The Protective Self

Man in black suit with black sunglass and a security badge representing the protective self

I was blown away by this concept of “The Protective Self” presented by Jackson Mackenzie in his brilliant book, Whole Again: Healing Your Heart and Rediscovering Your True Self After Toxic Relationships and Emotional Abuse. In this article, I’ll be sharing this idea with you mostly in my own words and with my own spin. I am not summarizing his work; I’m riffing on it. In fact, I have no idea if he would even agree with my take on it. So if this theory piques your interest, please do pick up the book and take it from the author himself.

What Is The Protective Self?

When we are hurt as children (abused, abandoned, neglected, or whatever), we develop a protective self out of necessity. This armor-plated adaptation is our best bet for getting our needs met and protecting the vulnerable core of our being. In that core, we have access to inherent worthiness, self-acceptance, self-compassion, unconditional love and goodness, but we had to hide that part of ourselves in an emotional bomb shelter when it wasn’t safe and replace it with a surrogate self. You might think of this as a bodyguard, representative, stunt double, or facade. Some people call it the pain body, the manager, the ego, or the false identity.

Whatever the case, this version of you doesn’t have any internal resources of its own to keep it afloat, so it feeds on external measures of success, validation, and worthiness. It uses maladaptive coping mechanisms like perfectionism, people-pleasing, codependency, over-functioning, dissociation, self-medicating, etc. to fuel it.

The problem is that your nervous system believes your protective self is still your best option because it’s unaware of the passage of time or that you’re no longer powerless. So this protective self has been neurologically wired to be “you.” It has become your default self, and therefore has all the self-preservation instincts as any other “self.” I.e., it very much wants to NOT die. So it’ll defend and perpetuate itself, recreate situations that make it needed, gather evidence to justify its existence, and avoid anything that might expose your authentic self.

I think when people say “bad habits die hard,” they’re talking about this living, breathing, alternate version of themselves that has to die in order for the compulsive behavior to stop.

Healing With Your Protective Self

Unfortunately, many people get into recovery while still identified with this protective self (meaning they think it’s who they are). And we cannot do healing work from our protective self because literally its whole fucking job is to deny access to the part of us that needs help! This is why some people do a ton of “healing work,” but never actually heal — because they’re still blocked from the part of themselves that needs healing.

The protective self is not a real self, so it doesn’t feel, heal, love, or any of that. Trying to heal with your protective self is like giving medicine to your lawyer and expecting to get well. The protective self is not you. Which is also why that thing is absolutely insatiable. It’s a hungry ghost that will never be self-sustaining. It’ll always need more external measures of worth.

Some people know deep down that what they’re doing isn’t working, so they reach out for help. However, sometimes this is simply the protective self calling for backup. Like, “I just need help doing my job better!” As in, usually the protective self doesn’t even know that it can’t do this job. And if you’ve been fully identified with this false self for your entire life (as many have been), this will feel absolutely life-threatening.

I always say, “You can’t use your trauma response to heal your trauma.” In this context, I mean you can’t use your protective self to liberate your true self. There can be only one. And like the parable of the two wolves, the one who wins is the one you feed. So you’ve gotta identify your protective self, get to know it really well, then stop feeding that thing. And unfortunately, it may literally feel like dying (as long as you’re identified with it).

Removing The Protective Self

Mackenzie writes that the two most salient features of the protective self are:

  1. Focus on external things and people, and
  2. A central compulsion that you need to do something!

Easy enough to identify, but how do we oust this well-intentioned but ultimately suffocating and self-abnegating version of you? Well, I believe it involves the following elements:

•Find out what the protective self is protecting you from (trace it back to the original trauma, fear, or unmet need)

•Address those things directly and create a life that no longer requires the protector’s services

•Grieve the losses of your childhood (angering, crying, feeling, venting) from your true self (not your protector)

•Focus inwardly and generate love and acceptance within instead of looking for external metrics of worth

•Stop doing so much and practice just being (and know you are lovable and worthy without “evidence”)

•Make it safe for your vulnerable, authentic self to emerge (giving it cues of safety instead of threat)

Again, this protector may have been running the show for damn near your entire life. So it probably won’t be as simple as flipping a switch over to authentic self. It may be that you have to slowly discover or grow this true self by repeatedly asking, “What would someone who doesn’t need to earn love or prove their worth do in this situation?” Then act accordingly. Or you could also ask, “Do I feel the compulsion to DO something right now?” Then reflect on how many thousand times you’ve done that and still felt numb or discontented afterward.

The Protective Self’s Oldest Trick

The protective self always says “I’ll be happy when…” — usually when I do this or someone else does that. But it never works. You see, everything we do to feed the protective self is never enough. The more we feed the protector with achievement, success, codependency, busyness (or whatever), the more we are only bolstering a self-substitute that we created out of fear and trauma. You cannot fuel the false self without also fueling the toxic shame that created it.

And that’s clearly a problem.

When you’re in touch with your true self and have access to inherent worth, unconditional self-love, self-acceptance, and self-compassion, you can stand in equanimity — swayed by neither praise nor blame. Highly reactive people, therefore, are folks who are disconnected from their intrinsic worth.

Having Relationships With Your Protective Self

Another interesting little tidbit is that it’s virtually impossible to have a real relationship using only the protective self. The best anyone can do while identified with their false self is to mimic love, act out authenticity, and perform vulnerability. But none of that shit will be real, satisfying, or effective. There is simply no substitute for being connected with your authentic self. Without that connection, life is devoid of meaning, friendships are fake, nothing will ever be good enough, and it’s all a numb and futile charade.

It could be argued that anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles are exactly such protective strategies. However, I’m not gonna open that can of worms here.

Getting Help

And of course, it’s a good idea to get help from a qualified professional. We’re talking about resolving deeply-rooted relational trauma. It’s not likely that you’ll read a few articles and then bang it out all by yourself. We can only heal relational trauma within the confines of safe and supportive relationships (ideally not romantic ones, for obvious reasons).

The challenge for many people will be that their protective self truly believes trusting others is what got them into this mess in the first place. Which is why the ones who most need help are the least likely to ask for it. I sure wish I had a solution to that dilemma. But it seems like what most people need before they’re willing to ask for help is a shit ton of pain and a little bit of awareness.

And I can only help you with one of those.


*This article contains an Amazon affiliate link to the book mentioned

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

5 thoughts on “The Protective Self

  1. Dang! This is so insightful and written in a way, that if true for anyone reading it, they can clearly see themselves in it. Thank you Adam.

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