When I check in with a new client about how their body feels about being on the table, they often report that they feel tense, guarded, wary. Their body is still gathering information about whether this new environment is safe, and they are not yet ready to trust my good intentions.
For some clients, it is the first time they have had permission to check in with their body and take all the time they need to give unforced consent to be touched. They feel relieved when I give them plenty of space to get to know this Inner Guardian who protects their boundaries. Some clients report an ongoing struggle between a fierce Inner Guardian and the parts of them that are in pain and want help.
Ideally, an Inner Guardian is an internalized version of lovingly protective adults around a growing child. When adults intervene to protect a child when needed, and also step back to let the child take action on their own, the child learns to both ask for help and rely on their own strength. Their Inner Guardian continues learning skills and flexibility from the examples around them.
When a child does not have protection and is repeatedly exposed to bullying or abuse, a part of them learns to stand guard out of desperation. This part presents a strong front to the outside world and shelters the terrified child parts inside.
This Inner Guardian tends to be frozen in time, a young child acting older than their years. The Guardian might present as more masculine than the child as a whole if the child believes that masculinity is required for fierceness and strength.
If school is safer than home, the Inner Guardian might march the child to school on time and make sure homework gets done. Some Inner Guardians rely on intellectual strength rather than physical strength to figure out the rules and stay safe.
All or nothing thinking
Young children are prone to all or nothing thinking. An overwhelmed Inner Guardian might divide the world into abusers and good people, holding themselves responsible for figuring out which is which. Sadly, warning signs are easy to discern in hindsight, but are less clear in advance. Abusers do often start with small boundary violations to test a victim. At the same time, there is a high social cost to responding forcefully to every small boundary violation.
In truth, most of us are in the messy middle, trying our best to be good people and sometimes causing harm. Even people who are intentional predators will have friends and communities who vouch for them.
Rather than trying to classify people as good or bad, we can classify behavior as working for us or not. If someone’s behavior does not work for us, we can try to find ways to tolerate it, ask for change, or distance ourselves from the situation, without labels.
Separate past and present
If we witness someone behaving in a predatory way, the first step is to protect ourselves and separate past from present. It is easy to get triggered into feeling panicked and helpless when behavior reminds us of childhood situations. With our adult resources, we can name the behavior to others and offer support to those affected.
The Inner Guardian might carry the belief from childhood that there is no help available and they have to take care of every problem by themselves. Needs for rest and care might be embarrassing and disallowed. They might also be exhausted and long for enough safety to be able to rest.
Inner Guardians are often reserved around other people. They can also be warmly protective when someone seems vulnerable. This can lead to polarized relationships where one person’s Inner Guardian is relating to another person’s fragile inner child. The relationship can fracture abruptly when someone expresses qualities outside their assigned role, vulnerability on the Guardian side or strength on the child side. This can trigger intense feelings of betrayal and abandonment.
Sense your Inner Guardian
We can relate to others in a more balanced way when our vulnerable inner children are protected by our own Inner Guardian. Are you already familiar with the part of you that asserts boundaries and calls out injustice? Maybe your Inner Guardian helps you follow the rules and keep your head down. Your Inner Guardian might stand strong in your legs and curl your fists, or they might shield your back, or they might live in your head, figuring things out.
Especially for women, an Inner Guardian’s actions can bring disapproval for not being sufficiently compliant, cooperative, or submissive. An Inner Guardian can get buried in the effort to fit in and get along. What do you notice inside if you give yourself permission to be strong, fierce, or angry?
Buried Inner Guardians can act covertly, pushing away people who get too close and opportunities that feel too risky. Do you notice something in you that wants to protect you, but is acting out of step with your conscious goals?
Inner Guardians can constrict inside, causing chronic tightness and pain in their efforts to protect us or hold us back. They can flare in response to perceived invasion, which leads to sensitivities and a narrow window of tolerance for change, discomfort, or unfamiliar situations.
Take some time to listen to your Inner Guardian. It might be a strong presence that speaks up right away, or it might be a vague sense in the background that takes a while to become clearer. Offer resonant warmth and acceptance to what you hear. Perhaps it will let you know what it is wanting and not wanting for you, from its point of view.
You do not need to argue, bargain, placate, or convince the Inner Guardian of anything. If voices leap in with opinions, listen kindly to them as well.
You might hear about panicked struggles for control in an effort to create reliable safety. You might hear about the terror of repeated betrayals that makes it impossible to let go and trust people in authority.
You might hear a child’s despair at being outmatched and helpless while boundaries were violated. This can lead to either shutting down or using full force when feeling threatened.
You might hear about old rules like, “If I don’t stand up for myself well enough, it’s my fault if I get abused.” Let them know that you hear the rule, and the pain it has caused. Stay aware that while standing up for oneself might cause some abusers to reconsider, the abuser is responsible for the choice to commit abuse.
Balance in the present
As you build a connection with your Inner Guardian by listening warmly, they can begin to notice your current body size, skills, and resources. As they become more integrated into the present, you can offer a more balanced, skillful response to present-time threats.
- Brene Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness offers tips to balance strength and vulnerability as we find our own path.
- Barbara McGavin and Ann Weiser Cornell share their model for working with protective and fragile inner parts in their article Treasure Maps of the Soul.
- The article is part of Radical Acceptance of Everything by Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin which I highly recommend for compassionate tools to work with inner parts.