What Made Me Do That? The Undercover Life of the Protective Personality

“What made me do that?” Have you ever lamented this internal phrase? Have you ever felt that there is something sinister lurking inside that is really not You?

When the Apostle Paul shares in the book of Romans that he is “doing the very thing that I hate”, he carries on about knowing what to do and not doing it…wanting to do something and doing another thing… then finally laments, “oh, wretched man that I am!”  What makes us do what we do, even when we want to do something or say something different?

Most of us know about the fight, flight or freeze response to pain or danger (perceived or real), but most of us are not aware that there is a limbic response going on in most of the actions we choose to take.  Perhaps we could say, all? Someone will say something that may “trigger” a response in us to say or do something in defense, even though we know we are not really in eminent danger.  I admit that my husband may say or do something quite innocent and non-threatening in his mind and yet I feel an instant reaction in my stomach, my chest or my jaw that I am being attacked or at the very least un-cared for. 

“What did I say?”  He replies in confusion when I lash out with a defensive remark or gesture.  In my best moments I am able to take a breath, regroup and allow my thought patterns to travel through my more thoughtful frontal cortex (the reasoning part of the brain). I realize that I am not in danger and that my beloved has not meant to harm me in any way.  I can respond with kindness instead of reacting in fear or anger. What is happening in these interactions that are likely to happen with our closest and most loved family and friends?

In working with people in recovery, I have had the privilege to walk with many folks from bondage in addictions to victory in life; from broken relationships to thriving and healthy bonds; from fractured faith to loving redemption; literally from despair to joyful living.  One of the roads toward this redemptive life is the discovery of negative thinking and false beliefs.  Even those of us who are not addicted to substance abuse have negative thought patterns and false beliefs lurking deep in our hearts and minds that cause us to say and do things that do not lead to healthy and happy relationships or living.   Some of these beliefs come from early childhood and some are developed over time in response to the way others have treated us or even from our own just plan sinful and naturally selfish nature.

Here is an example of the way that this works.  I may be the first born child of fairly “normal” parents who love and care for me.  Mom or Dad may get sick, have to go off to the military or a new baby comes along and distracts the parents from paying attention in the way I was accustomed.  I may interpret the disappearance or lack of attention to mean that I am not important or loved.  The belief may form, “I am un-loveable”.  As a sensitive child, I may lash out for attention in a negative way that causes the parents to become frustrated and avoidant… this may set up a cycle that reinforces the negative interaction and the belief that “I truly am un-loveable”.  If there is real abuse and/or true neglect this pattern can become even more entrenched into the psyche (heart and mind) of the child.  A child growing up with this type of belief may act out so that the people around may in fact reinforce the “lie”. The child may in fact live up to the belief (or down to it) over the years deepening the scars.  People can actually form “personalities” that protect, defend and lash out in order to make sure that they do not get hurt by any others.

There is a pattern that develops in every human being that goes like this----a belief about self is formed, then there is a thought that forms in the brain, then a feeling emerges from the thought, finally an action is taken in response to the feeling, thinking and belief.  With every decision to act there is a feeling, thought, and belief behind it.  We are not aware of this cascade until we begin to reflect and plumb the depths of what is happening behind our actions and-most of the time—reactions to every situation. 

In the psalms the shepherd David cries out, “Search me, O God, know my heart, see if there be any wicked way in me!”   Again he implores the Lord to, “Create in me a clean heart”.  Jesus tells us that, “the truth will set you free.”  All of these statements refer to a deeper heart belief that is at work in a person that needs to be “searched out”…to be “cleaned out”…to be “set free”.

The next time you have a reaction to a situation or person that does not truly match the reality of the situation, you can ask yourself (or even whisper a prayer to the Holy Spirit who knows these things even better than we know ourselves),  “What am I feeling?”  What is the thought that I am thinking?”  “What would I have to believe to think, feel and act this way?”  Once you discover the deep hearted belief you can hold it up to the light of the Truth and begin to heal.  The belief, “I am un-loveable” can be transformed by knowing the truth that Christ loved you so much that He died for you and now He is with you—He will never leave you or forsake you! The thought, “ I have to get love by doing this or that” can be changed to, “I do not need to perform to get love” . The feeling of despair and hopelessness can be healed and new feelings of hope and contentment can begin to grow inside.  The actions and words of defensiveness and performance to get love can be calmed and new actions of care and understanding can take their place.  Relationships, with forgiveness, time and help can be healed and there can be a new way of life.

I have seen people who once thought that they had certain personalities of defensive and anxious natures become transformed into the person they were truly made to be.  I, in my own healing, have enjoyed new relationships with people who were once my “enemies” and who are now dear to my heart as chosen sisters and/or brothers.  If there is deep wounding in a persons’ life, this process of healing takes time and most often the skilled support of counselors, facilitators and healing relationships.

Any willing person can enjoy some amount of redemption just by knowing that there is something deeper going on.  Next time you are over-reacting (or under-reacting)  I encourage you to take a breath and ask the questions: What am I feeling? What am I thinking?  What would I have to believe to keep thinking, feeling and doing these things?

“You will know the truth and the Truth will set you free.”

The Coaching Relationship is a good option for support and moving forward in learning new thinking and practicing new ways of interacting with others. To explore how this can be helpful for you, contact Rebecca through this website.  Begin your journey toward a more enjoyable and meaningful Life….a Real Life of Faith, Love and Joy.