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Are You Holding Yourself Back for All the Wrong Reasons?

When you feel stuck, it’s because—unconsciously—you’ve chosen to be stuck.

Key points

  • Protective behaviors that people learned in the past to cope with overwhelming situations may no longer be helpful in present-day circumstances.
  • People's unconscious defenses may advise them not to do things that would be helpful or gratifying and may prevent them from realizing ideals.
  • People must convince their defenses that they’ve become outdated to resolve the conflict between advancing goals and retreating from them.
Fabiana/Flickr free photo
Source: Fabiana/Flickr free photo

There are many occasions when it’s appropriate to hold yourself back. Any time you’re thinking about saying or doing something you believe might well lead to a negative outcome, it’s only good reasoning to restrain yourself from acting on your initial impulse.

Just consider: When your brain is dominated by an errant impulse—maybe an overpowering desire for revenge, indiscriminate lust, suicidal imaginings, or rageful/aggressive acting out—it’s obviously wise not to relinquish self-control and undertake something hazardous.

Going in the opposite direction, however, this post will focus on holding yourself back because of earlier, now extraneous programming. This programming is grounded in as yet unrectified trauma, an essentially uncaring environment that forced you to suppress healthier behaviors due to circumstances no longer present but—unconsciously—that still feel present.

Past Defense Mechanisms May Be Outdated

If you’re like almost everyone else, you’ll regularly get messages from deep within strongly advising you not to do things that in fact would be helpful or gratifying to you. As illogical as it may seem, this is when it’s imperative to talk candidly to this psychologically defended part of yourself.

That is, if you’re to resolve the ambivalence between advancing your goals vs. retreating from them, you need diplomatically to convince your automatic, self-protective mechanism that it’s become outdated (e.g., see my “How to Talk to—and Tame—Your Outdated Defenses”).

The stubborn, resistant, unconscious part of you that keeps saying “No, don’t!” constitutes the essence of your unwillingness to alter no longer necessary behaviors. In many ways, this recalcitrant part is home to your ego, or your conscious sense of self. And, if at all, you’re probably only vaguely aware of it.

But if you can figure out what it’s so arduously endeavoring to make you wary of, in time you should probably be able to demonstrate to it that its warnings are no longer adaptive. That it’s actually preventing you from realizing your ideals, both personally and professionally.

Now completely autonomous in its archaic reasoning, as soon as you can gain access to it, you can probably persuade it to back off. For totally committed to you, or at least a past version of you, its sole aim is to safeguard your welfare.

After all, it initially changed its once valuable assisting role because you were in a situation that felt overwhelmingly threatening. So, in volunteering to protect you, it became extreme in its defensive reaction. At the time, that's just what was needed.

But no longer appropriate in its suppressive functioning, yet with a mind of its own, it now needs to be informed that while you understand it’s only trying to help you, it’s become increasingly defeatist. For you’ve probably developed adequate psychological resources for dealing effectively with the present-day situation. And compassionately brought up to date, it's generally willing to back off—allowing you not to back off.

And if, consciously, you still harbor major doubts about this, it may be useful to see a mental health professional, who can either assist you in thinking otherwise or help you establish a skill set still missing from your psychic repertoire. You may be surprised to discover that what appeared too dangerous for you—or, at least, that’s what your gut had been telling you—is no longer of much risk.

Recognize What's Holding You Back from Pursuing Happiness and Well-Being

As an example, say neither of your parents was trustworthy. They made promises they rarely kept, punished you for things they'd never talked to you about, shared with others embarrassing things you’d told them in confidence, and so on. Though they may not have intended to, they nonetheless taught you not to trust others. And as a result, as much as you’ve craved an intimate relationship, your defenses wouldn’t allow it, assuming that letting your guard down would only eventuate in additional betrayals and disappointments.

That’s why you need to get in touch with these defenses, letting them know that short of making yourself excessively vulnerable by willy-nilly trusting everybody, being much older now, you have the ability to determine who is, and isn’t, trustworthy.

And that while you’ll remain scrupulous about “over-sharing” yourself, you realize that the interpersonal closeness you seek inevitably involves taking certain chances. And that they’re worth taking. It’s now yourself whom you need to trust. That will enable you to grant your defenses a “leave of absence,” taking on the responsibility that perhaps a long time ago they single-mindedly (with your acquiescence) appropriated for themselves.

Some other things that could be helpful in not holding yourself back from pursuing what might most contribute to your happiness and well-being include:

  • Recognizing that failing at something isn’t the end of the world. Your primal defenses may think otherwise (associating failure with, say, parental criticism, rejection, or abandonment), so it’s important to offer them concrete evidence that even if you do fail, you’ll learn something practically useful, and so be more likely to succeed the next time;
  • Appreciating that, finally, what others think of you is far less important than what you think of yourself, and that acting in ways that show courage and fortitude are what will make you feel better about yourself and like yourself more—independent of the results (which you may have limited control over); and
  • Considering that whatever difficulties you experienced in the past lack the power to predict your future, unless you let them; that your present circumstances offer you opportunities that you weren’t ready to avail yourself of earlier, and that it would be foolish not to take full advantage of them.

Over the years, I’ve countless times said to frustrated therapy clients that their self-talk (most of which was unconscious) was what was controlling them and making them feel like a helpless victim. So if they truly wanted to stop sabotaging themselves, it was time to identify—and change—their defeatist inner monologue.

So, might you be ready to do your own self-reevaluation?

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


The therapeutic modality that this post is based on is Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), an orientation grounded in the ideas of Richard Schwartz, its founder. Here are two of his books written primarily for the layperson:

Schwartz, R, C. (2001). Introduction to the internal family systems model. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications.

Schwartz, R. C. (2008). You are the one you’ve been waiting for. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Publications.

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