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Letting Go Of Old Defences

Photo by Jonathan Borba

When presented with challenging or stressful situations, we have within us a set of habitual defensive strategies that we all tend to default to. An argument with a partner, worries about money or health, problems at work, or a death in the family can see us reaching for the contents of the fridge or the wine bottle, blowing up into confrontation, withdrawing into sullen silence, or becoming overly clingy, to give just a few examples.


One of the reason these habitual defences can feel so compelling is down to the promise they hold out for a sense of resolution. It is the hope that maybe this time they will lead to the safety, healing and completion we so desperately long for.


We have invested a great deal of time, hope and energy into these strategies. To contemplate letting go of them means we might be giving up the only means we have of containing or coping with our unmanageable feelings, the only hope we have, perhaps, of finding some form of redemption for the suffering we experienced earlier in life.


To relinquish those defences may also feel like an admission of failure...and perhaps we fear that if we finally soften our grip and begin to let go, all the overwhelm, hopelessness, and despair we have been holding at bay will come crashing over us.


As psychotherapist Matt Licata puts it:


"It can be humbling to discover just how many of our go-to, habitual addictive behaviours and ways of being are organized around getting us out of feelings we do not want to feel, in the attempt to protect us from raw, tender vulnerability at the core."


We developed our defences as the best solution we could find at the time to events we experienced as unbearable. In moments of honesty, we may admit to ourselves that these strategies are no longer doing the job we need them to do, that they have not really been working for a long time...but our attachment to them comes from a much deeper place than logic.


Given everything that has gone before, it takes great courage to work on building new strategies, new responses. When we are triggered, and can feel ourselves defaulting towards the old, familiar ways of coping, we might instead invite ourselves to slow way down, take a moment to breathe and notice what is really going on right now. Even to do that much can feel like a huge achievement, and may bring significant change without us having to do anything more for now.


We can ask ourselves, ''If I were to pause in this moment and not go hurtling down the path of denial, attack, repression, distraction...what would I be feeling? What part of me needs attention right now, in way that is kind and curious, not judgemental or dismissive?''


Of course, it requires an act of faith to reach for such new strategies when we are feeling triggered or swamped by difficult emotions. The pull of the old, familiar and (in their own way) comforting strategies is strong.


But with everything that we now know as adults, the access we may have to networks of support through friends, loved ones, support groups or therapists, and the resources of our now-mature nervous system, new strategies are more available to us than they were at the point of being wounded. With practice and patient perseverance, we can begin to build new pathways in the nervous system, new habits of behaviour and being.


The reward for our courage in slowing down and staying present, rather than abandoning ourselves in a headlong flight down the road of reactivity, is that more space begins to open up in our feeling body. An unfamiliar sense of calm and space may start to creep in, sometimes surprising us with its presence. In not turning away from ourselves, we are providing the sense of connection and support internally that was often lacking externally at moment of our original wounding.


With repeated practice, we are opening up the space for our brain to rewire itself, to choose new neural pathways of thought and feeling. Over time, we ingrain new habits, so that when a challenge or crisis comes along we won’t always respond reactively but are able to consistently draw on a more skilful, compassionate set of learned behaviours.


© The Art of Embodiment 2021

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