzie, published by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Jackson MacKenzie.
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