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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Letting Go of Self-Protective Strategies

There’s an enlightening and sometimes slightly painful exercise one can do by oneself to learn a bit more about the origins of how one feels and behaves.

Pick out an emotional skill or habit that you know you’re not very good at – and write it down on a sheet of paper. Here are some examples:

 — Staying calm

 — Taking pride in yourself

 — Trusting

 — Missing people who go away

We often observe these traits in ourselves with a mixture of puzzlement and embarrassment. Why are we like this? Why can’t we be more normal? What’s wrong with us?

Black and white photo of a young girl in an run-down alleyway
Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

To find a way to some answers, continue to the second part of the exercise. Insert the above entries into the following sentence:

How safe would it have been for you to do this [insert sentence] in your childhood? I. e. Staying Calm, Taking Pride in yourself, etc.

Now try to reflect on WHY it might have been unsafe to do or feel a certain way in the past:

 — It didn’t feel safe to feel calm because… someone was drinking heavily in the house

 — It didn’t feel safe to take pride in oneself because… someone was obsessively jealous

 — It didn’t feel safe to trust because… someone was cruel or unreliable

 — It didn’t feel safe to miss people who were absent because… the pain would have broken one’s heart.

Notice that in all cases, what in later life becomes a problem starts off by being a very clever protective strategy. We are more mysterious to ourselves than we should be when we fail to see that much of what we do that looks odd or unusual in adult life is really a relic of a protective strategy that made a lot of sense in childhood.

The point of waking up to the origins of a protective strategy is that we can then learn to see that it isn’t necessary to hold on to it any longer. There is no reason to fail at work in order to avoid the spectre of jealousy. We can afford to miss people when they go – they’ll be back and we can dare to feel and love.

We need not continue our loyalty to our past protective strategies once we understood the particular circumstances that once made them so necessary – and that now no longer apply.

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