Standing in the Shadows - Making Peace with our Defenses
Trigger Warning - childhood abuse, list of defense mechanisms that may “hit home”, abandonment
When we find ourselves in extraordinary circumstances as children, our survival brain takes over and finds whatever ways it can to help us through those circumstances alive. When those extraordinary experiences continue and we find a need to enter survival mode again and again, those survival methods become an ingrained part of our responses - not just to the extraordinary - but to the ordinary as well.
Depending upon how ingrained the defenses have become, they may appear quickly at the slightest provocation, or they may pop out only once in a while with some unexpected trigger point. Our triggers are as unique as our individual human experiences - nobody has experienced life exactly as you have - and yet, there are common ways for our minds to seek safety once those triggers arise.
This word “trigger” gets thrown around a lot these days. I’m using it here to express what happens when we’re going about our daily activities and something in the environment sets off an uncomfortable, perhaps subconscious, internal response. This internal response may provoke an external behavior and both internal and external defenses may arise.
For example, your child may be having a bit of a tantrum and suddenly makes a face that looks remarkably similar to your brother who bullied you as a child. Suddenly you’re 9 years old again and you can hear his voice berating you at the bus stop in front of your neighborhood friends. The expression on your child’s face “triggered” an unpleasant memory of another face in another time.
It is inside those triggers that we can see our defenses arise. Perhaps you can’t even actively access that memory of the bus stop, but as your child tantrums on the floor in front of you, you feel a ball of shame and fear form in your chest like a black swirling vortex. Then you dissociate a bit and the next thing you know you’re yelling at your child and then storm off to your bedroom and slam the door - leaving your child as defenseless to your rage as you were to your brother’s.
It’s not pleasant to talk about or think about our defenses. They are there for a reason and dipping into this shadowy realm often opens us up to memories and past experiences we’d really rather never visit again. Aside from what they may bring up internally for us, acting out in our defenses can also leave scars on those around us. For many, this is the point of entry. When our defensive behaviors become so pervasive that they begin to hurt those around us who we love and have a responsibility to protect, then that becomes the “something’s gotta give” point. Recognizing that our defenses can cause us to treat others in the same way we resent being treated as children, a sensitive person will want nothing more than to make the cycle stop.
While by no means comprehensive here is a list of potential defenses you may see pop up in yourself that have been “triggered” by some external experience:
Strong feelings of shame and/or guilt - this may be expressed as body sensations like feeling “kicked in the gut” or a tightening of the chest
Strong feelings of anger that feels wildly justifiable (because it probably is but you are likely aiming it at the wrong target) - this may be experienced somatically as feelings like your head’s “about to explode” or heart “pounding out of my chest” or there’s “red coming out my ears”
Overwhelming feelings of sadness or grief which can show up all over the body in many different sensations
Physical actions such as clenching your hands, picking at your skin (or other forms of self-harm), curling up into a ball, bursting into frenzied activities or literally running away
Physical symptoms such as sudden nausea, increased heart rate, indigestion, “panic attacks” that feel like a heart attack, sudden exhaustion - the need to lay down and take a nap, insomnia/sleeplessness
Chronic pain condition
Racing thoughts - “Monkey brain” jumping and swinging all over the place inside your mind
Dwelling in regrets of the past or worries about the future, unable to stay “in the moment”
Inability to speak in rational sentences or an inability to speak at all or a feeling of tightness or constriction in the throat
Feeling like you are “leaving” your body or watching yourself from outside of your body, dissociation may also present as confusion, mental fog, memory lapses, or disorientation
In defense mode your inner voices may start yelling for attention:
Critical internal voices - your “inner voice” begins to take on the scripts you may have heard as a child with such internal thoughts as:
You’re not good enough
You always do this wrong
You have to be the good boy/girl
You’re so stupid
Nobody’s ever going to respect you
Just shut up
You’re so fat and ugly
(notice these voices often start with “you”)
Other inner voices may reflect a victim role, such as:
I’m never getting out of this
Nobody ever listens to me
Is there a target on me? This always happens to me
I’m invisible - nobody can ever see me
Nobody cares about me
I’m all alone here
(notice these scripts often start start with “I” or end in “me”)
Besides the internal physical experiences and thought patterns, our defenses may also show up in how we relate to each other and to ourselves. Behaviors such as
Strong reactions out of proportion to the event - yelling, shouting, slamming doors, throwing things, breaking things
Swearing - (this one is fascinating to me - when we enter into a trauma response, the part of the brain that accesses rational and organized language shuts down, leaving us with access to only the part of the brain that knows limited language usage such as swear words and exclamations)
Blame shifting - refusing to accept responsibility for our actions and instead blaming others
Lying - when the truth hurts we’re not about to let it out
Addictive behaviors - increased smoking, alcohol consumption, eating, binging or purging, drug use, overuse of prescription medications, pornography/obsessive masturbation, binge watching tv shows, sex-seeking
Compulsive behaviors - obsessive cleaning, obsessive hygiene practices, sanitizing surfaces, checking repeatedly that faucets, lights, appliances are turned off, compulsive organizing of files, computer files, pantry space, cabinets, etc
Defenses may show up as echoes of the abandonment we may have felt as a child by abandoning ourselves or others as adults:
“Ghosting” - simply walking away from a relationship or communication without warning
Canceling appointments - especially those for self-care like salon appointments or coffee dates with supportive friends
Running away - taking a run or walk to escape, getting in the car and driving aimlessly, more expressive example would be booking a last minute flight and leaving town or leaving the country
Always playing a helper role - consistently putting the needs of others in front of your own needs
Playing a “savior” role - believing you can and must “fix” others, taking on big causes alone such as fostering shelter animals, helping domestic violence survivors, protecting the vulnerable, adopting children
Not allowing time for fun or relaxing experiences for yourself OR making time for these experiences and then not allowing yourself to enjoy them
Inability to make decisions - always waffling about the best choice
The temptation may be to label all of these defenses in ourselves as “bad” and their opposite as “good”. However, if these behaviors and feelings are arising from a “trigger” point then they are serving a very important purpose. In fact, at some point in our lives, they may have served to even save our lives. Their continued existence is neither good nor bad, they are simply communication - signals that our survival instincts are activated and an invitation to explore why that may be. Recognizing our own defenses and working toward balance is the ultimate goal here.
There is nothing wrong with cleaning, watching tv, volunteering, having sex, being a foster parent, or taking a joy ride. But when we do those things in order to avoid looking at uncomfortable thoughts, feelings or experiences, then it’s time to listen to our bodies and our actions and seek to create new habits. In other words, if those defensive habits are now doing more harm than good to ourselves and others, it is time to renegotiate our relationship to them.
Others may need to protect themselves from inadvertently being hurt by our defenses until we can safely navigate them. Extending grace for those around us who see a need to put boundaries on their interactions with us when our defenses are activated is part of the sensitive work of standing in our shadows.
Likewise, when we see these defenses arise in others, our own need is to be able to erect firm boundaries to keep ourselves safe from those defenses landing on us and continuing that person’s cycle of abusive defense.
The more self-reflective we are able to be and observe our own behaviors with a blameless, shameless, compassionately objective eye, the sooner we can find the balance we seek.
So what does it look like to negotiate that new relationship with our defenses? This can be a beautiful dance of rediscovery and self-compassion. It can take years or it can take months. It can move at a snail’s crawl or jump wildly about. Your journey is yours and will be informed by your own experiences, unique personality and safety net you build for yourself.
The absolute first step is to build in that safety net.
I’ve seen this done in a myriad of beautiful ways. Different cultures and traditions use such tools as fire circles, protection of spirit animals, drumming, dancing rituals, calling on the ancestors, sharing a meal together. Engage in rituals which remind us that we have inner strengths within ourselves to offer ourselves, that also we can pull strength from others when our own inner strength falters, and that finally there are forces greater than ourselves such as music, Divine presence,or community which hold us in a greater space.
In my collaborations with clients, we often perform these rituals by finding concrete images or objects to represent these inner, outer and upper strengths and then place those objects or images around the environment as reminders as we journey into the shadows together.
It is only with that sense of safety breathed in, danced in, drummed in, formed into concrete symbols, that we can face our defenses and the secrets they hold with confidence. In fact, until we feel safe enough we may not even be able to see those defenses in ourselves at all - and seeing and naming them is the first step to holding them up in safe space so we can examine them objectively.
Once we feel safe enough to enter into the work, try to identify and name your defenses. Perhaps ponder how long this defense has been with you, how has it served you, what has it seen you experience, does it still feel you are in danger?
Tread carefully through these examinations. Run back to those strengths and circle of safety you established whenever you need a break from the intensity. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with strong feelings, try tapping, or breathing deeply into your abdomen to settle down your nervous system. You may need to recognize that this may be work you need to do with a safe facilitator by your side, rather than forging ahead alone. Find someone skilled at both helping to create safe space and build up your strengths, and traversing the darker roads of the mind comfortably.
It may help to examine each defense until you can understand its role in keeping you safe. This may give rise to gratitude for this defense. It may also shift your understanding of how you no longer need this defense to play this protective role for you. Express gratitude for this defense and how it has kept you safe. Creating an artistic expression may be particularly meaningful - draw a picture, write a poem, dance to a meaningful song, create a drum beat that resonates within, make love in a new position.
When you’re ready, ask what might happen if this defense were to loosen up a bit, change its focus, or retire completely from its role in your life. This is the process of renegotiating your relationship with this defense. It may be very much a part of your personality so maybe it wouldn't be appropriate to ask it to move on. But it may be appropriate to ask it to mature a bit - to exercise some self-control, to allow boundaries to be placed around it.
At this point, you have gone from simply managing those defenses and doing damage control to being able to engage in a healthy relationship with your shadows - acknowledging their existence, expressing gratitude for the protective roles they have played and re-integrating their involvement in your life in healthier ways.
Defenses that originated from significant childhood trauma most likely will require professional help to navigate through. It is possible that entering the shadows ill prepared and without a safety net could cause more harm than good. When, however, you are able to enter in and remain fully self-reflective and courageous enough to face some of the darker aspects of the various defensive roles you play out in life, remarkable growth is possible. Coming out the other side of this process is like watching a sleeping child awaken with all the naivete and wonder about life still intact. This is the true beauty of daring to stand in the shadows.