“If both the physiological and the safety needs are fairly well gratified, then there will emerge love and affection and belongingness needs, and the whole cycle already described will repeat itself with this new centre.” — Abraham Maslow
We’ve all done it.
Some of us may have done it once or a few times before recognizing the self-sabotaging consequences, so walking away from the cycle and taking the lessons with us becomes our mantra.
Others may do it and not be aware if it. For them, their emotional wall may go up about the same time their fears of vulnerability are triggered and their resistance to stress goes down.
This pattern becomes their way of adapting — protecting their Ego by surrounding it with emotional armor. Once a pattern starts, the only way it can stop is by accepting why it’s there and how it started.
Still others know they’re doing it, but continue doing it out of blind habit, only to think about it in hindsight, if then. 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.
So, why do we put on emotional armor and add another brick to our wall?
. . .
Emotional walls don’t start with self-preservation; that’s the endpoint.
The wall starts with being ostracized and feeling betrayed.
Not every action will constitute feeling betrayed, or left out. The fact is, the reason it’s called betrayal is because it comes from those we least expected it from — parents to their children or vice versa, friends, or a significant other. And, being ostracized only matters if you had an emotional investment to those people in the first place.
The more intimate and closer the bond, the less likely we are to think a person would act treacherously, making any betrayal of trust that much more malicious. And, the closer the bond, theoretically, the less of a chance of being ostracized, triggering betrayal if we are left behind.
Walls start in childhood, as with most things we may not be cognizant of until our habits beg for us to pay attention. The same walls get carried into adulthood as ‘normal’, even comfortable — where a fortress is built to keep others at arms’ distance and to keep ourselves safe.
Each time a kid goes unheard or his emotional needs unmet, boom…a brick is added. Every time he is singled out or bullied, another brick is added. Each day a child feels unsafe or their caregivers are inconsistent in meeting the kid’s needs, one more brick. For every idealization her rational mind was telling her to ignore but her heart foolishly accepted, another brick. For each apology she accepted from her significant other — instinctively knowing — that they aren’t sorry and will continue with their lies and double-life, one more brick is secured.
The wall starts…
After a while, betrayal and feeling unwanted become almost expected. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of unconsciously seeking out toxic relationships with those we intuitively know will hand us more bricks. Agendas are seen, angles are duly noted and even if they’re covert in their intentions, the wall is always there, protecting, pushing away and watching.
As a result, some start carrying the bricks, knowing in time they’ll serve their purpose.
. . .
I write often about Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954; 1943) because it explains how we see ourselves, in the relationships we attract, and whether we’re walking around toting more bricks to add to an emotional wall.
Safety needs are some of the our most basic needs, coming next in line after food, water, shelter, and warmth. Our safety needs include consistency, security and the ability to trust those in our lives as safe. If we don’t feel secure or safe in our relationships, trust is tossed out the door and we can’t functionally move up the pyramid in getting our other needs met.
Needs sometimes carry confusion or misinformation with them. When our needs are met early and consistently in our lives, we usually go through life with an ability to trust others, to trust ourselves and with our relationships complementing us. In this situation, our caregivers were usually supportive, provided shelter, food and water, warmth and unconditional positive regard — safety.
When our needs go unmet or are met inconsistently in childhood, survival mode is what is being taught. In this case, we become motivated 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.
Relationships can be seen as opportunity, people are not trusted, and agendas replace authenticity. Most times, if a child wasn’t taught their own value, they’re walking through the world numb, unaware of who they are and uninterested in learning about themselves.
Some wind 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.
In time, the pattern repeats. Walls go up, emotions are kept superficial. Avoidance and escapism identify intimacy. The problem is that when our earlier needs haven’t been met with consistency, we’re emotionally stuck at that rung on the pyramid until we’ve taken it upon ourselves to figure out the why’s, the how’s and the wtf’s…in order to grow.
Wearing blinders doesn’t correct for an inability to trust ourselves or a lack of trust in those in our lives. We wind up staying stuck in self-preservation mode; motivated by fear and distrust.
“This process of the good life is not, I am convinced, a life for the faint-hearted. It involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one’s potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life.” — Carl Rogers
Further expanding on our basic human needs, is Carl Rogers’ (1951) person-centered approach that suggests a fully-functioning person is one whose needs have been consistently met in order to achieve the ‘Good Life’.
No, the good life is not how much cash you have in the bank or how many notches you have on your belt. In Rogers’ theory, the Good Life is synonymous with reaching our full potential — with creativity, existentialism, trust, openness to experiences, and quality over quantity.
Thus, the Good Life is about shedding what was taught for survival, learning to become vulnerable with ourselves, in touch with our emotions, and authentically open to those in our lives.
Flipping The Script
Honestly? The one thing that irks me to no end is when I stumble upon something I read that seems to minimize or smooth-over the challenge that growth presents. Changing something as ingrained and old as childhood conditioning is not something that happens overnight, or in a month of nights.
It happens over time. Investment. Commitment. Dedication. And in realizing that no one is perfect, so growth shouldn’t be expected to be some perfect journey, either.
When you invest in growth, yes, you’re investing in change. You’re investing in your self-worth and in understanding why your habits, your patterns within and between relationship play out as they do, and where it all started.
There can be pain involved in unpacking our emotional baggage and chiseling down our emotional wall, so proactively recognizing this becomes your best defense.
Recognize the Patterns of Your Wall. Each wall is unique to the person who built it. Does your wall go up when your relationships hit a plateau and you’re expected to emotionally evolve, or jump ship? Does your wall go up when you’re alone, maybe confusing being alone with feeling lonely? Identifying how your habits play out, can help you in understanding where they started…and why.
Recognize What Safety Means To You. Emotional safety may be about being able to express yourself honestly where your opinion or ideas are received authentically and without judgment or the need to withhold your Self. Or, safety may be about knowing that your person is there to help offer a hand up, and supports you in recognizing the difference between a hand up, and a hand out. Once we have a solid idea of what feeling safe and secure in our relationships means to us, we’re able to shed the misconceptions of survival mode.
Reassess Your Relationships. Here’s where the bitter pill is faced. The reality is that if we haven’t taken the necessary steps for our own self-awareness and growth, then the quality of our relationships in our lives will reflect this. Here is also where our relationships are usually on repeat where the same dynamic of self-sabotage is present. The most humbling and eye-opening realization comes when we start to recognize (and accept) that our relationships may be based on unmet needs, on survival mode, or on emptiness and shallow investment.
Don’t confuse complacency with healthy. They’re not the same thing. Complacency is about our comfort level. The fact is, if our relationships are replaying based on what’s comfortable or familiar instead of what is positively challenging us to grow and evolve, then they’re not promoting our growth, they’re preventing it…
. . .
Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.
Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On Becoming a person: A psychotherapists view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications and theory. London: Constable.
Waltemire, C., Bush, K.R. (2017). Safety Needs. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences, 1–4. DOI 10.1007/978–3–319–28099–8_1498–1.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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