Clever defences … or a personal prison?
We all develop our own defensive strategies. It’s part of growing up and maturing into our society and culture. Some of those strategies work well and keep us safe while allowing us the freedom to explore and to make mistakes. However, some become prisons and keep us locked away, lonely and sad. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I have not visited many castles outside the UK but I have visited a Crusader castle, Krak de Chevaliers.
I don’t know if this magnificent fortification is typical of Crusader castles; perhaps you do.
The castle sits on a spit of land that juts into a gorge. To three sides it is approachable only up sheer cliff faces rising up from the gorge. That may be ok for a free climber; it is not ok for an armoured and armed assault force. To the fourth side the castle can only be approached from a narrow neck of land also on a steep incline – easily observed and easily defended.
But that’s not the only clever defence.
The front door (I use the term loosely) of the castle is approached along a passage open to the sky and formed from two angled sheer defensive walls which bristle with arrow slots and boiling-oil dispensing chutes with – and this is the clever part – a 90 degree bend that finally leads to the door. This arrangement meant that the enemy could not send in the cavalry, could not use a battering ram and could not commit troops without that force being massacred.
The castle was built to withstand mass assault. It was essentially impregnable. It could not be taken by storm … but it was taken by subterfuge - betrayal by someone inside. Someone willing to open the door to invaders.
Something similar can happen when we defend ourselves so strongly that we stop anyone getting near us. Our defences cannot be breached by a head-on assault, but they could be breached by someone inside.
If our strong defences are breached, if someone does manage to break-in or break-through, it is usually the action of something inside us that definitely doesn’t want to be alone anymore and allows this to happen. Something inside us that wants to be part of something more may decide to open the side door and let someone in.
Defences built to exclude others are usually created in childhood. For some reason the child concluded that his/her needs will not be met by those closest. It may be that caregivers were neglectful or ill and incapable of caring or there were other siblings competing for attention or that family circumstances meant that caregivers simply could not be available to the child emotionally or physically or both.
The child may have learned that it was pointless to ask or expect anything and so learned to become self-contained.
However, human beings are relational and we need others to survive and thrive. It takes a lot of energy and self-discipline to need nothing from others. It takes a huge toll on mind and body.
Whatever the situation that gave rise to the need for defences those defences will have been constructed as a survival strategy and integrated into thoughts, emotions and viscerally – yes! It affects our whole self, mind and body. It is not shyness or introversion.
However, the strategy that worked in childhood is not necessarily the best strategy for an adult.
An adult has richer experiences on which to draw, has learned more potent skills and is more capable than their younger self. The adult does not need to rely on what their younger self knew and concluded about the world and the people in it long, long ago. That is out-of-date knowledge and understanding and the strategy needs to change.
Many adults with a strategy like this really want to be “normal” – and this is not my word – and to be able to do what others seem to do and have what others seem to have. They are often deeply sad that the things most take for granted: making friends, making small talk with passing strangers, being able to be intimate with someone special or choosing to have a family, feels impossible for them.
However, we have choices. We can learn to think and feel differently. Yes, we do have a choice about how we feel. To change is not necessarily easy; it is possible.
Typically well defended people do have some long standing relationships that are strong and meaningful: people they have grown up with at school or a sibling or relative or a close neighbour. Asking for help may still feel really hard, but it is very likely that help will be given. Typically these relationships were formed as the strategy was “hardening”; these people may have got in under the wire. These are the people who will provide support as a person starts to make changes.
It takes courage to allow the sense of panic that often accompanies asking for help to rise and then pass. It can feel easier and safer to stay-put especially if the well defended person is holding on to the belief that things cannot be different for them and their life.
Taking the first steps outside defences and exploring what might possible can feel easier with a therapist because the therapeutic relationship is confidential, boundaries are clear and being yourself is definitely ok. The role of the therapist is to create space – physical and emotional – in which it is safe-enough to do that exploring, to rehearse and to check and to make plans.
The nature of the defensive strategy is that it is integrated cognitively, emotionally and viscerally and therefore, different kinds of therapy that will suit different people. Amongst the many types of therapy are: talking therapies, creative therapies such as art therapy or music therapy, and body therapies. The most important thing is that the relationship between the client and their chosen therapist is right for the client.
It takes courage to step outside our defences but know that if you do, you have grasped an opportunity to change your life …
“This is the day to leave the dark behind you,
Take the adventure, step beyond the hearth,
Shake off at last the shackles that confined you,
And find the courage for the forward path.
You yearned for freedom through the long night watches,
The day has come and you are free to choose,
Now is you r time and season.
Companioned still by your familiar crutches,
And leaning on the props you hope to lose,
You step outside and widen your horizon.”
From First Steps, Brancaster by Malcolm Guite