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Surprise! Your Defenses Can Make You MORE Vulnerable

As a child, your defenses help ward off anxiety—but what about as an adult?

Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/CCO Creative Commons

However much you’re aware of it, your various psychological defenses are designed to accomplish one thing. And that’s to diminish whatever distressing feelings, at the moment, are beyond your capacity to handle. These defenses originated in early childhood: a time when your resources for coping with emotional disturbances were slight at best—which made you especially vulnerable to experiencing fear and anxiety.

Still, unless over time you gain conscious control of these knee-jerk, self-protective mechanisms, they’ll remain with you indefinitely. And way past the point that they serve any useful, shielding function. Unfortunately, once these defenses get “locked in,” they’re automatic—and it may not even occur to you to reevaluate their utility. The ultimate irony of these archaic defenses is that although initially they operated to protect you psychologically, eventually they’ll make you not less vulnerable but more so.

Consider, for example, the matter of relationships—in particular, intimate relationships. Say, you felt emotionally engulfed by a parent—that their relationship with you was oppressive, burdensome, undesirably close—too intimate. Experiencing them as encroaching upon, or violating, your personal space, you desperately needed to devise a way to create a “safer,” more comfortable distance from them. You may have stopped confiding in them, strenuously resisted any of their attempts at “flooding” you with affection, spent as much time as possible at friends’ houses, developed a stiff-arming posture of anger or hostility toward them, and so on. Drawing your line in the relationship sand to protect what felt to be crucial boundaries of self (or personal integrity), you looked for ways to safeguard yourself from their unwanted intrusions.

On the other hand, if you had a parent who was woefully neglectful of you—overly detached and disconnected—you would have felt compelled to devise strategies to defend yourself from such frightening unconcern. For the relationship would have felt alarmingly tenuous to you, leaving you with a multitude of fears around rejection and abandonment. As a result, you might have repeatedly tried to “secure” the bond and test their commitment to you by acting out in ways (frequently through anger) almost guaranteed to get increased attention from them (however negative). Or you may have gone out of your way trying to please them in hopes that they’d recognize your value, acknowledge you, and explicitly express approval of you. Or you may have become clingy—afraid to leave their side for fear that they’d then forget about you entirely. And these are but a handful of scenarios that might have characterized your defensive reaction to their worrisome lack of caring.

Once you become an adult, the manner in which you’ll seek to safeguard yourself from too-intimate relationships, or endeavor to feel more secure in too-detached ones, won’t exactly replicate what, defensively, you contrived to do earlier. Yet the dye has been cast. Your self-protective relationship programs are unlikely to vary that much from what at least seemed to work best for you in the past. So it makes sense that if as a child you experienced a parent (or parents) either as too close or too distant, you’d already have established a lifelong “game plan” to oppose anyone near to you from following in their footsteps. And in both cases, your overriding need for self-protection would have been born of your having felt so distressed—and distrustful— in your former primary relationship.

Perhaps two of our greatest fears in life are that either we’re not free to be ourselves—for we’ve felt denied that right by others—or that we’re all alone because others see us as unlovable, or unacceptable. In the example I’ve been using here, the too-close parent (ensnaring, entangling, or enmeshed with us) would likely prompt the first negative belief; the too-distant parent (dismissive, disregardful, or rejecting) the second. And however unconsciously, such ancient fears can easily end up dictating the terms of our present-day relationships. They can actually “rule” them because when past issues around closeness or intimacy get triggered in us, our original defenses to minimize relational anxiety determine our presumably “adult” reactions to our partner.

So if we had an overly involved parent who regularly threatened to engulf us, we may have developed an abnormal, exaggerated fear of losing ourselves in an (overly) intimate relationship. And if we had an extremely neglectful parent, our behavior may be governed by obsessive, security-related fears of our current partner’s not being sufficiently loving toward us to feel assured that they’ll stay with us.

But afflicted with such unconscious, anxiety-based assumptions about what the other person might do to us, we run into serious problems of gratuitously overreacting to them. For we’ll be strongly disposed to protect our vulnerability by acting out old fears in ways that only increase the possibility that the “right” amount of intimacy for us—what we truly need, and may even crave to quell old relationship anxieties—will continue to elude us. And precisely because our defenses serve either to engender too much distance from our partner, or force a closeness that may also end up making us feel threatened.

But much more than this, our overblown, now clearly dysfunctional, defenses might in both cases end up alienating our partner— who might, for instance, feel spurned by our routinely pushing them away so we can feel more “safely distant” from them. Or they might react to our incessant bids or demands for ever-greater closeness as “crowding,” or emotionally exhausting. In both instances, our unreasonable, exaggerated behaviors can ultimately lead them to become so disillusioned in the relationship that they do in fact leave us. And such desertion could then turn our worst nightmare into the most panic-laden reality. (Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies!)

For better or worse, it’s unquestionable that our original caretakers can remain ensconced in our head long after we’ve become physically independent from them. Practically, what this means is that in our intimate relationships we can’t help but experience a certain danger whenever our partner’s behavior resembles—even vaguely, or fortuitously—the behavior that caused us so much trepidation as a child. And finally, our defenses against the hazard either of engulfment or abandonment don’t optimize our chances of getting what we want, but rather sabotage them. (And to explore several earlier posts of mine that center on self-sabotage, see here, here, here, and here.)

To put this a little differently, our defenses are forged in the first place to alleviate anxiety and help us feel more safe. If we’re able to prudently regulate these self-protective mechanisms, they do succeed in enabling us to feel more secure, more in control. But these same defenses—automatically, indiscriminately, and mindlessly reenacted as adults—can easily backfire and lead to outcomes causing us increased anxiety and vulnerability.

Consider that, as adults, most of us have substantially more resources to deal with emotional challenges than we did back in our youth. In situations of disapproval, rejection, and loss, we may still be struggling, but generally we’re much better able to cope with interpersonal difficulties than in the past. So we no longer need to react—or better, overreact—to others in ways that might offend them, or prompt them to see us as weaker than we actually are. Yet until we develop adequate knowledge and awareness of our more mature status, we’re doomed, over and over, to defeat ourselves and act—defensively—against our best interests.

In the end, an intimate relationship that’s loving, trusting, and respectful can address our simultaneous craving for both independence and connection. But if we somehow feel obliged to hold onto old, antiquated defenses, these now rigidified, self-protective mechanisms will only intensify our interpersonal vulnerability. On the contrary, consciously allowing ourselves to open up to—and become more comfortable with—our ineradicable human vulnerability is likely to eventuate in our becoming less vulnerable. And able to be responsive to others and their needs in a way our defenses could not have permitted us to do earlier, we’re far more likely to achieve the caring, dependable, trustworthy relationship we may sorely have missed in growing up.

NOTE: If you can relate to this post and think others might as well, please consider sharing it with them. Also, you might want to take a look at a two-part post I wrote for Psychology Today called: “Attachment vs. Detachment: Finding the Psychological Golden Mean” (1 & 2). And finally, if you’re interested in checking out other posts I’ve done for PT (especially on relationships, child development, and self-help), here’s the link.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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