NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, June 6, 2016

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the "Wall" You've Built Around Yourself

The idea of a protective "wall" is often used as a metaphor for a common defense mechanism that many people use to protect themselves from getting hurt.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

This wall, which often develops in early childhood, helps protect the child from being too vulnerable and emotionally overwhelmed (see my article:  Are You Living Your Life Trapped By Your Childhood Trauma?)

So, in that sense, the wall serves a good purpose, especially since children have fewer emotional defenses.   But erecting this wall comes at a significant emotional cost in other ways:  Not only does it keep out potential hurt and emotional pain, but it can also keeps out potential love and nurturing.

When this child grows up to be an adult, the wall also creates loneliness and isolation.  After many years of  living behind an emotional wall, it's usually difficult to overcome this on one's own.  There is usually a strong sense of ambivalence:  Wanting to take down the wall for emotional support and, at the same time, wanting the protection of this wall.

So, therapy with a licensed mental health professional, who understands the unconscious dynamics involved and who can titrate the work to make it emotionally manageable, can help someone struggling with this issue to develop the emotional resources, courage and the understanding necessary to slowly take down this emotionally defensive wall.

Why slowly?  Most people would find it too scary if their defenses were removed too quickly.  So, it's a relatively slow process depending upon the client's level of comfort and feeling of safety in the therapy.

To a greater or lesser degree, we all have emotional walls, depending upon the people around us and the circumstances.  None of us walk around without any emotional defenses.  The wall is either thicker or thinner and more or less permeable depending upon how much we trust others.  Ideally, it allows for a flow love, understanding and intimacy for those who are closest to us, if we allow closeness.

So, it's not an all or nothing matter of either having the wall or not--it's more a matter of allowing a certain amount of emotional vulnerability to be able to relate to others and develop close relationships.

Continuing with the metaphor of the wall, people who have built thick walls around themselves often don't differentiate between people they can potentially trust and people they can't.  A history of significant psychological trauma creates the kind of defensive structure that keeps most, if not all, people out.

But, as I mentioned before, this is a lonely and isolating existence, which often leaves people feeling trapped between wanting closeness and fearing it (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love and Overcoming Loneliness and Social Isolation).

The following fictional vignette demonstrates how therapy can be helpful to feel safe enough to slowly begin taking down this defensive wall.

From an early age, Edna learned that she had to be hypervigilant around her parents, who were both active alcoholics.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

On the rare occasions when they weren't drinking, they were kind and generous with Edna.  During those times, her mother was affectionate and would read Edna's favorite stories to her at bedtime.  Her father would take her to the park and teach her how to roller skate and ride a bike.

But when they were drunk, which was most of the time, they would yell at Edna and tell her to get away from them.

Edna never knew when her parents might be sober or drunk, so she learned at an early age to pick up cues from each of her parents in order to protect herself from their anger.

Because it was too emotionally painful to want affection from her parents when they were drunk and angry, she learned to shut down emotionally.  It wasn't a decision that she made conscious.  Rather it was an unconscious decision that she made to protect herself emotionally.

As an only child, she endured this on her own, and she would bury herself in her books or play by herself with her toys in her room while they were raging at each other while drunk.  She learned to stay out of their way most of the time.

It was hard for her to enjoy those times her parents were affectionate (during those rare times when they were sober) because she never knew when, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they would turn into angry drunks again.  She knew that the good times wouldn't last because they were rare and they were often followed by the bad times when they were hurtful towards her.

Since she knew that she couldn't count on her parents emotionally, she developed a pseudo independence where she only relied on herself.  As a young child, she sometimes imagined a fairy godmother hovering around her to magically protect her.

After she left home to go to college, she only developed a few friends on campus.  She had a difficult time allowing people to get close to her, so the few people who showed themselves to be loyal and trustworthy were the ones that she allowed to get relatively close to her.  But even these friends told her that sometimes they felt that she shut them out.

Relationships with young men were even more difficult for her.  She dated a few men in college, but as soon as it seemed that things could get serious, she ended the relationship.  This left her feeling sad and lonely, but she didn't know how to overcome her fear of getting hurt.

When she graduated college and moved to NYC to start a career, she felt even more isolated and lonely.  She spent a lot of time by herself when she wasn't at work, and the weekends seemed very long to her.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

Edna knew herself well enough to know that she was struggling with a terrible dilemma.  She knew she had built a wall around herself and that she allowed only a few people to get through a little bit.  She also knew that if she continued like this, she would be alone, which she didn't want.  So, on the recommendation of her primary doctor, who diagnosed her as being mildly depressed, she started therapy.

After hearing Edna's family history, her therapist, who was a trauma therapist, started by providing Edna with psychoeducation as to why she was so ambivalent about allowing people to get close to her. Edna was relieved to hear that she wasn't the only one who was suffering in this way.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

Over time, her therapist also helped Edna to develop inner resources to do the necessary trauma work to help her overcome her defensiveness (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Skills).

These resources included:
  • learning to calm herself when she felt anxious, fearful or overwhelmed
  • developing a felt sense to know when she felt happy and safe
  • being able to mentally call on people, some of whom she knew and others that she imagined, that she could imagine helping her when she felt upset
  • learning breathing exercises to calm herself
  • helping her to sense and identify emotions in her body (the mind-body connection)

After Edna developed these resources and learned how to use them, her therapist began using experiential therapy to help Edna work through the earlier psychological trauma so that she would feel freer to develop close relationships.

Edna was committed to her work in therapy and she came to her sessions regularly.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

Gradually, she began to feel that her fears were lifting and she felt the possibility of developing closer relationships with people.

As she started dating again, she talked to her therapist about the men that she met.  With the help of her therapist, she became more discerning--rather than fearing everyone, she got to know people over time slowly and developed insight into how much she could trust people.

This wasn't easy work and sometimes she had setbacks (see my article:  Setback are a Normal Part of Psychotherapy on the Road to Healing).

But, over time, she developed a secure relationship with her therapist, which made her feel hopeful that she could develop secure relationships with others.

Along the way, she did "inner child" work with her therapist to help the most vulnerable part of herself to feel nurtured and understood.

As she developed a closer internal relationship with her inner child, she realized that it was this young part of her that was often overprotective to the point where it discouraged her from getting too close to others.

If this inner child could speak, it was as if she was sounding an alarm for the adult Edna, "Danger! Danger! Don't get close to that person.  You're' going to get hurt!"

The inner child work helped that part of Edna to feel safer.  The adult part of Edna reassured her inner child that she would protect her so that she no longer needed to feel fearful of everyone.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

Little by little, Edna opened up more. She began to allow more people in as she felt it was safe.  Rather than her wall being thick and impenetrable, so to speak, it was now more permeable as she learned whom she could trust and allow to get closer to her.

Eventually, as she became more discerning, she began to see that she could have different relationships with different people:  She was developing a relationship with a boyfriend; she had more close friends and confidantes; and she also had a few acquaintances, who weren't close, but whom she liked doing certain activities with and who were fun.

The description of someone having a wall around them is a metaphor to describe an emotional defense mechanism that helps to protect him or her from feeling too emotionally vulnerable.  Other metaphors include having a protective "shell" or "armor."

While the wall serves an important protective purpose, especially in early childhood, it also keeps a person feeling lonely and isolated.

The dilemma becomes that, on the one hand, it feels too scary to allow others to get close but, on the other hand, keeping people away leads to loneliness and isolation.

Psychotherapists who are trauma therapists and trained to help clients to overcome these struggles, usually working gradually to overcome this dilemma.

Developing a secure and trusting relationship over time is part of this process, and trauma therapists know how to facilitate this process.  It will be different for each client.

Developing internal resources is another important part of the process before actually working directly on the unresolved trauma.

Once the client has worked through the trauma and learns to be discerning about relationships, s/he is usually free to interact without fear that s/he will be too vulnerable.

Getting Help in Therapy From a Trauma Therapist
Often, part of the dilemma is that, since it's hard to trust others, it's also hard to open up to a psychotherapist, even a therapist who is trained in trauma therapy.

I usually recommend that clients go to a few sessions with a therapist and find out how s/he works before delving into the trauma work (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Loneliness and isolation are painful to endure on your own.  If you're struggling with fears about getting close to others, you can overcome your fears and lead a more fulfilling life by getting help in therapy from a trauma therapist.  It could open up a whole new life for you without so much fear and pain.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome psychological trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.