The inner protector, like a mother bear, makes room for our pain and makes room for our human experience.
In my last post, I spoke about a powerful but subtle shift when facing difficult experiences, cravings or pain: to stop ”trying harder” and ask for help instead.
This orientation – to acknowledge that we’re at our limit and to step in with help and support, rather than trying to make ourselves or the situation better, ‘stronger,’ or different – is an act of compassion, acceptance, and love. It’s a relief to the mind and heart to honor those times when we’re overwhelmed and need help!
Today I want to share another practice that can help in the face of a binge – particularly, the feelings of self blame, judgment, and shame that can arise after bingeing, overeating, or ‘giving in’ to food.
The emotions that arise with a binge
Underneath overeating or binge eating lies something so precious, and something deserving of deep respect and reverence: our human tenderness and vulnerability. You’ll often find undigested, unprocessed emotion – the wounds and losses, both big and small, that hold stored up anger, grief, fear and more. It’s these emotions that often well and overflow and give rise to overeating or a binge. (I explain this idea in further detail on this page here.)
In the wake of a binge, feelings of guilt, shame, dislike, disgust, anxiety, fear, loathing and frustration can swirl – both about the binge itself, and about the original feelings or pain that drove the binge. Ouch, it’s so painful.
The inner controller
We can feel shame compounded upon shame, or guilt compounded upon guilt: like we ‘failed’ in how we handled our pain, or ourselves. When we’re inside this feeling of failure, we can so easily go to war against our hearts.
It’s a feeling of, “I should be able to do better” or “I should be different:” a strong inner sensation of “I should be able to be more in control.”
This is the voice of the inner controller – a very small, very scared part of ourselves. This part of us feels responsible for everything, feels like it has to do everything right, do everything right the first time, believes there is no mercy or margin for error, and feels very alarmed when anything goes awry.
It believes everything is its fault.
The inner controller is not personal – it is collective, and speaks to everyone this way.
Bringing in your inner protector
This is when I invite you to call in your inner protector. (I want to give a nod of recognition to writer, social activist, and coach Tad Hargrave, where I first heard this inner part described as the protector. You can learn more about Tad’s good work here and here.)
Who is the protector? The protector is a part of our interior landscape, the one who holds mercy and compassion for our human fallibility, neediness, and frailty. This part of ourselves is like an older sibling caring for a younger sister or brother with compassion and care.
The inner protector fosters these kinds of feelings – compassion, love, warmth, tenderness, and strength. It also fosters beautiful capacities in us: like the capacity to ask for help, to lean on others, to be vulnerable, to set and honor limits, to soften our impulses, and to ask difficult things of ourselves.
Soul activist Francis Weller writes that one way of looking at self compassion is as the ‘internalized village.’ I think the protector is a part of this internalized village – an inner mother and inner father who protects your dignity and humanity with strength, mercy and compassion.
When our critic arises to flagellate us for our mistakes, the inner protector rises up like a mother bear and says, “Nobody hurts my babies,” shielding our vulnerabilities from criticism and disgust.
It’s a stance of fierce kindness – a soft, sad tenderness that wraps around our wounds. It sees the big, bigger picture, and all the various threads that have shaped our being, and the limits of that control we imagine we should have had.
The inner protector makes room for our pain and makes room for our human experience. It cares for our tenderness rather than blaming ourselves for it – or shaming ourselves because we aren’t handling it better.
An example of the inner protector
Poet May Sarton offers a beautiful example of the inner protector in her poem, Friend of Enemy, from her collection Coming into Eighty. While she writes about befriending her body’s vulnerability as it ages, her words remind me that we can follow this same approach of kindness towards all our vulnerabilities.
Friend of Enemy by May Sarton, from Coming into Eighty
I can look
At my body
As an old friend
Who needs my help,
Or an enemy
Who frustrates me
In every way
With its frailty
And inability to cope.
I shall try
To be of comfort to you
To the end.
Meeting your inner protector
Have you ever felt the inner protector arise?
I can share what its presence feels like for me. Many of you know that I wrestle with winter depression. In November, when the time changes and darkness falls, I often struggle to adjust to the changing weather and the changing of the light.
I remember one day last December when I was feeling particularly alarmed and prickly, and ashamed of these feelings and my emotional reactions. I felt embarrassed, as if I should’ve known better, and discouraged that I wasn’t ‘coping better.’
In a nutshell, I was being too hard on myself.
Suddenly, I felt this inner protector rise, welling up. It said, “No more. I will not chastize myself for being human, for having wounds and vulnerabilities. It is cruel and inhumane to ask the impossible of myself and then to criticize myself for not being able to meet these expectations. I refuse to treat myself this way.”
In response to this voice, I felt a flood of relief. I could feel my heartbeat slow down, and the expectation that I should be able to do more or be more or be better, soften. I felt wrapped in something firm, strong, and protective, like a river being held in a riverbank.
Leaning into the inner protector
We all have both of these parts – the inner controller and the inner protector – as a part of our inner ecosystem and landscape. The fact that they arise is not always something that we can control or demand, and it is not our fault.
But I’ve found that we can lean into this inner protector, and do it with a reverent, compassionate approach towards ourselves.
I’ve found that the best way to access the inner protector is to move into the arena and area of the heart – to view ourselves with soft eyes and a tender hand. It helps to literally bring your physical energy down into your heart and belly, away from your head.
As you move into this space, you may feel the urgent voice of alarm and sharp edge of criticism start to soften a bit.
Through the eyes of the heart, overeating moves from an enemy to fight to a friend in need – something vulnerable to protect and care for.
How the inner protector softens indulgence and supports growth
This change in insight brings out your ‘soft eyes,’ tenderness, and self compassion. Approaching your overeating from your heart feels very different than approaching it from your head and its mental constructs – all the emotions of contempt, frustration, anger and thoughts about how you’re falling short and “should be doing better.”
People ask me often – “I’m afraid that if I soften towards my mistakes that I will indulge them more.” This fear makes sense, and has enough of a grain of truth in it that we can believe it.
But the inner protector is not an indulger: it brings in both kindness and shielding. It doesn’t advocate or have the energy of avoidance or permissiveness. It often says no and set limits.
Rather, it is a fierce acknowledgement of the truth of our experience – how we are actually feeling versus how we want to portray ourselves or want to seem or how we think that we should be feeling. This fierce kindness wraps itself around our truth in the moment, softening the shame about falling short so that we can move towards what helps.
This fosters a subtle shift where we move away from our typical responses to our human pain – hiding, trying harder, minimizing, suppressing, perfecting – and into a more honest and compassionate response. This often involves connecting with others in an authentic, healing way.
In a word, we accept our humanity in the moment rather than how we think we should feel or how we wish we felt. In this space of acknowledgment, honesty, and invitation, we find rest, greater ease and support – both with ourselves, and in connection with others.