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Part 1: The Protective Self
When our true selves are rejected or abused by a trusted loved one (parent, romantic partner, etc) 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. 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. As long as we remain stuck in the protective self, it is difficult to move forward.
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 reigns 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 you there is nothing wrong with you, that you’ve figured it all out. It is often disguised in an innocent, childlike, cheerful, or heroic way. This illusion keeps you stuck in the same patterns. While it's true that there's nothing inherently "wrong" with you (in fact, this is the entire point of the book), the protective self is blocking you from experiencing the wounded feelings that actually need to hear that message.
Here is an ugly drawing I made in Microsoft Paint:
When we tell the blue part, over and over again, "I'm fine! I'm good!", the red part doesn't hear or feel that. It's just the protective self growing bigger and bigger, as the wound fades into a numb obscurity. Self-help techniques don't really work because our bodies have blocked us from feeling the parts of ourselves that actually need help.
The two clearest signs of the protective self are 1) Focus on external things / people. 2) A sense that you need to "do" something. It convinces you 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, etc. The protective self wants to "do". This book wants you to stop "doing" and instead sit with the deeply uncomfortable, frustrating sensations underneath. 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"). The following section explores a variety of protective selves, to help you examine your own behavioral patterns so you can hit the "pause" button. Overlap is common. Becoming aware of the protective self is the first step toward healing.
Remember, this awareness must be kind. Please do not judge or hate yourself if you recognize yourself in any of the vignettes. Nobody chooses to develop a protective self. It was an old protective mechanism, and you are on the path to heal it. This is not even who you really are, so there is no sense in hating it.
For now all you need is to become aware of it, and have faith that there’s something better on the other side.
Sarah is incredibly accomplished and successful for her age. She is always taking on new projects (even outside of work) and looking to prove herself. At work, she volunteers to take the lead on everything because no one else can be trusted to do it right. All she needs is "one more" accomplishment to finally feel at peace. On dates, she often describes herself by describing her accomplishments and presenting her perfect life. She is eternally nice to others, people-pleasing and tipping far more than necessary just to see a happy reaction. She loves those small moments of approval. But no matter how many people acknowledge her goodness, she feels a dull numb sensation.
Sarah’s homework: Stop taking on new projects. When you get the urge to accomplish something newer and bigger than ever before, the surge of energy and excitement, just notice that and politely decline it. Notice when you are seeking approval from others by being extremely kind or generous. Instead sit with the feeling of numbness.
2. Cluster-B Abuse Victim
Several months ago, Mel was dumped by a narcissistic man. In the beginning of their relationship, everything was perfect. He showered her with attention and praise, consumed her entire life. He spoke of marriage and children. But it turned out he was playing this game with another woman at the same time. He eventually replaced Mel with this woman. Now Mel cannot stop checking his Facebook page, to see updates about his new relationship. She’s looking for proof that their relationship will fail too. Nearly all of her focus is spent learning about his mental disorder. He can't feel love, and she can, so she wins. By playing detective and exposing him as a fraud, she’s distracted from this newfound void inside of her—the part of her that he stole.
Mel's homework: Stop checking his Facebook page and comparing yourself to the new relationship. Sit instead with the "void" feeling.
Tony tends to date and befriend people who need him. He believes that his love can eventually cure any problem his partner is experiencing. He likes to feel appreciated for saving others, he spends all of his time thinking about other people and their problems. He jumps on any opportunity to offer advice or help. He feels good about himself when he’s playing therapist for others. He takes responsibility for their emotions and fantasizes about rescuing them. It’s easier to focus on other people’s problems because his own emotions feel all "blocked up".
Tony’s homework: Stop playing therapist with others. Imagine what you would feel without the approval and appreciation of others. Notice your fantasies about saving people and direct your thoughts inward. Sit instead with the feeling of "blocked up".
Anna feels separate and isolated from everyone around her. She blogs frequently about the man who abused her, socializing only with others who have been abused by similar men. She has constant fantasies where the man who harmed her is finally brought to justice. She also re-imagines the past and sees herself standing up to him, rather than being abused by him. She takes on multiple causes to help others and bring more justice to the world, especially ones that focus on good versus evil. She fantasizes about a perfect partner who will appear and save her. All of these things distract her from an underlying hollow feeling that lives in her heart.
Anna’s homework: Take a step back from the justice causes. If you fantasize about a perfect partner coming to save you, imagine what you would have to feel if that person never appeared. Sit instead with the hollow feeling.
David spends a lot of time in his imagination. He’s built up an elaborate fantasy world of characters and settings. He imagines these characters interacting with each other, having surges of excitement and inspiration when he comes up with a new plot twist. He relates to his own thoughts and feelings as characters, since he seems unable to feel them himself. In reality, all he can feel is an unpleasant tightness in his chest.
David’s homework: Take a step back from the fantasy world. When your mind convinces you to dive back into an exciting world or character idea, don’t get caught up. Focus instead on the tight feeling
Underneath the protective self is usually an uncomfortable, indescribable feeling: numb, blocked up, tight, hollow, void, emptiness, or even boredom. Believe it or not, that’s where your true self is stored. But how are you supposed to get in touch with something like "numbness"? It’s extremely frustrating, because even though you may wish to help yourself, you can’t. And it’s not your fault.
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