Do you remember that scene in The Bodyguard where Whitney Houston is swept into Kevin Costner’s arms and carried to safety? Adrenaline is pumping. The danger is extreme and Kevin Costner is on high alert. Due to his action, the characters escape. We stop holding our breath and sink back in our seats. They’re safe!
We all have an internal bodyguard whose job is to protect us from feeling hurt, overwhelmed, powerless, or shamed. As in the movies, the same basic theme is played with endless variations. Humans are highly creative when we are motivated by survival level threats. We are hardwired to seek safety.
Our personal bodyguard is our fight/ flight/ freeze system. It evolved over thousands of years to keep us safe from physical threats and it is lightning fast. We refer to it as our primitive brain for a reason. We also have more highly evolved areas of the brain that react more slowly. We are capable of emotional intelligence, reasoning, more accurate threat perception and strategies to keep us both safe and connected.
Our bodyguard has one job. When Kevin swept Whitney up in his arms and removed her from danger, he did so without regard for interrupting her career or causing chaos in the audience. He was focused on her safety. Period.
We can agree our bodyguard plays an essential role. We do need to jump out of the street when our senses alert us to a speeding car. Our ancestors were good enough at this that they survived to procreate and pass this system on to us.
There are two problems with the way this works in modern life. One is that evolution happens over millions of years and our culture has shifted dramatically in the past hundred years. Our bodyguard does not have the sophistication to recognize and keep us safe around emotional and social threats. We’re stuck with a tool that is outdated and no longer appropriate for the job.
The second problem arises from the fact that our bodyguard uses evidence from the past to assess risk in this moment. Emotional neglect or not feeling like we matter to our parents is a survival level threat for a child. Babies and children don’t have the brain development or emotional maturity to handle being on their own. They have a very limited window of tolerance for being ignored.
Children feel safe when they are in connected environments at home, with friends or at school. They gradually develop the internal resources to be self-reliant. Children who miss out on this don’t develop these resources and rely more on their primitive system of fight/ flight/ freeze.
“The effect of traumatic events is that we disconnect from ourselves, our sense of value and the present moment.” Dr Gabor Maté
This is important because it identifies both the underlying mechanism of disconnect and the pathway to healing. Mindfulness inquiry can allow us to stay present with what arises that feels uncomfortable and to notice the actual process of disconnecting.
This practice guides you through. As we become more familiar with our experience of feeling threatened, we can update our files to use our whole brain, not just the unconscious programming from childhood. We notice when we are triggered into fight/ flight/ freeze. This is how we increase our capacity for being connected. This is how our bodyguard becomes more skillful. This is how we heal and show up fully in our lives.