Do you want to get the most from your relationships? You may be living with your guard up and that will prevent you from happiness and the kind of relationships that you want.
We all do it sometimes. Living with your guard up can become habitual. We begin to expect that life won’t go our way. We assume the worst from other people, from circumstances, and from ourselves. We become so hard ourselves that we cannot acknowledge our positive qualities and contributions. We close down and we begin to feel more and more like a turtle.
Think that life has been hard on you? It’s true.
Chances are that if you are reading this article, you have been exposed to several major traumatic events. Trauma is more common than you think. Swedish researchers found that nearly 85% of men and 77% of women have been exposed to at least one traumatic event. Trauma is defined as robbery, physical assault, sexual assault (any type of unwanted sexual activity), sudden unexpected death of a loved one (tragic death), war experience, and traﬃc accidents.
Rather than being rare, trauma is the norm. You cannot live without being exposed to life. And sometimes life can be harsh. Recent research has found that the more traumas that you have been exposed to, the more likely you are to live with mental illness (IE. depression or anxiety) or addictions. You will be more prone to violence, and more likely to face health problems.
Most people have been exposed to multiple traumatic events. These events can threaten our happiness, our peace of mind and our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. With so many traumas, it can feel safe to live life tense, suspicious and guarded. Our experience changes how we think about ourselves, other people and our world. Multiple traumas can make us believe that the world is unsafe and frightening.
Can we live life, unguarded?
Developing heavy defenses may be a natural outcome. But the more defenses we set up, the more distant we become, the more we are closed off from love and support. We will also limit our happiness and limit ourselves from growth and the many opportunities that life has for us.
Psychologists have found that there are a number of common behaviors that we use to defend ourselves against trauma and stress. For more on the common defense mechanisms, click on this article by Dr. John M. Grohol.
10 Common behaviors that protect us from pain
1. Ignoring reality – Denial is a refusal to face reality, to face our pain or to face our own responsibility. Some events, like abuse, are not your responsibility. But what you can do is face the event with resiliency and work hard to heal, and become stronger. Other events may be partially or completely your own doing. Shame, blame and guilt may not help but admitting your part, taking responsibility and striving to be better can help you to recover well.
2. Pulling back – Contrary to what you may think, growth will expose you to more risk. When you become stronger, when you have increased responsibility or opportunity, you will likely face more criticism, more obstacles and more resistance. Growth may just mean that life will become more unkind to you. It can be tempting to throw up your hands, pull back and return to safety.
3. Rebelling – Each of us needs to find a way to express our individuality. This is healthy and normal. But rebelling is a pattern of ignoring or outright defying relationship boundaries, company policies and government laws. We may engage in minor infractions like stealing pens from work, leaving work before our shift ends or consistently speeding. Or we can habitually take greater and greater risks like shop lifting, using illegal drugs, driving while high or repeated sexual affairs.
4. Numbing out – Everyone daydreams, tunes out and goes off line. But some of us make it a full time job to numb out with anything we can get our hands on: food, sex, alcohol or drugs, internet surfing, gaming, shopping or having serial surface relationships. In extreme cases, we may disconnect from reality because of our emotional or physical pain.
5. Ignoring our annoying habits or when we cross the line – We can toe the line in one area of life but in another area, we are private deviants. You may work as an executive, but privately steal CD’s. Or you are excellent at your job, but secretly you have a gambling addiction. Or you may consider yourself very spiritual, yet you cheat on your taxes.
6. Judgment of others or ourselves – Private pain can be expressed in judgment. We can habitually judge others or judge ourselves, rather than face our own issues and do the work that we need to do. Harshness can be a way of keeping people away so that we don’t have to face more hurt or emotional injury.
7. Being passive aggressive – Are you the office saint, but privately despise your boss? Or you get along with everyone, but really can’t stand some of the people you are with? It’s normal to be respectful even if you may dislike someone. But if you regularly push away your feelings of dislike, while pretending that you are fine, then you are engaging in a habit that will keep people at a distance.
8. Take out your rage for one person on another person. You are mad at your wife, so you yell at your kids. Or you are angry with a customer so you are a jerk to your significant other.
9. You are rational, sensible and distant. For more on the mental and emotional health impacts of rational distance, read my article on the Rational, Sensible and Distant Man.
10. Using sideways humor to communicate what you really mean. You have a friend who will say something harsh or hurtful and then immediately after will say, “Just kidding.” They meant what they said, but they hope the “just kidding” will soften the blow. Or maybe you are the friend? Just kidding…
The 3 Rules of Resilience
Some of the words used to describe resilience are elasticity, recovering from difficulties and toughness. It is a refusal to let your past define your present, and your future. The important thing is that resilience can be cultivated. To learn more about resilience, click on this link from Psychology Today. Here are three ways to cultivate your resilience:
a. Channel your emotions – You may have experienced trauma, pain or situations that make you want to numb/scream/get back at another person. But rather than rage-quit or be the office porcupine, you channel your emotions: You exercise, you meditate, you engage in positive projects, and you stand up for yourself. You speak your mind, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it.
Using your life experiences as motivation to find a deeper meaning or to become a better person is a healthy way to respond to stressful events. You may channel your emotions into humor and look for something funny to brighten other people even when life is hard. Or you channel your experiences into motivation to complete your degree or write a book.
b. Play to your strengths – You may have setbacks in one area, but you also have strengths in another. You may have grown up in an alcoholic family, where your parents were not emotionally or physically present. You responded by becoming the mature one, the “caretaker.” A resilient way to respond to your early experience is to recognize and heal from your unhealthy motivations and then you use your strengths to excel at nursing, or managing or whatever career path that you choose.
Another word for playing to your strengths is counterbalancing. You may have one area of weakness, but rather than fixating or being frustrated by your weaknesses, you can build up your strengths. An area of strength will be much easier to motivate. You will feel more passion and energy. It is important to accept your past, your weaknesses and other deficits. At the same time, you have many strengths and capitalizing on these can propel you into growth and better opportunities.
c. Assertiveness – You don’t have to be a Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde to set firm and clear boundaries. The important thing to recognize is that you are worth setting healthy boundaries.
Listening to other people and to their needs is a strength, but being passive will likely lead to being used and frustrated. Being aggressive may make you more competitive, a leader or a good sales person but you may walk over other people. Assertiveness is a blend of knowing yourself, speaking up and acting for your needs in a respectful and considerate way.
Choosing to let your guard down can lead to more satisfaction in your relationships. You may have faced significant stress, challenges and even pain. But you can become more open to the things that life will send your way. To learn more about this, you can check out some of my other writing:
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Keep it Real