Our personality starts to grow from the first responses we make to the outside environment. Our parents’ intentions are to keep us safe, but we are extremely vulnerable as little babies and inevitably we experience moments of fear or even terror. In order to cope with the fear and feel safe enough we begin to develop adaptive coping strategies.
Parents provide protection to their children but this is not enough. In the face of threat to safety, whether real or imagined, and in order to cope with fear and anxiety, all babies start to develop an internal protector. This process carries on throughout our formative years and in some cases, such as following traumatic events, even in adulthood. But the main characteristics of the internal protector each of us develops, are usually created at an early stage of life.
Some examples of protectors:
Good little girl or boy – If I am good mummy and daddy will love me and make sure I am safe. A natural development of this is Mr or Mrs Nice Guy – if I can get everyone to like me, then I will feel safe, because noone will want to hurt me.
Freezer – don’t feel anything, then nothing can hurt me.
Avoider/denier – If I distract myself enough, I won’t notice that I am being abused ….
Rationaliser – there are so many people worse off than me, I must be OK.
Raging bull – don’t you dare threaten me, I’ll smash your head in. Safety in keeping everyone at a distance by instilling fear.
Bully – You are ugly and pathetic and I will make sure you never forget it. Feeling powerful by intimidating and punishing anyone who shows vulnerability.
The last one is a serious distortion of a need to feel powerful to escape feeling week, and could be a development of trying to avoid vulnerability and fear by not feeling anything, when freezing out feelings as a protection hadn’t worked. In fact protectors can involve a combination of several adaptations, only some of which I have included above.
I have given a voice to some of these examples to help describe their character, but in reality internal protectors tend to evolve and exist at an unconscious level, although when we start to look at other people we know, we can often see quite easily what kind of protector is working in them and they may well use expressions in their conversation, which give clues to the nature and character of their protector.
So the protector’s job is to step into action when their ‘host person’ is triggered into feeling vulnerable, fearful or unsafe. Many strategies are healthy responses and vital to our survival, particularly for dealing with the situations from which they originally evolved.
However, the protector, our unconscious strategy for feeling safe, can be so effective that our vulnerability becomes ‘disowned’ and we are no longer aware of feeling afraid and powerless.
As we become adults, our protector might be causing us to respond to situations that are no longer serving us well and if our protective response is covering up our access to our vulnerable child, we are denying ourselves access to an important and valuable part of our being. (I will say more about the vulnerable child later.)
Someone who was traumatised by sexual assault, learned to protect herself from the emotional hurt and pain by splitting off or distracting herself and after that, whenever she found herself in stressful or fearful situations, used some habitual distraction in order to remain in control of her emotions and therefore feel safe. This avoidance strategy was her way of not having to feel unbearable feelings and staying in control, but it was also a very limiting and often inappropriate response to situations. It was a handicap, a sticking plaster covering a deep wound that was never able to heal properly and she was not even aware that she was doing it.
In Voice Dialogue, we facilitate each client to notice how they respond to threat or fear, how they have found their particular ways to try to stay safe and, through exploration of the protector inside of them, by identifying with that part of them, giving voice to its ways of being and importantly, learning about its belief system.
The client can then develop an Aware Ego who can stand between such inner polarities as the Protector and the Vulnerable Child (an important subpersonality that every adult has in their psyche) to help the client have more access to feelings and more choices about how to be in any given situation where these parts of themselves are being triggered. The aware ego is able to include the feelings and responses of different sub personalities, but is able to remain ‘disidentified’ from them.
Using this Voice Dialogue approach with a client we at first refer to the clients protector in very positive terms: “You were very clever to develop this way of dealing with the difficulties you had to face as a child and it really worked for you”. Later, when the client has befriended this part of their character, we might say: “In getting to know this part of you, can you begin to see how it also restricts you in some ways? It’s been like a loyal soldier, doing its duty to protect you in the ways it knows best, but it does not know that the war is now over.There are other and better ways to interact with people and still feel safe”.
As a facilitator I need to be able to judge when a client is ready to stand back and experience the protector, as well as other parts he\she has been exploring, from the disidentified position of Aware Ego. Teaching the client to disidentify from the protector and other parts, such as vulnerable child is ultimately the purpose of the whole process. By getting to know these and other sub personalities, learning to accept them, taking care of their needs, but not being over-identified with them, the client can then make choices that are informed by, but not based on their view of reality. This is the healing path to personal growth, freedom and full potential.
In VD terms our Aware Ego is like the conductor of an orchestra, valuing all the different instruments with their individual sounds, and ensuring that they play at the right times and in harmony. Without the conductor, the instruments tend to compete to be heard, or are totally drowned out, so the resulting sound is chaotic and discordant.
Clients tend to be in this situation when they come into therapy.
Over time and with skilled facilitation, a client can explore all the ‘primary‘ and ‘disowned‘ sub-personalities that contribute to his/her unique personality and integrate them by consciously bringing them into play like an accomplished conductor with an orchestra.
A skilled conductor can enable the orchestra to make a glorious sound, greater than the sum of its parts, with a huge range of moods and colours, all perfectly in time.
The Protector is usually the key player in a person’s system and an important area to start in working with a client. Conscious awareness of this part, which helps create safety for the client in therapy, enables the polarised voices to start emerging, such as the frightened child and other aspects such as rage. Often these are disowned aspects of people’s personality because these aspects weren’t tolerated by their carers and therefore intolerable for themselves.
It can take time for someone exploring their inner reality to begin to allow and accept that they have fear or rage, to learn to re-own such feelings without feeling overwhelmed and see that they are necessary and valuable parts of their make-up too.