The masks we wear, the shields we build up, and the armor we use to protect ourselves work. They work really well! So well that they guard us from hurt, pain, judgment, and vulnerability and greatly lessen the risk that we’ll ever be betrayed, mistreated, or wronged in some way.
But sporting our masks, shields, and armor also comes at a cost.
The walls we build up to keep ourselves from being hurt also often keep us from experiencing love, friendship, and connection– both in here with ourselves and out there with others. I don’t know about you but to me, at some point, the costs of being guarded became too high to keep my masks on and my armor shiny.
If you’re anything like me and you find yourself yearning to experience the benefits of dropping your armor and softening your heart– things like authenticity, vulnerability, empathy, trust, and real, genuine, juicy connection– you’re in the right place.
To understand how to begin to drop your armor and soften your heart, first you’ve got to get to know a little bit about how your protective armor develops in the first place.
What’s in Your Protective Armor, Anyway?
I’ve got ‘em. You’ve got ‘em. We’ve all got ‘em. Parts of us that arose in order to help us feel loved, to help us to belong, to help us survive, and to keep us from getting hurt in ways we’ve been hurt before (mostly in childhood). The role of these parts is to protect us and help us manage the seemingly unmanageable. That’s why we psychologists and internal family systems therapists commonly refer to them as “protectors” or ”managers”.
Think back to when you were a child. What was feeling loved predicated on? In most families, it meant doing certain things and not doing other things- based on whatever your parents thought was acceptable and advantageous and what they thought was unacceptable and disadvantageous.
For example, in the family and culture I grew up in, there were certain unspoken expectations that if fulfilled, equated to love and belonging. If I was smart and set myself up for achievement by getting good grades, by waking up early (even on weekends), and by reading more and playing less, my behavior would be celebrated. My grandfather (bless his heart and soul), a former soldier in the Soviet army, commended me every weekend upon hearing from my parents that I was awake before the rest of the family. In my mind of a child, I was waking up early because I knew that “Bananas in Pajamas” was on tv at 7am. But I’ve been waking up early ever since, because that’s what stuck within me at the level of unconsciousness– that waking up early, even on weekends, means that I am good in the eyes of others and that I am loved, especially by my grandfather who I loved so much.
If I was imperfect and made mistakes, I was criticized (sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously) and it was clear that I let others down, so quickly my internal system learned that it needed to try and maintain perfection (whatever that means, right!?) and to avoid making mistakes at all costs. I remember, all through grade school, feeling that my grades were never good enough… that a 90 or 95% on a test was just not good enough. It has been quite the journey to work with my “perfectionistic protector” (we’ll talk about how to work with our protectors in just a little bit…) and to become more and more okay with getting a near-perfect grade on an exam, or the adult equivalent of doing a good or great job but not going ‘above and beyond’ at home or at work.
While growing up, I also unconsciously learned that having a lean body equated to love (did you?). Not only did the magazines encourage it, but my own immediate family complimented me every time I lost weight and looked at me with disappointment when I gained weight. Did they mean harm? No, of course not. Are my stories and awarenesses meant to blame them? No, not at all. Everyone is always doing the best they can with the awareness that they have at the time, and my parents and their friends were too (I love and forgive you all). Nevertheless, my nervous system adopted certain behaviors in adolescence (like dieting, wearing corsets, obsessively looking at myself in the mirror, etc) and adulthood (like never being satisfied with my appearance, making daily trips to the gym, judging my physique, etc) to ensure its lovability and belonging well into the future. All I heard inside was the voice of my inner critic, shaming me so that I didn’t do things that would lead me to be criticized by others, i.e., to hear the voice of my parents or of that commercial telling me my body shape and size were no good… that I, therefore, was no good.
Until I did something about it.
How to Soften Your Armor
We all have these little parts inside us called ‘protectors’, and I hope it’s clear from the examples and descriptions above that though they may seem mean, hurtful, and sabotaging at times, they really do want the best for us. They don’t want us to get hurt again, to feel like we don’t belong again, to feel unloved again, to feel broken-hearted even one more time, and so they do what they think they need to do to protect us.
And they, like all parts of us, want the very same experience of acceptance and love. So rather than arguing, fighting with, or trying to willfully break the armor, try this instead:
1. Honor and Respect Your Armor.
To honor and respect your protective part is to give it as much respect as you would give one of your lovey-dovey good-feeling parts. It’s to acknowledge that its intention and the role it’s been playing have been about nothing but being there for you, making sure that you are okay, and ensuring that you don’t get overwhelmed by negative experiences and emotions.
2. Listen to It Sans Judgment.
Get curious. Spend some time getting to know this protected part of you, taking time to understand what’s really beneath the armor (not to spoil it for you but usually beneath each of our armor is a hurt young child).
Simply observe whatever you discover about this part of you, without jumping to conclusions or forming strong opinions. Let it know that you know it’s been there for you all this time and then really listen to it. Create space, and just listen. Get to know what this protected part of you fears, and just let it vent about what and why. Hear its stories and acknowledge, with your attention, the validity and significance of every action this part of you has taken on your behalf and every choice it’s made to support you in the best way it could.
3. Value, Include, and Appreciate It.
Take a moment to really think about what life would have been like without this part’s support. Rather than focusing on perhaps the misguided ways by which it went about protecting you, focus on the fact that it’s been protecting you and the many reasons you have to be grateful. Appreciate its loyalty and how it’s never backed down when it came to having your back, and find gratefulness for the creative ways it discovered to protect you from harm. Open your heart to this armor like no one ever has before. Love it. Love it. And then love it some more. It may look tough on the outside, but remember– it wants the very same thing all of your other parts want– L. O. V. E.
4. Support It In Taking On a New Role.
When working with protective parts of myself or my clients, the most fascinating thing that I find, again and again, is that our armor doesn’t really want to be guarded after all. It acts as ‘the tough guy’ because it thinks that being itself (protected, guarded, shielded) is the only way to accomplish what it’s been doing. But it doesn’t want to be ‘the tough guy’. So once it feels valued, appreciated, and heard is a great time to let it know that there are other ways to accomplish what it wants… that it’s not alone… and that it can have a reprieve. After all, there is a compassionate, courageous Self that lives inside and around you, be it love, the Universe, God, or Spirit. Whatever you call the highest, wisest essence that exists in this world, it is on board and your armor is not and has never been on its own.
Given that this Universal, spiritual, and/or God-like essence is with you and can help you navigate situations that typically require armor, this protected part of you can forego its protective role and take on a new one. So check in with it, and see what it would like to do instead now that it doesn’t need to do the heavy-lifting of keeping you protected anymore. For example, what does the part of you that’s been a people pleaser for the last twenty years (ensuring that you feel appreciated and loved and that you never feel unloved and unwanted) want to do in your system now that you have other internal mechanisms to support yourself in feeling truly loved and appreciated? Does it want to play? Dance? Draw? Since a lot of your armor arose in childhood, it’s not unlikely that your protected parts will want to do child-like things and have fun in child-like ways. (When my parts take on a new role, oftentimes there are balloons, bubbles, slides, and other fun things involved!)
What’s your protective armor? What beliefs, values, and biases did you take on as a child to help you fit in and feel loved? Spend some time with yourself, uncovering these ‘hard-on-the-outside’ parts that have played out strategies for you your entire life. Then, go on and try to relate to your protective armor using the steps above. Go at your own pace and remember, getting to know what’s on the inside eventually opens up a way of being that invites you to soften your long-held armor just a little bit.
What I love most about the awareness and steps I outline in this article is not only that they can help you to understand and relate to yourself better, but they can help you to understand and relate better to a friend, partner, colleague, or anyone else who may be holding up some armor of their own (and let’s be real– we’ve all got some armor…)
Have you tried relating to your own protected parts or to those of a friend, partner, or colleague using the guidance in this article? If so, let us know about it in the comments below. And, of course, if you find you’re wanting some personalized support along the way, don’t hesitate to reach out for coaching or consultation. I’d love to hear from you!