We can get better at recognizing when they are crossed. Usually, it makes us feel a certain way – uneasy, angry, irritated, unsettled. Then we have a reaction. I say reaction instead of response because until you get your head around what’s happening, your mind jumps into action to protect you. Drawing from past resources, both awesome and not so awesome coping skills leap at the chance to deal with the intruder at your fences. The not so great news is that it works well enough not to change the stuff that hurts us long term. The great news is that we can examine our patterns, try out new techniques, bit by bit, and get a better return on our efforts.
Let’s start by examining some common reactions. You’ll likely recognize yourself in some, or maybe even all, of the following examples. Don’t worry too much about it. The big secret is that EVERYONE IS DOING IT. So really, you’re kind of in fashion.
This reaction requires everyone to follow the rule that everyone must do everything together and that everyone is to think, feel, and act in the same way. The “same way” is generally defined by the loudest or biggest voice in the group. No one is allowed to deviate from the family or group norms. Everyone looks homogeneous, the same. Uniqueness, autonomy and idiosyncratic behaviors are viewed as deviations from the norm.
Example: To the outside world, we have a loving and supportive family. In the privacy of home, mom passes out on the regular from her nightly two bottles of wine and my sister is flunking out of school.
This reaction involves greying or blanking out during a stressful emotional event. You feel your physical and/or emotional space being violated and you tell yourself something like: “It doesn’t matter.” “This is too much to handle.” “Ignore it and it will go away soon enough.” “No sense in fighting it, just hang on and it will be over soon.” “Don’t put up a struggle or else it will be worse for you.” This blanking out results in being out of touch with your feelings about what’s happening in the moment. It may also affect your memory of events.
Example: During a fight with your spouse, you go blank or draw into yourself. You may have overly critical thinking or no thinking at all.
This reaction occurs when neither you nor anyone else in the group or family is able to establish connection to your feelings or empathy for others’ feelings or experiences. Experiences are disconnected and independent. There’s not enough bond or attachment to hold people together. Your family or group seems to lack a common purpose, goal, identity, or rationale for existing together. You may get a sense that getting closer to each other would risk giving up your sense of self or individual identity.
Example: You don’t talk to any of your siblings and they all moved away from where you grew up.
In this reaction, you identify yourself as a violated victim and become overly defensive to ward off further violation. Alternately, it can be that once you accept your victimization you continue to be knowingly victimized and then let others know of your martyrdom. Sadly, this is often the fate of good people in deeply troubled relationships.
Example: A friend contacts you when she needs something. You continue the friendship and do not ask for anything in return or confront the situation.
This reaction is a form of going on the offense and is reflected in your interactions with others. Because of your fear and anger over past violation of your emotional and/or physical space and the real or perceived push against your rights, you have a “chip on your shoulder” that declares “I dare you to come too close!” It’s a way of proactively scaring off would-be boundary violators in advance.
Example: The grumpy guy at work who shoots down ideas outside his comfort zone.
This reaction involves pulling in or overcontrolling your desires so that no one can even sense what you are feeling or thinking. Your goal is not to make waves with your opinions because what people don’t know, they can’t manipulate or destroy. The biggest issue with this defense is that the wall goes up even for yourself.
Example: Agreeing to go on a rollercoaster even though you’re afraid of heights and hate amusement rides. You agree to go because of the waves it might create if you refuse.
This reaction is a protection against the insecurity from real or perceived experiences of being ignored, dismissed, or rejected in the past. Once rejected you take the proactive stance to reject others before they reject you. Interactions have been painful enough that they are no longer worth the risk. This is different from being introverted. Introversion is about the energy it takes to engage whereas this is a defense against potential hurt.
Example: At a gathering, you avoid talking to new people out of anxiety.
This reaction builds walls or barriers to insure that others do not permeate or invade your emotional or physical space. Similar to aloofness but more intense, it’s connected to previous experiences of being violated, hurt, ignored or rejected. This is your declaration that “I’ve drawn the line over which I dare you to cross.” It is a way to keep others out and actively put them off.
Example: Looking someone up and down without smiling when you’re being introduced for the first time.
This reaction results when you sense someone is moving away from you. One way you may think to halt that process is to become overly invested in their needs and interests. This intense attention almost feels compulsive and you have little awareness that your actions intrude into the other person’s emotional and physical space. Every action is magnified and it seems like you constantly have to read into every little sign. Meanwhile, the other person has no idea what you’re talking about and starts to think you’re crazy or dramatic.
Example: A friend seems distant and you text long messages asking her what you’ve done wrong.
This reaction is present when you and your family or group believe everyone has a right to know everything someone else is thinking, feeling or doing. You are expected to report to others in your family or group all the detail and content of your feelings, reactions, opinions, relationships and dealings with the outside world. You begin to feel that nothing you experience can be kept in the privacy of your own domain. You begin to believe you don’t have a private domain or your own space into which you can escape to be your own person.
Example: A new friend discloses a vulnerable story about her past to you. In order to make her feel comfortable or less anxious, you think you have to disclose something vulnerable as well.
Phew, now that’s a list! I definitely saw my past self and a little of my current self in those examples. I hope you did too because it’s a place to dig in and change. If you get to know yourself, you can figure out what you need and how to get it better than before. Eventually we all evolve. But right before that, the old ways stop working. How else would we be incentivized to find a new way?