Have you always hidden behind rigid emotional walls all your life? Do you fear that if you let people in, they would hurt you, use you, take advantage of you or leave you? Do you push people out to the extent that you feel lonely even amongst friends and family?
"We all build internal sea walls to keep at bay the sadnesses of life and the often overwhelming forces within our minds. In whatever way we do this—through love, work, family, faith, friends, denial, alcohol, drugs, or medication—we build these walls, stone by stone, over a lifetime. One of the most difficult problems is to construct these barriers of such a height and strength that one has a true harbor, a sanctuary away from crippling turmoil and pain, but yet low enough, and permeable enough, to let in fresh seawater that will fend off the inevitable inclination toward brackishness." Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness
We’ve all been there; we’ve all done it. Some of us may have have only done it a few times before recognizing the self-sabotaging pattern, and then walk away from the cycle by learning the lessons we get from them.
While some may fail to recognize they are doing it. For them, when their fears of vulnerability are triggered, their emotional walls go up. This pattern becomes their coping mechanism — protecting their Ego by surrounding it with a rigid emotional armor.
Once a pattern starts, the only way it can stop is by accepting why it’s there and how it started.
Some people consciously chose to do it out of blind habit. As this behavior gives them a false sense of security, only to think about it in hindsight. For them, emotional walls are about survival mode; engaging in a love-hate relationship with themselves where one part of them pushes away, while another part pulls towards.
The result: no one wins. It’s very tiring, this constant tension and tussle, isn’t it?
And do you know how this happens? How do we keep on reinforcing that emotional wall brick by brick?
We build walls, sometimes to keep things in when we fear that we are too much, or that people can’t see us or don’t even want to understand us. Sometimes we build walls to keep people out, the walls provide us with a sense of protection, and comfort, and even protect us from feeling the full range of our emotions.
Strangely, emotional walls don’t start with self-preservation; they are the endpoint.
The walls start with the feeling of being ostracized and betrayed, especially coming from the people we least expect, from- parents to children or children to parents, siblings, friends, or your significant other. And this hurts only when we are emotionally attached to those people. The more our investment, the more it cuts us deeply.
We begin building these walls in childhood, and as with most things, we may not be aware of them until the damage is done and demands our immediate attention and subsequent path to freedom. The same walls get carried into adulthood as the new ‘normal’, even comfortable - where we have imprisoned ourselves in our self-built fortresses to keep others at arms’ distance and to keep ourselves safe.
Every time a child feels unheard of or his emotional needs are unmet, a brick is added. Every time he is singled out or bullied, another brick is added. Every time a child feels unsafe or their caregivers are inconsistent in meeting the child’s needs, more bricks get added.
Every time we idealized something our rational mind was telling us to ignore, our heart foolishly accepted, another brick.
For each apology, we accepted from our significant other- instinctively knowing- that they aren’t sorry and will continue with their lies and the same inconsistent, dishonest behavior, one more brick is secured.
After a while, betrayal and feeling unwanted are instinctively expected. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of unconsciously seeking out toxic relationships with those we intuitively know will do us no good. Motives are seen, behaviors and actions duly noted, and even if they’re covert in their intentions, the wall is always there, protecting, pushing away, and watching.
As a result, people start carrying the bricks, almost expecting the betrayal and the subsequent need to retreat and reinforce the walls.
Why do we build these emotional fortresses that keep us chained to our unhealthy patterns?
Because we have an inherent need for safety. It comes right next in line after food, water, shelter, and warmth.
Our safety needs include consistency, security, and the ability to trust those in our lives. If we don’t feel secure or safe in our relationships, trust gets shaken and we struggle with getting by in our day-to-day life to get other needs met.
When our needs are met early and consistently in our lives, we find it easier to trust ourselves and others, with our relationships strengthening us and life seems to go by smoothly. In this situation, our caregivers were usually supportive and consistently provided shelter, food and water, warmth, and unconditional positive regard which fulfilled our deeper need for safety and security.
But when our needs go unmet or are met inconsistently in childhood, survival mode is what we end up learning. In this case, we start taking things into our own hands to get our needs met. Our behavior and actions become self-serving to cash in on life skills that weren’t taught in childhood, or as a way to buffer low self-worth.
As one of the consequences of constantly functioning with unmet needs and living in a survival mode, relationships tend to be seen as an opportunity; distrust is rampant, and hidden agendas replace authenticity. Most times, if a child wasn’t taught their value, they became emotionally numb or apathetic towards the outer world, unaware of who they are and uninterested in learning about themselves. Everything is about survival in a seemingly harsh reality.
Some get caught up avoiding or ignoring the looming feeling that they don’t, or rather, can’t trust others. Some may enter relationship after relationship with expectations that ‘this time’ things will be different, that ‘this time’ they’ll be able to let their guard down and start chiseling back their wall. But it’s futile.
The pattern keeps repeating. People remain cloistered behind their walls; emotions are kept superficial. Avoidance and escapism constantly sabotage intimacy.
And wearing blinders to avoid our tendency toward distrust and a perpetual survival mode is never going to help. The problem is that when our earlier needs haven’t been met with consistency, we’re emotionally stuck at that rung on the pyramid, we remain stuck in self-preservation mode; motivated by fear and distrust until we’ve taken it upon ourselves to figure out the why’s and the how’s of our self-preservation and sabotaging patterns to break free from our fortresses.
"Walls protect and walls limit. It is in the nature of walls that they should fall. That walls should fall is the consequence of blowing your own trumpet." Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Now, a valid question arises here? If we break down our walls, how would we protect ourselves from getting hurt and from people who mean harm?
One word. Boundaries.
By understanding the concept of boundaries, what they are and how we can practice them, we can truly set ourselves free.
In my next blog, I will discuss in detail, establishing boundaries in different areas of our lives to live a safe, nurturing, blissful life.
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