Being held hostage by an inner persectuor-protector figure in our inner world is common for those of us who were highly sensitive and suffered significant childhood trauma or insecure, anxious or broken attachments. It is an issue dealt with comprehensively by Elaine Aron in her book The Undervalued Self. In chapter six of the book she outlines what this inner complex is and why it exists drawing on the work of psychological analyst Donald Kalsched. (See my previous post :
The Persecutor-Protector needs to be understood and worked with by those of us who want to stop isolating in fantasy totally (not that we won’t still want to introvert which is important for the creative amongst us and for touching base with our inner world and life) and convincing ourselves we are not skilled or gifted enough to have a valuable contribution to make to the world.
I will open this post with a quote taken from Elaine’s book.
A protector-persecutor that arises from insecure attachment is often the harshest. In these cases the protector may replace the missing maternal or paternal presence with an addiction, whether to smoking, alcohol, work, or something else. Or it may create a vision of perfect love the child never received. It encourages the unbearable craving and yearning while undermining or belittling things in the world that may actually satisfy some of the craving. It says they are not enough, or not real, just lies or illusions, or will not work out in the long run.
Since attachment trauma often involves an unbearable separation, such as divorce or the death of a parent, the protector-persecutor very often rules out love because it brings the risk of loss, which, it supposes, you cannot bear, as you could not when it happened before. Until you work out your own answer to these scenarios, it’s impossible to convince the persecutor-protector that you can live with the pain of separations and loss, that you can tolerate in future what you could not in the past…..
(however) the good news is that as you struggle to accept the fact that all relationships eventually end, you may become far more prepared for loss than those who are secure because they had good childhoods.
When the persecutor-protector keeps you from being intimate with someone you love, do not give up. Freeing yourself to love is perhaps one of the greatest challenges a person with a troubled past can face, and even a partial victory must be acknowledged for the triumph that it is. Further, the undervalued self simply cannot be healed without finding some freedom to love. It is linking and love that take you out of ranking and undervaluing.
The protector-persecutor either as a unit or in one of its two forms, tries to break down every link you make, both outer links with friends and inner links that would end the dissociation it wishes to maintain. However, you can see why your attempts to dialogue with the innocent (inner child) might lead to mysterious resistance.
Emotions, memories, current thoughts and behaviours, and bodily states related to a trauma can all be dissociated. Memories may be repressed, literally unlinked from consciousness. Or your emotions may not be linked to current memories or events. You may feel numb, lacking all emotion, or all too conscious of emotions that seem to arise for no reason. Your body may be unlinked from memories, so you remember the events of the trauma but have no idea what happened to your body during it. Your body will still be dissociated from your thoughts, with the result that you are hardly aware of its needs. Or the body does not link with your actions, and you feel unreal or detached as you go through the day….you do things that make no sense or are self destructive but your behaviour is not linked to its real causes. You may have stress related illnesses because memories, feelings, or thoughts are pushed down in the mind then arise in the body. Or you may have recurring nightmares that seem unrelated to anything going on in your life.
As for outer links the persecutor-protector makes every linking situation seem to be about ranking, usually with you as the inferior, although it can also make you feel superior – “he’s not good enough for me” – if that will keep you out of a real, close, lasting relationship. The persecutor-protector might allow you to link in a limited way with someone who likes you by creating a false self that adapts to the world, but you know you are not really connected or authentic.
Using examples from her real practice Aron shows how clients dreams often contain persecutor figures and details the means it uses to break links, just as the witch in the fairytale of Rapunzel tries to disconnect the prince from ever reaching Rapunzel in her tower by cutting off her long hair. This occurs due the prevalence of earlier losses that were never fully integrated into conscious awareness and the fear of not being able to survive the feelings should it ever happen again.
We can work to become more aware of how the complex operates in our own lives. Some of these are listed below and appear in Aron’s book and they correspond to some of the tactics avoidants or insecure people use to maintain distance or sabotage relationships with others:
- When we are supercritical of the other, especially after times of connection.
- When we over idealise to the degree that minor failures are blown out of proportion.
- When we mistrust or don’t bother to get a reality check or talk things over
- When you feel crushed if someone doesn’t want to be with you all the time.
- When you look down on others for wanting to be with you more than you want to be with them.
- When you decide “it’s all over” as soon as there is the slightest conflict.
- When you are obsessed with concerns one of you is needy, dependent, or weak.
- When you cannot stop thinking about the other leaving or betraying you or dying.
- When you cannot see any flaw at all in the others, as if he or she is a god.
In addition Aron outlines some of the unconscious rules the persecutor-protector can use to keep us safe.
- No intimacy. Never open up about personal issues, ignore or belittle the disclosures of others, be flippant or rude, leave if someone wants to be closer
- No arguing. Always be nice, end relationships as soon as there is a whiff of conflict or if the other is angry, walk out on arguments (rather than asking for time out)
- No growth. Turn down opportunities or invitations to do anything new, do not aspire, act stupid so no one will think of you when an opportunity arises.
- No dating or marriage. Postpone, be unattractive, stick to crushes or fantasies, say with someone who isn’t good for you, have affairs with unavailable people, be forever young or flirty when it’s not necessary.
- No strong feelings. Stay in control at all times, don’t cry, get angry, be terminally cool.
- No sex or enjoyment of it. Avoid, be mechanical, split off, get numb with substances before hand, remove all emotion from sex.
- No believing someone who say he or she cares about you. Bat off compliments and expressions of caring and affection. Don’t believe they are genuine.
- No asking for help. Be ruthlessly self sufficient, be suspicious, never complain, withdraw.
- No honesty. Just say what you think others want to hear. Be careful with what you express especially when asked to be yourself.
- No hope. Don`t expect help, joy or good things. Do not place faith in anyone.
- No standing up for yourself. Just let others say or do whatever they want, don’t cause trouble, don’t expect justice, respect or fairness.
- No trusting. Don’t be fooled; they don’t really care about you (a favourite thing the protector will say to you inwardly.)
As you can see its a pretty harsh joyless confined existence living with a strong persecutor protector complex inside of us, but we can work to understand these rules and challenge the p-p on them when it tries to use them to keep ourselves and others in line.
Your goal is to convince the p-p that breaking its rules and taking risks is working out for you and that you want more freedom…
Listen to its disagreements because ignoring it wont work according to Aron… the p-p needs to be heard but challenged to give up the limiting rules and restrictions it uses to keep you trapped.