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From its inception, psychoanalysis (and the field of psychotherapy) has explored how individuals protect themselves when faced with overwhelming emotional pain. This can be the pain caused by events in the past (pain that we that repress and unconsciously work to keep at a distance), or the pain resulting from more recently traumatic events.
We seem designed to find ways (often unconscious ways) to manage our suffering.
As children, our capacity to effectively handle trauma is limited. And in some instances, the effects of loss/abandonment, neglect, abuse and peer ostracism leave indelible marks on the young self.
These early experiences shape our self-capacities (McCann & Pearlman, 1990), impacting the way we navigate our emotional and interpersonal lives. Central to this process is our ability to adjust and regulate emotions and experiences that can overwhelm the self. What follows are a few ways you might have learned to protect yourself against strong emotions or difficult events.
How we protect ourselves
Unconscious adherence to roles
Whether they work for us or not, there is an inherent restrictiveness to the roles we inhabit — the socially sanctioned rules that govern gender-norms is a primary example. Research shows that there is an emotional cost for men who rigidly adhere to traditional masculine norms (O’Neil, 1981; O’Neil, JM, Good, GE, & Holmes, S. 1995).
Based upon which masculine ideals are internalized, men may have a difficult time experiencing and expressing a wide range of feelings, with this emotional restrictiveness adversely impacting their capacity for emotional connection and intimacy. Emotional vulnerability and pain may quickly be transformed into anger (and rage), since in most men, anger doesn’t violate the sense of self the way fear or tearfulness would.
Rigid role adherence (for both masculine or feminine roles) creates an oversimplified, caricatured version of self-experience and relationships. You may exist comfortably within a particular role, protecting yourself from the uncertainty and anxiety that may arise from edging past the boundaries of traditional gender norms.
Can you think about the gender role ideals that have shaped your identity? Which ideals do you value and in what ways do they work for you? Are there any role-norms you comply with that may not work for you? How do you think these hold you back or negatively impact your relationship(s)?
Like touching a hot stove and quickly pulling your hand away, it’s common to pull your attention away from an experience that causes you distress. This internal shell game of attentiveness-inattentiveness was called selective inattention by the renowned psychiatrist H.S. Sullivan.
We all use selective inattention. At times we may do so intentionally. Here are some examples of empowered choices in that regard: “I’m not going to spend the weekend thinking about stress at work”; “I don’t want this kind of negativity to impact our time together, so let’s discuss something else.” These are not acts of denial.
There are also times when our diversion of attention occurs so automatically, beyond our conscious control, that we are not even aware it is happening.
Problems arise when we habitually pull our attention (selectively turn away) from distressing or anxiety-inducing experiences. When this occurs, we are never allowed opportunities to stay present with an experience and learn/grow from it. The range of our attention is narrowed and so is our experience of ourselves and others.
For instance, by avoiding our anger, we may have a difficult time asserting ourselves and setting healthy boundaries. By not attending to our anxiety about addressing a sensitive issue with our partner/spouse or friend, we may remain stuck in a relational pattern that we resent and feel helpless to change.
Can you think about other ways in which you learned to rely upon selective inattention? How it may help you at times cope when you are overwhelmed and the ways in which it may hinder self-growth in the long run?
Over-thinking, over-feeling, over-acting
We are all thinking, feeling and acting beings, and these three different self-experiences interact and influence each other in complex and often unconscious ways. In thinking about something (rather than moving into action right away), we may gain greater clarity about our feelings. By staying present with our feelings, we may decide to take a certain action that is informed by what our emotions show us. And by taking a certain action, a deeper understanding of ourselves (what we feel and what values we hold) may emerge.
But the above implies a symbiotic relationship between thinking, feeling and acting. And this isn’t, of course, always the case. Some of us quickly move into action as a way of removing ourselves from what we are feeling — in this case, action becomes a form of acting-out that is used to protect us from some inner, painful experience. Action replaces self-reflection in these instances.
Or we may constantly exist in our heads, so to speak, over-thinking without any acknowledgement of our feelings or without any commitment to taking potentially beneficial action. When this occurs, we protect ourselves through mental inertia, avoiding the inherent risks involved in making a decision or taking an action that can have consequences that are beyond our control.
How might you use thinking, feeling & acting to protect yourself? Are there any downsides to this form of self-protection for you?
There are countless ways we protect ourselves from psychological/emotional pain. You might make a conscious choice to use something that works particularly well for you (for instance, you might have a trusted other whom you turn to when you are struggling and this person brings you comfort).
And then there are the modes of self-protection that are habitual, learned early on and like any habits, we might not even be aware that we are using them as a form of self-protection. For habitual forms of self-protection, it can be important to slow down these automated responses so that you can decide if other actions might be better suited for the current context of your life.
There might be downsides to certain kinds of emotional self-protection. In these instances, what was once a solution may have morphed into a problem for you. The use of alcohol, drugs, food or sex to numb-out certain feelings is an example of that.
The final question I’d like to leave you with today is:
What are the different ways in which you protect and comfort yourself? And do you want to add to your coping toolbox or do away with any outdated (and unhelpful) self-protective habits?
Until next time,
Rich Nicastro, Ph.D.
(Featured photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash)