How Defenses Shield Us From Harm
All of us use psychological defenses; they protect us from unbearable truths about ourselves, each other, and the world in which we live. In themselves, defenses are inherent aspects of the human condition, and can be healthy deterrents to clinical syndromes (although some argue that emotional well-being equates with always seeing the world as it is). But, sometimes, our defenses can become toxic, precluding us from experiencing any semblance of joy.
I’ve written extensively about some of the things I went through as a kid and teenager and how they eroded my self-esteem and relationships. Psychological trauma makes one feel that life is happening to him, rather than his own potential for self-efficacy, which is the sense of his ability to grow. During the period of our lives when we’re just learning to understand life, abuse and neglect take hold of our will to act, creating a cycle of automated responses that shield us from pain; the promise of our lives becomes negated by an overactive drive for survival.
And, as with any other phobia, we come to form erroneous generalizations about people, even fearing those whose lives provide us with the reasons to continue living. It all feels like a suffocating trap. The fear of being harmed, emotionally, physically, sexually, causes us to push others away and reject them before they get the chance to reject us. Our protective barriers lock us in impenetrable bubbles, which present to us as destiny.
So, when clients come to see me, they often complain of poor relationships, loneliness, and sadness, unable to understand their patterns in the broader contexts of their lives, wondering if they can ever change.
The beauty about patterns is that they’re representations of possible behavioral outcomes, indicating no more than how you’ve thus far decided to respond to certain stimuli. And patterns can be changed. The predominant myth of personality psychology is that characters, or characteristics, can’t change, but if that were the case, then I’d virtually be out of work. According to research, and I highly recommend the work of Christian Miller for this (author of The Character Gap), personalities can fluctuate over time and even space; someone can act in an honest manner in one scenario and in a deceptive one in another. In essence, our malleability gives us hope for characterological change, and thus for our own well-being.
So, how does trauma operate? For me, because I felt less-than when I was kid, I reasoned that romance and success just weren’t for me. I never tried to perform well in school, and I pushed away girls who wanted to date me. I was easily susceptible to criticism, which was my natural disposition since I was a highly sensitive child, and therefore, combined with actually experiencing it on a constant basis, I struggled with anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Subsequently, all of it transformed into a cycle. Because I was blocking out the good (by refusing to take an active role in my life) and failed to acknowledge the inevitability of the bad, my life was comprised, for the most part, of the bad. Before I died, I never gave myself the chance to live.
Trauma can take everything away from you, but it doesn’t have to. I thought I needed to be perfect, but I didn’t. I thought I didn’t need to be loved, but I did.
As I reassess my life, I focus on the regrets I have for all of the experiences I missed… all because of trauma. But, as with any other phobia, I finally realized (mostly through therapy) that I could overcome it. So, lately, I’ve been putting myself out there more and accepting invitations to events I would never have attended several years ago, and I’ve surrounded myself with good people who build me up instead of putting me down.
Needing to be perfect stole my ability to connect with others. For, the delusion of perfection hindered empathy and vulnerability, the two traits that are absolutely indispensable to intimacy. When you believe that you’re above everyone around you, how can you ever understand their struggles? And how can you be vulnerable when you’re always strong and perfect?
I lived automatically, enslaved to my delusions and relentless obsessions, but you don’t have to be. Once you accept that your relationship woes are your natural reactions to the fear of pain and loss, you can begin to learn how to foster healthy connections, asserting your own needs while also trying to meet theirs. I once believed that what I really wanted, and even needed, was to be the best… what a lonely life that would have been. What a lonely life that was.