What does it mean to protect myself? Most people probably do feel strongly that it’s important to protect myself. How does this relate to vulnerability, which we also yearn for?
As I look at it, there is so much stored in our memory that comes from past painful situations. As tiny babies, our nervous system was often overwhelmed by what would seem to an adult to be small things. As we have gone through life, there have been moments of almost overwhelming stress, anxiety, and pain. Sometimes these episodes have eroded the health of the body and nervous system.
What’s left over from these episodes is a deep guardedness to make sure we never go through that kind of experience again. This guardedness is on a deep neurological level. It feels like it resides firmly in the bones, muscles, nerves. When it is triggered by something that reminds the body/nervous system of a past traumatic event, it instantly comes into play faster than we can consciously react.
One difficulty with this build-up of traumatic reaction patterns, in my observation, is that it continually expands. If I was once afraid of a supervisor speaking angrily, I may now be afraid of supervisors in general. It seems to be part of how the nervous system functions that it tries to continually cast a wider net to watch out for danger. It also seems to reinforce itself, digging in deeper. The next time a supervisor speaks critically, the traumatic patterns says, “See! I knew there was danger here,” and the pattern becomes even stronger.
Eventually, as we have more years of experience, the fear of so many things can make our lives very limited. It can become difficult to be flexible with friends and family. Our options become limited and we can find ourselves living an unsatisfactory life in some or many ways. But there is nothing we can do about it because these fear patterns feel like they are saving our life.
Is there a way to work with past fears that is not restrictive and increasingly debilitating?
Naturally, it is helpful to start to become aware of the reaction patterns – how they manifest in the body, what seems to trigger them, what the thoughts and emotions and feelings are that are wrapped up in the reaction. I’m not sure what it takes to start becoming interested in this. If someone else suggests it to me when I’m in a triggered state, I’m likely to resent it. I don’t want to see what’s going on. I want to protect myself. Which seems to mean I want to react, to do what I think I need to do to protect myself. Maybe I feel like I need to get back at my supervisor. Maybe I feel like I need to quit my job. Maybe I feel like I have to move out of town. Whatever it is, all of the energy seems to want to go into the reaction.
Unfortunately, my habitual reactions may also become sources of anxiety. When I get even with a supervisor, I get fired. When I quit my job, I can’t pay my bills. When I move, I have to start all over again.
So it leaves me not really knowing any more what to do. Instead of doing something, I may start listening more closely to these reactions. Why? Because on some level, knowing myself, knowing what is going on inside, becomes more important than defending myself in the same not-very-functional ways.
So I begin to have a new relationship with myself. I want to know what’s going on inside. I’m interested in seeing things freshly.
Along with this may come the possibility of relating to the outside world – the supervisors, the unreliable friends, the dangerous people – of relating to them in a new way too. Out of this, when a supervisor speaks angrily, something new and different might happen, unpredictably. The new interaction might not be pleasant. Or it might be! But it is new. It doesn’t add to the old pattern. And it comes from simply being interested, open to something new.
In this way one’s life may shift dramatically from protecting oneself from the “known” dangers of the past to being interested in what is going on inside and among the people and situations of my life. Along with this, even in a challenging situation, there might be the realization that we are all in this together.