In psychology circles there are certain terms thrown around a lot… defenses, ego, schema, transference, resistance, etc…. I almost always think of Freud when I hear these words although not all of them are attributed directly to him, they just sound like big words for what the general public thinks of as human behavior. I don’t use those big words with my clients, with one exception: defenses.
I believe that it is critically important for us to understand our defenses. They are the reason for so much unhealthy behavior and by understanding yourself – why you are defending… your entire perspective of the world (literally) can change.
Our mind defends for a reason – deep hurt needs protecting. It’s part of our automatic flight or fight response. What we need to know however, is that the defense we use to protect our hearts impacts the way that we behave deep into our subconscious.
Learning what our defenses are and how they manifest in the way that we interact with the world is one of the most compelling ways to understand WHO we are.
When I was a young girl of 12 my parents divorced and my mother joined the Army. My father became depressed and began drinking too much. I was the oldest of three and took on the role of head-of-household. I relished the role because it allowed me to be ‘grown-up’ – playing house for real. I accepted the challenge and rose to the occasion of being chief cook and bottle washer for my siblings and was constantly validated for being such a strong, responsible girl. In fact, the accolades were so prominent from neighbors and relatives that I began to adopt that persona without consideration for the emotions that would (obviously) be present for ANY young girl who had essentially lost her mother and father (they were not emotionally available); I was the strong one. The only indication of the buried sadness was represented in a poem I wrote in middle school entitled: “I’m too young to be this old”. I was never able to really express or process the deep hurt of feeling so ‘abandoned’ as a young girl. (*NOTE: I was not ‘literally’ abandoned but FELT as though there was no one to help or support me and that my only choice was to be strong.) And then… I wouldn’t let people see emotion because I didn’t want them to think their perception of strength and responsibility were wrong!
Today, I understand clearly how my DEFENSE (being strong and responsible) impacts the way that I BEHAVE. In fact, I AM a strong and responsible person but I REACT to ‘imagined’ threats of being ’emotionally abandoned’.
Understand that this all happens at a subconscious level!! It protects my heart. Most of the time, it is just sitting there like a suit of armor and is insignificant but… I look back and see that this underlying defense has impacted the way that I have interacted with people throughout most of my life. When I feel that someone is emotionally unavailable to me I instinctively *think* “I don’t need you” and I will distance myself from the potential hurt. That’s when it has the potential to be a derogatory influence in my behavior.
I have had to learn how to recognize when that old “hurt” presents itself in the present and to understand that it *feels* like a threat. Ultimately the key is to figure out if the current threat is “real” – is the person I am reacting to really getting ready to ‘abandon’ me or am I simply perceiving a potential threat. It’s akin to putting yesterday’s square peg in today’s round hole – the response doesn’t fit the current situation.
Today, I know that I need to be WILLING (take the risk) to express my emotions – just because I AM a strong gal doesn’t mean that I can’t express fear of being hurt or the actual hurt when it comes. This example is just one of many defenses that I have brought into my awareness and the biggest benefit is that I am able to communicate much more clearly what I am consciously thinking, bringing clarity to my REactions with others.
What do you defend?