On Defense Mechanisms

We’ve all got defense mechanisms. Each of us is equipped with an immune system, a biological defense mechanism, and even the most disordered immune system still exists, though it may not function properly.

We’ve also got these often subconscious behaviors that psychologists call defense mechanisms, behaviors like denial, sublimation, compartmentalization. (Read more about common defense mechanisms here, if you’re interested.) Defense mechanisms are not inherently “bad” or “good,” “healthy” or “unhealthy.” How or how often we employ them is what defines their value.

Imagine each defense mechanism is a brick and each time you employ it, you’re applying mortar and trowel. As we are battered and wearied by life, our brick and mortar walls grow. The walls we build keep us “safe” by protecting us from that which we perceive as a threat to our emotional, spiritual, psychological well-being. Long before we realize it, we’ve domiciled ourselves in towers to rival Rapunzel’s, but unlike Rapunzel, we’ve done it to ourselves. We are trapped in stair-less, door-less towers of our own making.

Those walls we’ve built to protect ourselves keep others out or at a safer distance, but they also serve to keep us in. Life becomes stale, our hearts become lonely, embittered, our longings dim, we live at a distance from hope. Life somehow becomes not a story to be lived but endured.

Marc Falardeau, "Urban Zoo" Creative Commons License, Used with permission

Photo credit: Marc Falardeau, “Urban Zoo” Used and modified under Creative Commons License. Quote by findimue

I don’t know about you, but I know for myself that’s not the kind of life I want to live. I want to tell a better story. I want to do more than endure.

So, what can we do to free ourselves? How do we escape the towers we’ve built?

Since we don’t have Rapunzel’s hair, presumably, we have to find other ways.

I don’t think it’s about tearing down the walls. I think it’s about purposefully rebuilding to include fences and gates and rooms and doors and windows and staircases and fire escapes and escape hatches and hidden passageways, and even a panic room, perhaps. The question to ask is, how can I rebuild to create a healthier space?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but I think the first place we start is with awareness. We wake up to the fact that we’ve walled ourselves away.

What walls are you hiding behind? What walls are you living within?

We acknowledge that the walls served a purpose. We acknowledge we have overbuilt.

What defense mechanisms have kept you safe? How did they get out of control? Where did you overdo your defenses?

We renovate. We find new ways to cope, new, healthier defense mechanisms. We lower our defenses and make ourselves strategically vulnerable. We choose visibility. We find safe forums, trustworthy friends, respected therapists, and we open our mouths and speak whatever of our truths we can begin with. I choose to be strategically vulnerable by writing this blog, for instance.

What would strategic vulnerability look like for you? Who will you trust with your pain? Where can you lower your defenses a bit? How can you open up the walls to let in some air and light? What would air and light look like to you?

Shauna Niequist writes, “Lots of times we keep ourselves all safe and locked up and guarded, and we promise that as soon as someone else is vulnerable, we’ll do it, too. But it doesn’t work that way. Someone has to be brave enough to begin. Why not you?” (On Vulnerability & Cats: http://shaunaniequist.com/vulnerability-cats/)

I’m choosing to be brave enough. Will you? May we step into the space created by those who are already living free and vulnerable lives. May our rebuilding create space for others to be strategically vulnerable, too, and may we find in our shared vulnerability a true and lasting strength.

“When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable.” – Madeleine L’Engle

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