Arrested Self Protection
“Arrested self-protection stifles our healthy anger.” Pete Walker
When our experiences with anger have never allowed us to feel and express it safely, we suppress it. Children can’t afford to turn against their parents so we turn against ourselves.
Feeling our emotions is different from expressing them. Expressing them to ourselves is different from expressing them to the person we are angry with.
Can you afford to get mad about being hurt? Intimidated? Gaslit? Shamed? Ignored or abandoned? We might not have a felt sense that the answer to that question is different now than when we were a child.
Feeling the energy and sensations of fear and anger in our body can flash us back to when we didn’t have the power to change our situation and stop the hurt. When we sense that expressing anger isn’t safe for us, we suppress our innate outrage at injustice.
Getting angry and doing something to protect ourselves now reminds our nervous system that we are no longer helpless children. We are powerful adults who can protect ourselves in many ways.
We develop skills to stay with intense sensations in our body by practicing mindfulness and presence in somatic inquiry like this one from last week. We use tools to ground and orient into the safety of this moment and experience that it is safe to feel. These direct experiences of safety while we are working with this intensity give us confidence that we are strong enough now. We have options as an adult that weren’t available to us before.
A tiger leaping out from behind a bush is a threat when we are five years old and fifty years old. Fire will burn a child and an adult. Our instinct for self protection is lightning fast because we need to respond quickly through fight/ flight/ freeze/ fawn.
Our primitive brain is 100% committed to our survival but it’s a clumsy instrument. It takes all the evidence it has accumulated through out life, gives more weight to the negative, and doesn’t know that some dangers are not the same throughout our life. Adults can physically survive without our parents’ housing and food. We get a job and leave an abusive home situation. Children don’t have those options. We’ve been conditioned throughout our childhood to not talk back. We can run but we have to come back home to eat and sleep. We didn’t have the power to change this.
We protect ourselves by giving up on fair respectful treatment because there is nothing we can do. This often carries through to adult life when in fact there is something we can do. In order to protect ourselves, we need to come out of fight/ flight/ freeze/ fawn survival responses and look at our situation through adult eyes.
Verbal ventilation is when we remember a past injustice, cry and rage about it, and voice the just complaints we were never allowed to utter. We needed someone to listen, to bear witness to the injustice and hurt, and to be on our side. We can be our own witnessing adult now and be unconditionally on our own side.
Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed and bring to mind a situation of injustice when you were a child. Stay grounded in the present moment as you allow in the feelings. Let yourself get mad and let your younger self know you will protect them now. This is one way Pete worked with awakening self protection from his parents abuse.
One way we protect ourselves is to dissociate or pretend it’s not as bad as it is. This helped us cope as children but is a dangerous strategy as an adult. To break through denial and incorrect neuroception (perception of threat), we can let our adult self explain the situation to our younger self. It might look something like this.
You are not alone and I want you to tell me what’s wrong
I am a strong resourced adult now and I will protect you
Your parents won’t grab or hit you now like they did then
If they yell at you, I will tell them to stop
You can walk away
You can return to the safety of the home you’ve created
You can speak up for yourself now that you have adult resources and friends
If it is safe, you can maintain connection on your terms now you are an adult
I am brave and clear minded and I am always here for you