Some of you may have seen the movie, “Inside Out,” by Pixar. I found it to be a deeply insightful, as well playful, look at how we internally process and relate to others from “parts” that lie within us. The story involves the family of a young girl who moves to the city against her will. Her “angry part” wants to vent his protest. Her father invites her to play to help her adjust and her “joyful part” responds with laughter. We can think of our parts are aspects of ourselves that pull us to think and react in certain ways, driven by our feelings.
Think back on the last heated argument you had with your mate. Did you have the experience of feeling triggered or activated? Did you get mad, frustrated or hurt? What did you do or say as a result of the feelings you were experiencing? Chances are you didn’t feel composed and calm. Perhaps you yelled, said something sarcastic or walked out of the room. Although you may be aware of what you did, oftentimes you are not fully aware of the protective parts that jump in to guard you from harm.
Our protective parts, have typically been with us from childhood. A parent repeatedly gets angry, we learn to shut down to protect ourselves from their rage. A parent shames us for needing their comfort, we learn to be independent in order to protect ourselves from the pain of needing comfort. A parent withdraws affection if we don’t comply, we learn to protect ourselves by becoming compliant. Our various protectors are actively at work in the present, although they had their origins in our early life.
When we get in an argument with our mate, our protectors become activated and jump in to guard us from any risk of harm. It is as if they go on high alert, thinking what happened in in childhood is happening again in the present. In a very real sense, the argument occurs between our mate’s protectors and our own. If we could separate our protectors from adult selves, we would likely have a very different conversation with our mate. Instead of reacting by demanding that our spouse be or do what we think we need, we could simply ask for what we want without demand or manipulation.
Our protective parts served a very important function when we were young. They helped us avoid rejection and create safety. As adults, these parts more often interfere with the connection we long to have with our mate. We can learn to identify our protective parts when they jump into our conversations, appreciate them for the way they have helped us in the past and invite them to step back and allow us to navigate our conversation in a new way.
Here’s a few steps you can take to begin to get curious:
- After your next argument with your mate, take some time afterward to reflect on how you reacted. What were you feeling? What were you thinking? Where did you feel it in your body? What was your first impulse? What did you actually do?
- In your mind, take your focus off your mate and try to focus in on yourself. Have you ever felt this before in your relationship with your mate? What were you needing in that moment that you were not receiving? Did you ever have this feeling in childhood? What did you not receive then that you were longing for?
- If you can identify a longing, offer yourself some compassion for what you did not receive in childhood. Notice that your reaction to your mate is likely turbo charged due to a wound from earlier in your life. Let yourself calm and notice that protective part of you that doesn’t want you to hurt again. Thank it.
- If you feel ready, go to your mate and share with them what you discovered. Own your own feelings. Share what you discovered about you.
This week, see if you can notice your protective “parts” surfacing, take a deep breath, and ask them if they could settle down and allow you to respond from your adult self. Let us know how it goes!
Note: If you would like more help identifying your parts, I have devoted chapter (4) of my book, Making Love Last: Divorce-Proofing Your Young Marriage to this concept. You can find it on Amazon or my website here.