Arrested self-protection

Who protected you as a small child through your teen years and into young adult life?

Much of the conversation about anger focuses on explosive anger and out of control rage. The ruined relationships caused by lashing out or the devastating contempt on someone’s face or in their words. We can see these fight responses as unskillful attempts at self-protection.

That wasn’t what I did. I went into flight/freeze and pretended it wasn’t happening. This works well in families who are invested in promoting the idea that everything is fine if they don’t talk about it. It fits in well with the naive ideas we are conditioned to believe of happily-ever-after in romantic comedies.

Denial takes a lot of energy but it is an essential cornerstone for people with a predominant strategy of flight/freeze/fawn. We learn to ignore our gut feelings and bare our throat to bullies and narcissists, like a scared dog submitting to a more powerful one. If I pretend this person isn’t harmful, if I’m super nice and compliment them, they will protect me.

There is a high cost to this strategy of putting down our weapons and hoping to not be hurt. We all know that some people do kick people when they are down. So what drives this behavior? What makes us think that not protecting ourselves is going to protect us?

In the interview below, therapist Pete Walker speaks of how arrested self-protection stifles our healthy anger. The strategies of our primitive brain and nervous system are never random. They arise from our attempt to make the best of difficult situations.

If you had a parent who raged at you and hurt you when you attempted to fight back, your best strategy was likely to suppress your anger, try to stay under the radar (walking on eggshells), and to fawn or appease them. If you had a parent who ridiculed you for being “too sensitive”, you learned to keep your feelings to yourself. If you came home after school outraged at someone hurting you and you got “whoever told you life would be fair”, you might have given up. If you were never protected, if you were handling threats and danger on your own, or you developed core deficiency beliefs that you are broken and unworthy, it might never occur to you that you deserve protection.

In his research on the nervous system and human connection, Dr Stephen Porges emphasizes the importance of taking our body to a safe place as we heal. We have very little power as children and that is often true as adults as well. When I was a single mother working as a waitress, I couldn’t afford to speak out about sexual harassment or unfair treatment. I knew that because I was fired once when I did. When we are in family, romantic or social relationships with bullies, we may feel we can’t afford to challenge them. We know that because we are punished when we do and often when we haven’t done anything to trigger them. These tough situations limit our choices.

Physical, emotional or social danger triggers our fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses for protection. But what if we’ve given up because our attempts to be protected failed? What if we were shamed when we made a mistake or someone bullied us? What then?

When I was in grade 11, a friend came to me crying and told me her Driver’s Education instructor had just raped her. We sat together for about twenty minutes then she said, “We need to call my mom so she can go with me to the police.” I remember being absolutely shocked. It never occurred to me that a parent or police would help or protect her. When I tried to talk her out of it, she was shocked. It never occurred to her that her mom wouldn’t be on her side and protect her. Two very different experiences in life led to those beliefs.

What are your beliefs about self-protection? What experiences led you to form these beliefs? Beliefs we formed as children are likely holding us back as adults. We can’t afford to see the truth of other people or situations. We can’t risk being authentic and genuinely connected. Freeing ourselves from this is possible. We can begin working towards developing a healthy sense of self-protection now. We don’t need to make any sudden moves or set our life on fire. We can just learn about trauma responses and simply begin to see how our strategies and beliefs are formed and are holding us back. We can connect with ourselves at an age when no one protected us. It is possible to heal.

In Pete Walker’s recent interview, he is so clear about the patterns of trauma and how to free ourselves. You will understand yourself in a deeper way after this and have an opportunity for compassion and connection with your younger self who didn’t have anyone on their side. We are adults now. We can change our patterns and strategies and protect ourselves now.

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