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defenses and feeling

“What’s keeping me from feeling?”

How could something as natural as feeling our emotions be so difficult? There is a very logical explanation for why we have trouble accessing our feelings and instead find ourselves cut off and detached. Many of us are defended against feeling and to understand why, we have to go back to when we first developed our defenses.

When we were children, we were too small and vulnerable to effectively cope with our environment.We were truly powerless and dependent on others to take care of us and meet our needs. Unfortunately, no matter how loving and caring the adults in a child’s life are, they are not able to anticipate or meet all of the needs of the child.Even the most well-meaning parent cannot help but fall short in this way. These times of inadvertent emotional insensitivity and deprivation are intensely painful and frustrating for the infant and toddler. Infants have no way of knowing that their discomfort is temporary because they don’t yet have a concept of time; they experience their pain as overwhelming and endless.

At these times, the only way for us to cope was to somehow cut off from these horrible feelings. We found ways of comforting ourselves as a substitute for what we were not getting.Whatever we did–whether we calmed ourselves with thumb sucking or other self-soothing habits, or disappeared into a world of fantasy–we were immediately relieved.The pain was lessened, and we were better able to go on with our lives.This adaptation saved us.What was the alternative?The pain was too intense for us as tiny infants, and we did what we had to do.To survive we coped intelligently: we developed defenses. This original adaptation laid the groundwork for the individual styles of defending ourselves that we each developed as we grew older.

So we grew up.And along the way–whenever we were afraid we were going to encounter any pain or unhappiness–we turned to the same defenses that served us so well as young children.But now we are adults–not children.We are no longer dependent on others to survive.Even though we are no longer powerless victims in the world we live in, we are still living as though we are.We are clinging desperately to our childhood defenses, believing we still need to be protected from a world that can overwhelm us.We are unaware that those types of threats do not exist anymore, not in the world of the adult.

It is helpful to examine how your original defensive adaptations are affecting your life today. Can you remember how you cut yourself off from pain and frustration when you were little?What were the behaviors or habits that soothed you as a child? Did you suck your thumb?Did you rub a favorite blanket?Did you distract yourself by picking a fight with another child?Did you keep yourself company by talking to an imaginary friend?Did you disappear into a world of fantasy and make-believe? Did you withdraw and refuse to take anything from anyone else?

Now think about yourself today. Typically those of us who soothed ourselves—with thumb-sucking, rubbing a favorite blanket, twirling our hair –now find ourselves struggling with addictions to food, drugs or alcohol. Those of us who calmed ourselves with rocking or other repetitive behaviors now find ourselves restricted by lives of routines and compulsivity.Those of us who originally withdrew into fantasy, now find ourselves lost in daydreaming about success instead of pursuing real goals. And those of us who vowed to never need anything from anybody now find ourselves leading isolated, self-denying, lonely lives.

It is ironic that the very defenses that saved us emotionally so long ago are now robbing us of our lives today.What originally served as a reasonable adaptation to an unbearable situation has become our imprisoning agent. So here we stand–shrouded in the armor of our childhood defenses–not realizing that it is safe to shed the armor.Unaware that we are indeed free to move about unencumbered.

Free to feel. Free to be ourselves. Free to experience our lives.

3 comments

  1. Karen Wager-Smith, PhD

    I think this article hits the nail on the head. I would love to know the author and date, and what else the author has written on this topic. I find that Schema Therapy is a good technique for dismantling the armor.

  2. “So we grew up.And along the way–whenever we were afraid we were going to encounter any pain or unhappiness–we turned to the same defenses that served us so well as young children.But now we are adults–not children.We are no longer dependent on others to survive.Even though we are no longer powerless victims in the world we live in, we are still living as though we are.We are clinging desperately to our childhood defenses, believing we still need to be protected from a world that can overwhelm us.We are unaware that those types of threats do not exist anymore, not in the world of the adult.”

    HOGWASH- whoever you are…one does not truly exist unless you are interactive and therefore dependent in effect to some degree- but nevertheless on external powers in a meaningless world. Ask Woody Allen- a blessed existentialist who postulates that one can only compensate inevitable meaninglessness with artful distraction- ah yes! Alas, your ideas are sunken in ego…awaken mi amor to the great mandala…

    • I disagree with you that the world has no meaning, thats just typical philosophical bullshit proliferated by people who seek out meaning unaware that their seeking is what creates a sense of meaninglessness.

      Our entire experience and the landscape we inhabit is rich in meaning. Language is inherently meaningful and if it seems otherwise it is my belief that the meaning making part of our brain mind has either suffered some damage related to stress or negative thinking or is too preoccupied with other matters.

      Though I do agree we are dependent on one another to some degree and we should be grateful for everything good that comes our way as it was the result of other people’s hard work intelligence and dedication.

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