Do you ever feel like life is just too heavy? You have too many problems, too many burdens. I know I feel this way sometimes. What can we do about it?

We can unburden ourselves.

Unburdening is something that I help clients do in therapy. In this column, I will walk you through how you can begin to do it for yourself.

We all have protective parts of our personality that defend us from feeling sad, mad, depressed, confused or hopeless. These protective parts want to make sure that the most vulnerable parts of ourselves are not exposed to the world. They want to keep us safe. To keep scary stuff out. In order to do this, they usually blame other people for our burdens: “They did it to me”. This may feel good in the short run, but it keeps us stuck in a victim mentality. And being a victim isn’t any fun: you feel helpless and unable to change your life for the better.

This is not the way to go.

It works much better to be curious about our victim mentality: Why have we embraced it? What is it doing for us? Are there some benefits we get from playing the victim? Would people like us as much if we didn’t? These are questions I like to explore with clients who have trouble moving from victim to self-empowered. Let’s look at some ways to make that shift.

Most of us have aspects of our personality – proactive protectors – that try to keep emotional pain away by acting like personal “managers”: they judge us and tell us that we need to be/do/act a certain way to be socially acceptable. They tell us that we’re doing it wrong, that we’re not good/beautiful/smart/rich enough, and we never will be. They tell us to “stay small and play safe” so no one will hurt us.

Reactive protectors distract us from emotional pain. If you know people whose lives are very dramatic, full of crises and upset, these folks have very reactive protectors. This kind of protector says stuff like: “Screw them! I’m gonna do what I want” and “No one can tell me what to do.” Reactive protectors create emotional “fires” to distract us from our loneliness, unhappiness or hopelessness. They are impulsive, uninhibited and challenge social norms on a regular basis.

Protectors are not bad: their intention is to keep us safe. But, in the process, they create big “burdens”: managerial parts repress us and fiery parts urge us to act out and create trouble. Neither strategy is going to make us feel happy.

Our protectors have been with us for a long time: we can’t get rid of them. You know this if you’ve ever told yourself, “I’m not going to do that ever again”. Good luck with that! Our protectors will do almost anything to keep us feeling safe.

So what to do with these protectors? Make friends with them.

You’ve already tried to get rid of them, no doubt, and it didn’t work. Instead, get to know them. Listen to them: invite them to tell you what’s going on with them. For example, if you want to lose weight and find yourself eating too much ice cream (as I did yesterday), instead of saying, “Dammit, I don’t have any willpower!”, instead you could talk to your protectors: “Hey you guys, what’s going on with you? Talk to me”.

My protectors told me that I was scared and feeling lonely, so why not have some (a lot of) ice cream to make myself feel better. I didn’t really want the ice cream, I wanted to feel secure and loved. The ice cream was the distraction the protectors came up with so I wouldn’t feel pain.

See how it works? There’s a lot more I can tell you about these protectors. If you want to know, contact me and we can talk. For now, the next time you feel burdened and weighed down by problems, start talking with your protectors. Ask them, “What’s really going on with me, underneath my (surface) behavior?”

Your protectors have much wisdom to share with you. Start listening and your burdens will begin to fall away.