We all grow up with imperfect parents. Imperfect friends. Imperfect teachers… Our life circumstances will eventually, at some point, become jarring, wounding. Some will be wounded more than others, but all of us, at some point in our life, have had to experience the painful feeling of disappointment. That disappointment can come from feeling let down, abandoned, humiliated, shamed, abused, ridiculed, neglected, dismissed, etc…. It happens at some point during our childhood and can have a profound impact on how we then view the world and respond to it.
Nature has equipped us with this amazing skill though, which I sometimes observe with a sense of wonder in people that have suffered severe trauma: resilience. Resilience is a form of resistance to adversity. Something that makes you stronger, in a way. It keeps you going. And to keep going, you develop coping strategies. Coping strategies, or mechanisms, are extremely important. Without them, some circumstances could make us go crazy. They could break us. But a coping mechanism is what makes you learn to be self-sufficient when you have experienced that no one is there for you. It’s what makes you shut down and tune out when you have been showered with criticism. It’s the perfectionism you exercise in all situations of life because you learnt that it was the only way you would get noticed, or it’s the control you exercise over your money, your body, your house, because that was the only way you could make sense of the chaos in which you grew up. It’s the voice that tells you it’s better to help others than to let others help you because really, no one can or wants to help you. And it’s also the caution you exercise with new people because you have been really betrayed, or the refusal to talk about anything negative because what got you through a tragic experience was focusing on the positive and pretending the negative didn’t exist. All of these are so important, such strengths…. during childhood, when you are so dependent, so needy, and so deprived of resources other than the ones that are failing you.
However, as we grow up into adulthood and move into new stages of life, stages of independence and then commitment with significant ones, these coping strategies that once were strengths, can turn against us and against the ones we love. I have found, in my own life, and in my practice, that what got you through childhood is never what keeps you intimately connected to a loved one. To the contrary. It is often what creates a wall, a rift, what isolates you more. These strategies often prove very useful in a work environment, but seldom help us to get closer to someone. Why? Because most of the time, their purpose was to protect us from something or someone that was harmful and dangerous. They operate as a shield, thereby isolating us from other potential harmful sources.
When you are under threat, your whole body, directed by your brain, sends you into a fight or flight response. The same thing happens when you are in conflict with someone that matters to you. And the whole point of the fight or flight response is self-protection and survival. If that is the baseline of how you relate to your loved one, there isn’t much safety in that relationship! Intimacy needs safety, comfort, and predictability. It needs vulnerability, openness, and honesty.
Are you wanting to be emotionally intimate, but find yourself hiding back behind those protective shields, as if on auto pilot, as if the script was the same old one, and the end of the story was already all laid out for you and it was bad? Do you find it hard to unlearn some of those patterns and trust that opening up, trusting, asking for help, sharing feelings, could actually lead to a positive response, the one you’ve always longed for but stopped believing and hoping for a long time ago?
The work of therapy can be one that rewires those responses, offering a corrective experience and exploring the beliefs that formed those patterns, so that awareness can be gained and you can become the pilot of your own adult life, rather than being controlled by the unconscious agreements you’ve made in your childhood. It’s worth it! Your relationships are worth it. YOU are worth it! Take a risk and consider entering into that journey with the right therapist for you.