"Protecting the guilty" is a phrase I use a lot in therapy. To be honest, I didn't coin the phrase. I learned it from a very wise local psychologist named Patricia Tollison. So what does "protecting the guilty" mean, and why do we do it?
First a little background. As children, we are extremely vulnerable. Without the love and protection of our parents, we would not thrive or, in some cases, even survive. Regardless of the amount of severe abuse or neglect they've suffered, clients will often report that they had "good parents." They go on to say that there was always a roof over their head and food to eat. "Some people don't even have that."
Why are we so willing to protect people who have hurt us? As I've said before, children are in a very vulnerable position. They need to stay close, both physically and emotionally, to their caretakers to survive. Even in extremely chaotic or abusive situations, children will idealize their parents. One way they accomplish this is to justify whatever treatment they receive. They believe that since the parent can't possibly be at fault, they themselves must truly be bad. They internalize what they hear and feel. And often in these families, other available adults are not questioning the status quo.
This pattern is so ingrained that, fast forward a few decades, they're still living it. This way of thinking is internalized: "I am bad." "I will never amount to anything." "I don't deserve to be treated well." "I don't even know what healthy relationships look like." The way to break the cycle is to stop protecting the guilty--to stop justifying bad behavior and to see your younger self for who she/he was. The process involves acknowledging your anger, hurt, and sadness, to put the responsibility for the abuse, neglect, or chaos where it belongs. Easier said than done--it requires seeing old relationships in a new light, which feels like separation anxiety and loss. This does not, however, require you to confront your parents. You can do this work with yourself.
Due to their own unresolved issues, not all parents love or have their children's best interests at heart. Letting go of the need to protect and justify abusive behavior allows you to break the old patterns and negative beliefs about yourself, and move forward with a new sense of self-worth and confidence.