Our brains develop through relationship. The interpersonal nature of our lives shapes the internal landscape of our neurological selves. In fact, the brain’s various functions and specific areas grow or fail to develop at all based on how we are stimulated relationally as infants, children, into adolescence, and throughout adulthood! Attachment theory has taught us the importance of a nurturing, loving, attuned, present, attentive caregiver for optimal brain development. Without such an environment, individuals mature with a number of difficulties resulting in lives pursued in either a rigid or chaotic manner. One of my clients said to me recently, “I always thought my emotional eating was related to all the diets I have been on… while I’m seeing that’s true, I’ve also been stifling myself and not giving a voice to what’s truly important to me in my life and in the relationship with my husband.”
We are not born with defenses. We emerge from the womb instead with a capacity for defensiveness. We learn how to use the defenses through experience. If you grew up in a household where emotion wasn’t tolerated and you were constantly told to be quiet, you learned how to be quiet. You also learned that your voice didn’t matter and what you had to say wasn’t important. If you grew up in a household where love and attention was dependent upon achievement and accomplishments, you learned to expend every effort to make the grade, the team, the honor roll. You may also have learned that there was no room for fatigue, relaxation, or down time.
Some defenses are based on old meanings gleaned as a result of our pasts, and there are defenses used to protect us from the discomforts of the past defenses.
But if defenses are born out of relationships and they often get in the way of relationships, perhaps we need relationships to break out of them.
In fact, as Prochaska and colleagues point out in their book Changing for Good, individuals locked in their delusions of denial won’t get out without assistance. And as neuroplasticity research continues to confirm, the miraculous organ that is the brain has the capacity to grow new neurons, to strengthen and grow new connections between neurons, and to increase the speed with which information flows across and between the neurons! We can solicit the help of the people we trust in our lives to lift the veil of our illusions, allowing us to position our attention in ways that will actually rewire our brains.
In her online interview, author of Your Body is Your Brain, Amanda Blake, outlined the six keys to promoting neuroplasticity. Besides awareness and relationship, she described the necessity of unlearning, disruption, and interruption for facilitating the biological process of change. Disruption creates tension—dissonance that prompts emotion, movement, and often a renewed focus on what will serve one’s best interests.
One of the most powerful promises I made to myself early in my college career as I was recovering from severe anxiety and disordered eating was to get comfortable with discomfort. I had spent years denying my emotionality and strength of will. The relationships I was in didn’t honor it. My basic need for connection was met with an equal level of resistance and insecurity by the individuals I chose to spend time with. And so my defenses grew. Fire was met with fire—two people, or a few, living in superficial cacophony but believing it was what would get us through. In fact, what we resist, persists. The more I resisted my feelings and what I believed to be thoughts I should not be having, the more my problems persisted.
I was interrupted by my student health doctor telling me, “Kori, you’re killing yourself.” She didn’t push, she didn’t prod, she didn’t nag or whine or beg for me to change. She said those three words. And I was in a place where I could hear them and no longer blame it on anyone or anything. Responsibility took hold, and honest appraisal became my goal. What I realized was that I learned how to be based on my previous circumstances. Then, it may have been effective. Now, it wasn’t. I needed to unpack the suitcase I’d been carrying around with me for years, inspect its contents, and decide what was worth keeping, mending, or modifying. My plan would include a reflection on the defenses I had cultivated with an aim toward genuine well-being and utilization of my strengths. That seemed a much more integrative pursuit than covering up what I perceived my weaknesses to be. And I needed others to help me.
I first sought the help of a therapist. My first experience with a helping professional was fortunately positive. Frances gave me the space to explore who I was without judgment or ridicule. She provided me safety, security, and saw and accepted all the parts of me. Frances taught me to honor and listen to the ones I believed deserved assassination. It was the connection with Frances that gave me permission to be compassionate toward myself. And just as recent research has pointed out, compassion heals. At The Center for Investigating Healthy Minds on the University of Wisconsin Madison campus, Richard Davidson has spent years studying meditation and mindfulness. A recent investigation on the effects of compassion meditation showed that just 30 minutes of practice a day over the course of 2 weeks produced changes in behavior and brain function. Indeed, it’s not just interpersonal relationships, but also the relationships we have with ourselves that impact the change process. Defenses can’t stand up to awareness, and those who begin opening up to it can rarely go back to ignoring or suppressing for long.
If you listen to any music at all, you’ve been witness to the darkness of defenses and the light revealed when they’re lifted. Everyone, and I mean, everyone, finds themselves in predicaments masked as preferences. I have a playlist called Illuminate. The lyrics of The Prams “Monster” conveys the discord of defense: “I’m afraid of what I think I know. I keep on running…running from this monster. He’s getting louder inside my head….” We feel the intensity of emotion and the push-pull of clarity begging to be acknowledged. Zedd’s “Clarity” conveys consciousness of the mask and dissonance about whether it’s time to remove it: “You are, a piece of me, I wish I didn’t need… chasing relentlessly…still fine and I don’t know why….”
In fact, emotional arousal is necessary for behavior change. Emotion evokes an energetic drive to action. Unfortunately, emotion for so many is not perceived positively. Uncomfortable emotions often result in defensiveness, either outwardly or inwardly directed. We love feeling happy, vital, excited, and inspired. And for some reason we’ve become convinced that we’re supposed to feel positive all the time. Discomfort—anxiety, boredom, listlessness, confusion—prompts a pause. Or at least it prompts a re-direct. As we’ve seen, the redirect chosen (i.e., eating, starving, self-criticism, shopping, over-working) is often not effective or healthy in the long term, but it signals us. If we’ll listen. Lindsey Stirling, in her song “Shatter Me”, begs for emotion! She sings, “Somebody make me feel alive…and shatter me!” It’s as if she’s saying, “Show me the way to remove the masks. Shatter my defenses.”
For many, however, particularly those of us who have experienced trauma, it’s not a voluntary pause but an involuntary immobilization that occurs. The defenses we’ve addressed here are magnified to protect us from what has been perceived to be a legitimate threat. Lindsey’s lyrics ring true here—the nervous system in many cases literally shattering any ability for the individual to fight or flee. Instead, the defense is to freeze.
Steven Porges, psychologist and researcher, explains that for early vertebrates, this was a typical response in the face of fear or threat. Recall how some animals play dead. This is not a choice—the mouse does not decide to play dead to protect itself from the cat. The neurophysiological system evaluates the situation and if fight or flight is ineffective to remove the mouse from danger, the immobilization circuit takes over. Metabolism declines, and food and oxygen needs are reduced to promote survival. As vertebrates evolved, the vagus nerve that regulates the heart and coordinates the nervous system, became myelinated. With myelination came the ability of our autonomic nervous system to inhibit immobilization and allow for social engagement. Being social reduces the metabolic demands as well, promoting health, vitality, and well-being. Why is this important? It brings us back to the importance of relationships. But not just any relationships—safe ones that foster security and trust.
The vagus nerve, which connects our viscera with our brains, helps us to make sense of situations with embodiment—we can learn to monitor our felt senses and to consciously down-regulate when experiencing intense emotion. This ability is facilitated strongly through connections of safety, security, trust, and love.
Think of the last misunderstanding you had with a friend or loved one. Did you feel threatened? At risk? Attacked? Put down? Compromised in some way? Why? We need our nervous systems to help us when threat is legitimate. However, in most circumstances of daily life, when we put our dukes up and react defensively, it’s unnecessary. Porges indicates that the control of our breath, and particularly a longer duration exhalation, increases the impact of the vagus nerve on our hearts.
If you were to look into the eyes of your loved one, and breathe to exhale slowly, do you think it would impact your ability to resolve the conflict or dampen your reaction? Connection is one of our most basic of psychological needs, but truly traumatic incidents which have created a vigilantly monitoring threat detector can make it more difficult to trust connection. It’s not impossible, however, and we can begin to help ourselves by creating a safe space with others to explore a more open response system.
Attachment expert and psychiatrist, Dr. Dan Siegel, describes how this takes place through differentiating and then linking the nine integrative systems that promote harmony and the ability to monitor and modify our responses. Each one of us has a threshold for certain levels of activation, but with greater awareness, we can increase the threshold, and as such, expand the plane of possibilities that we perceive.
This opening up of alternative responses decreases the likelihood that our propensities for certain behaviors become actualities. So, for example, rather than choosing to binge eat (i.e., move into chaos) or starve ourselves (i.e., move into rigidity)—both self-protective mechanisms lacking integration—we might center ourselves through a focus on the breath, allowing a more spacious level of awareness to create a container for our experience, and giving our brains an opportunity to expand the possibilities for our behavior.
Movies are often a place we can try on alternative responses, as they provoke emotion that we often try to avoid in real life—they take us to places we are unwilling to travel for fear of falling apart or appearing less than perfect. We can’t help, during the viewing of a movie like “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Crash,” but be challenged to view our lives differently. I crumbled watching "The Fault in Our Stars." That movie provided what Lindsey Stirling was crying out for—it shattered me.
What movies and music scream out to have happen is for the participant to breathe, and with the inhale, there is a pause to take stock. With the outbreath there is a release of defense.
It’s as if a questioning occurs. “Do I need to keep this up?” The movement of emotion paints two pictures—the image of the future should no change occur, and the image of possibilities on the horizon should we take a risk and remove the armor. The emptiness and pain is a crack erupting in our souls that can be filled with security, novelty, hope, and curiosity.
I received an email of dismay recently that read, “Kori, I'm disappointed with how I approached my nutrition. I was craving something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I ate some popcorn, but that didn’t satisfy it, so I had some chocolate and that didn’t do anything…I ended up eating a box of cereal, some pop tarts, and half a jar of peanut butter. And when I got done I was still craving. What do you think I needed?”
Perhaps not food, I thought. Her defenses were up, and she didn’t realize she was shutting the door on her emotions. She was using food to push whatever was trying to come up, right back down. And it didn’t work. We do this often—with our work when we procrastinate, with our partners when we spit venom to hurt, with our kids when we force our beliefs upon them, and with others when we turn away and refuse to listen.
The defenses are particularly snarky and volatile when our needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are thwarted or challenged. Our motivation to engage life, to pursue our goals, to grow and expand into self-actualizing individuals who optimize our potentials is stifled without these three very important psychological needs.
The nourishment of choice, of belief in our ability to influence our circumstances and prevent certain outcomes, and relatedness with those who accept us for who we are is the food for our souls—our essence, as Dr. Dan Siegel so eloquently calls it, in his book Brainstorm.
Written about the teenage brain, but applied appropriately toward adults, the essence of adolescence is grounded in emotional spark, social engagement, novelty, and creative exploration. When linked with the profound wisdom found within and between the basic psychological needs—autonomy, competence, and connection—each of us enters a space of growth. Don’t we all need essence? Without these elements we flounder around questioning our purpose, feeling stuck and stagnant. What transpires with essence is clarity. And that clarity ushers in the invitation to break down our defenses and barriers to change.
Curious what a life with greater clarity and capacity could mean for you? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and schedule a complimentary consultation.