The Childhood Need for Protection Isn’t Just Part of Childhood

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Independence and autonomy are vital, and sometimes the childlike part of us needs to be able rely on others to protect us.

This post comes out of the experience of a close friend’s depression. I’ll call my friend Denny (not her real name). It is more thinking out loud about the issue that lay at the core of the depression — I’m not offering any hard and fast answers or interpretations. This is thinking out loud as I process my friend’s experience for myself.

Denny’s Story

Denny had a quite awful childhood of physical and sexual abuse. As a result, Denny was for a time, during adolescence, quite aggressive and ‘feral’. This is hardly surprising. I suppose as a result of these experiences Denny would have been diagnosed as suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Due to the help of some skilful and caring therapists and support of many friends Denny moved a long way along the path of healing. Denny gradually learned that some people were trustworthy and that it was possible to have the need for affection met in safe ways. Denny even ended up in a stable and caring romantic relationship.

Denny still got depressed. And it was due to a need for protection. Denny was drained by having to care for herself the whole time, by the responsibility to care for her own safety. This was quite a dilemma: part of being an adult is being responsible for our own needs and looking out for our own safety. And yet having to do this all the time was draining. To give over the care for our safety to someone else is simply being childish, isn’t it? To let go of this responsibility was scary as well. And in some ways seemed so unnecessary — Denny had nothing to do with the abusers in the past, and all Denny’s current friends were supportive.

Denny got so depressed that she ended up in a psych ward (and a fairly unfriendly place it was too). But it was here that she was able to let go of her need to protect herself. This institution (even one so poor) would not let her die. Letting go was an intense experience — she slept little and spent one whole night feeling rage and anger — spreading it through her body, keeping breathing, and rushing to the toilet. At the end of this Denny realised that she was entitled to be protected.

This is the beginning of the story, not the end. Denny will need to re-organise her life to some extent (more in some areas and less in others, I suppose). And this will be a process of recovering from that night of rage and anger and starting to experiment with a different way to live. What this all means isn’t clear and it could be quite a while before Denny knows what it could mean.

The Need for Protection

There are many aspects to this story: the poor state of psych wards; the failure of social protection for children, by institutions and individuals; the place of diagnosis and its usefulness; and many others.

The aspect I want to reflect on here is the need that children have for protection, and the possible consequences if this need is not met.

If a young person is not protected, especially if they are abused by a family member, it is quite likely that this person may conclude that they are not worthwhile in some very fundamental way. And this is a tricky need to meet.

Much of our understanding of adulthood gets in the way of this need’s being met. To ask to be looked after isn’t encouraged. Autonomy and independence are central values to our Western culture, which I think can lead to unnecessary suffering.

I want to say that I value autonomy and independence very highly (some think too highly). I think that they are of very great benefit most of the time in most relationships. And sometimes they get in the way.

Autonomy and independence are adult virtues (and I do think they are virtues). And sometimes we need to deal with the childlike parts of ourselves which we carry around inside us, one part of which is the need to be protected by others — being able to not look out for ourselves all the time, but sometimes being able to rely on others to do this for us.

I think that supportive groups can be very helpful in processing this issue. The relationships developed need to be strong and deep. And there will need to be room for the development of virtues other than autonomy and independence, although this may be after the autonomy and independence have been solidly established.

Perhaps this is the move from independence to interdependence. Perhaps it is more than this. It does seem to me to be about the social aspect of our self. I haven’t reached any settled conclusions about what the need for protection means for us and our thinking about our experience. I do think a safe and supportive space can be of enormous assistance as we seek to make significant changes in our lives.

Have you had the experience of being able to rely on others to protect you? If so, has this been significant for you? Has being able to rely on others to care for your safety been a significant part of your life? Has not being able to rely on others affected your life in a major way (or perhaps only in minor ways)? I’d like to hear about your experience of being protected by others — or not — in the comments.

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