The Concept of the Protective Self and How it Keeps you Stuck with Toxic Relationship Patterns

The Concept of the Protective Self and How it Keeps you Stuck with Toxic Relationship Patterns the concept of the protective self and how it keeps you stuck with toxic relationship patterns
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Today I’d like to talk about the Protective Self and most of this content will be pulled from the book, “Whole Again” By Jackson Mackenzie. I am going to explain why your current false identity will feed you with lies that will keep you stuck with negative patterns like being in toxic relationships or people-pleasing.

(I will use self to imply your sense of who you are or your identity)

The concept of the “protective self” in psychoanalytic theory was developed by Donald W. Winnicott. He described the protective self as the part of the personality that acts as a barrier between the individual and the external world. This barrier protects the person’s authentic self and their inner feelings, thoughts, and experiences. The protective self allows the individual to navigate the world safely and maintain a sense of stability and security. However, if the protective self becomes too strong or rigid (like numbing your emotions), it can prevent the individual from fully experiencing life and limit their growth and development.

So, when a trusted loved one, such as a parent or partner, betrays or mistreats or rejects our true self, we may form this protective self as a way to cope with that negative experience especially when we don’t have the necessary inner resources (like when we’re young) or emotional tools to process those painful emotions in that present moment. This can also happen when we encounter any strong negative experience (like trauma) which really changes our perspective on how we view things or life in general. The protective self perceives itself as separate from others and becomes more of an observer of the world around them instead of an authentic participant. It often seeks external validation as a way to prove its worthiness and fill a void it can’t express. The protective self is often driven by control and can be difficult to recognize because it’s become our natural way of thinking or “who we think we are”.

For example, it may convince you that a “people-pleaser” is just your ‘true’ identity and there’s nothing wrong with it, like there’s nothing wrong with making other people happy (especially those close to you, right?) and there’s no need to change a thing.

It’s just feeding us with the illusion that the solution to our problems is outside of us (like making other people happy) and we just have to keep looking out there. Since our inner being has been ruined by past experiences, our protective self will keep itself alive through external measures of worth like money, relationships, obsession, accomplishments, blame, saving others, wanting to be saved or just anything on the outside world that will give it meaning (or a sense of breath).

This keeps us stuck with same patterns in life because we will be seeking something which we can never find or that can never really fill that void. In short, the protective self is really blocking (or you can call it protecting) us from experiencing the wounded feelings that need to be heard, processed, released and healed. The more we live life with this protective self and without really be aware of it, the more our actions and behaviors will give it more evidence as just our ‘true identity.’ So, our life circumstances will really feed the protective self and the wound that needs healing will become more and more obscure/invisible.

Analogy: It’s like a miner who is looking for gold, but instead of digging and digging till you get the ore, you add more soil on the gold mine. (of course, it will make it harder to find the gold and you will never find it).

Actually, this is why you might try a couple of traditional self-help techniques like affirmations, meditation or working out but you’re not getting anywhere because the protective self has really shielded our body from feeling the parts of ourselves that actually need healing (more like throwing a grenade to a force-field — Reference sci-fi movies. It will just bounce back. We can only hit the target once the shields have been lowered). You keep trying and trying new adventures (like new relationships, new ventures) but they give you this brief high (compulsion) but it’s still deeply unfulfilling.

Without proper understanding of the protective self, we might fall into its trap of thinking that we’ve really healed on a deep level yet all the time our healing modality is just feeding the protective self and not really shining the light on the wounded parts deep within ourselves so that they can be free.

The Concept of the Protective Self and How it Keeps you Stuck with Toxic Relationship Patterns the concept of the protective self and how it keeps you stuck with toxic relationship patterns

Screenshot from the book Whole Again

Stephen Wolinsky, a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher who developed a form of therapy called Quantum Psychology asserts that any attempt to heal or transform a false conclusion must be done from a place of truth and not from the perspective of the false self. The false self, in his philosophy, is a constructed identity that is based on false beliefs and premises. If therapy or spiritual practice is organized by the false identity, it will be based on these false beliefs and therefore can only yield a false treatment. For true healing and transformation to occur, the individual must be able to identify and challenge their false beliefs and move beyond their false self.

Analogy: — Let’s explain it using this great fish tank metaphor. Let’s imagine sick fish in a filthy (your protective self) fish tank. No amount of introducing new fish (like jumping into a new relationship or even thinking positive thoughts) will stop the fish from getting sick because the tank is still filthy. Also, moving the filthy tank to a better place (like leaving the relationship) will not stop the fish from getting sick. The only solution is cleaning the filthy tank (dissolving your false identity) and then nurturing it with fresh and clean nutrients.

How do we become aware of our false Self?

According to Mackenzie, there are two clearest aspects that can help us distinguish if the protective self or our true self in running our lives: –

1. Focus on external things/people to feel whole/complete/happy. e.g. “If I just make my partner happy, I will know I am lovable.” “If I really find a good and high-quality man or woman, my life will be complete.” Sounds familiar?

2. A sense of irresistible urge to “do” something (more like you just can’t stop yourself from doing it)

So, if you feel like you’re repeating similar patterns in life, like say getting into relationships where you’re the second fiddle then that’s the protective self running your life and not your authentic self. The other thing about those false identities is that it will ‘choose’ thoughts or life circumstances that reinforce it or that make it firm. So, you false identity is always keeping you stuck in this semi-conscious state, setting you up for failure so that it can stay in control. For example, a codependent will unconsciously find themselves in relationships with emotionally unavailable people so that the protective self will reinforce or prove its false belief that you are “never enough.”

That’s why to really move forward in life, you need to really work on breaking that barrier which is preventing you from getting in touch which your true emotions so that you can stop living in survival and start being. Unless you do that, you’ll find yourself gravitating to instances which just preserve your current ego or the protective self. When you become aware of this protective self, you can at least understand why at times you just self-sabotage or do something that logically doesn’t make sense (like repeating those patterns or ignoring red flags or being an option to someone who mistreats you). Show yourself some grace and compassion and really work towards healing on a deep level. All those things that have happened in your life are just because you’re disconnected from what you are, your true identity.

Hope you’ve found this informative and challenging.

Psst! As I said, most concepts are pulled from the book Whole Again which I’d highly recommend but I’d also suggest for you not to read it if you’ve not really started your healing journey since it might be too provoking (triggering) for your current worldview. Happy Healing ❤️💙.

Note from the Author

If you’re ready and you’d like my help with healing, finding peace in life and breaking free from these toxic patterns, then you can book a FREE BREAKTHROUGH CALL with me HERE. Happy healing 💙💙. Feel free to share and comment! Use this information with caution, it comes from my own thoughts & bias, experiences and research😊.





4. MACKENZIE, JACKSON. (2019) “Identifying the Protective Self,” in Whole again: Healing your heart and rediscovering your true self after toxic relationships and … emotional abuse. New York: PENGUIN Books, pp. 32–39.

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Edwin Bii
Edwin Bii

I'm Edwin Bii, a trained advanced conversational hypnotherapist (ACH) and Mind Shifting Coach from Kenya offering mental health support, and life coaching to help you crush your goalsand overcome your problems. Together, we'll navigate challenges, build self-awareness, and create a happier, healthier you. Let's unlock your potential.

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