I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.
~ Sigmund Freud
Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.
A father’s drive to protect his family is ancient, primal and male affirming.
The fire that can course through a father’s body when called to protect is lava hot, bubbling up and over and steaming out from the ears.
A father’s impulse and, on those occasions, the capacity to protect his family is a boost of confidence and pride like no other. It is as affirming to a father as the capacity to create and provide. This drive goes back to the beginning of man.
However, if this urge to protect is born from an anxious view of the world, the danger may reside closer to home. In these situations, fathers can best protect their families by examining how their anxiety may threaten their families’ well being.
The Protective Father: A Mythical Symbol
The protective father is a mythical symbol residing in any modern, Western man’s unconscious fantasies and dreams. One common manifestation is the king, an ancient symbol of fatherly protection, standing for law and order and tasked with protecting the kingdom.
Sometimes, fatherly protection is divinely ordered: Noah was given the vision of a catastrophic flood to protect not only his family but the animal kingdom as well. Today, the presidential office has the power to protect as Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces, and, throughout history, has taken great liberties to wage war in the name of our protection.
There is a slippery slope of protectiveness, however: The King can become a tyrant, blindly falling over the edge from protection to violent suppression of his own kingdom, or imperialistically waging war. Or, on the other hand, abdicating his power to others. It can be a real challenge to know how to stay on course to effectively protect one’s family, and anxiety can act as a strong storm.
Real or Imagined Danger: Protectiveness and Anxiety
Anxiety is seductive. It is a cocktail of reality, fantasy and memory, all of which can cause us to emotionally overreact. A father’s protective instinct is not immune to such a seduction. Anxiety can cause fathers to exaggerate danger, and compel them to fantasize about how to protect their families from such dangers.
Our memories of the past live in us, and color how we perceive the world now. For instance, a father, who was neglected as a child, may have experienced a drought of emotional connection. This father may panic at the news of the drought, and fantasize about leaving all connections and ties behind to survive, like he had to do as a child. His family may then feel abandoned by him, emotionally. Or, an abused child, now a responsible parent, arms himself against would-be attackers but scares his family terribly instead. In its extreme, a father’s “overprotectiveness” can illustrate a wish to insulate children from pain, quite possibly his own.
If unexamined, anxiety can drive fathers to extreme forms of protectiveness (too much or too little) and impressionable children inherit the anxiety and a father’s particular world-view. This then becomes the imminent danger, quietly making its way through.
So, how do fathers contend with their anxiety and offer protection for their families appropriately?
Children need to be shielded from certain harsh realities, and, within reason, protected from physical harm and their own under-developed sense of danger. These are tasks for all parents. However, anxiety muddies the waters and can cause fathers to overreact or withdraw.
I propose that real protection requires that fathers commit to sifting through real versus imagined dangers by understanding the nature of their anxieties, and actively work with them so that they can think more clearly and let their inherent wisdom guide behavior. In this way, fathers can both put an end to the generational transmission of anxiety, and take more effective steps to create a safe environment for their families.
Here are four steps to begin to sift through anxious thoughts to clear the mind in order for fathers to be effective in offering protection for their families:
1. Recognize anxiety: Identify both the physical sensations and concurrent thoughts related to safety and danger. Inquire as to whether this is a particular lens that you look through the world with. You are onto something if there is an obsessional quality to these thoughts.
2. Identify if you are externalizing your fear: If you have recurring, fearful or anxious thoughts about your family’s safety, and it is hard to take any action (abdicating authority) or you find yourself anxiously taking action (overreaction), you may be externalizing anxiety and reacting emotionally.
3. Regaining your thoughtful mind: Slow down. Stop and reflect on your impulse to protect. Feel the sensation of anxiety and let the thoughts of planning and worries go. Face the fear by separating out the thought from the sensation, and focus on the physical sensation of it.
4. Thinking again: When the anxiety fades, then ask yourself, “How do I want to respond to this situation?” Take your time, and listen to your more intuitive response.
Author: Ben Ringler
Editor: Travis May
Photos: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr