I wrote the following words some time ago in my journal, and now I can’t remember if they were mine or someone else’s that I had read. So with apologies to whoever might have written them (which may have been me), here they are:
“Psychotherapy is uncovering these strategies for protection, which can cause more harm than good. Like an umpire behind the plate with layers and layers of padding and protection, making it difficult to walk. But the padding also prevents him from touching and being touched. And while some protection is needed, it is a hard ball after all, perhaps there are other ways to protect but which allow for greater engagement.”
These words get to the heart of the psychotherapeutic experience: to examine and reveal the different psychic strategies a person employs to protect himself, but which may now have the unfortunate impact of inhibiting his life. What do I mean? A person, because of emotional and psychological injuries and traumas suffered in the past, creates some means of protecting himself. No one wants to be burned twice. These defenses serve a purpose, but at some price. There is often a tradeoff. Like the umpire with all his gear, who is protected but unable to move very well, the individual may feel safe but restricted, unable to get closer to others unless he takes the gear off.
One example of a defense is emotional distance: a person who remains at some distance from others, aloof, and who may actually push people away with anger, cynicism or other maneuvers. This person may go from relationship to relationship without truly deepening his connection or commitment. Or this person, while in a longstanding relationship, may unconsciously thwart efforts for greater closeness. It is true that this defense works well: if not emotionally close to someone then the likelihood of being very hurt by that person is greatly diminished. However, in the process, this person, who may genuinely desire relationship and intimacy, remain remote, distant and alone.
Another person may have developed strategies of assuming responsibility and taking the blame for problems and for other’s feelings. This person assumes responsibility often for things that he is genuinely not responsible for and is overly apologetic. In this way, there is an unconscious fantasy at play: if problems are his doing, then the solution is also his doing. He is less dependent on others, less vulnerable emotionally. While this person may have some sense of control over his life, he treats himself harshly with incessant self-recrimination and criticism.
Psychotherapy provides a means for identifying these strategies (as they are all too often unconsciously manifested), the situations that they were originally designed for, and the space in which to reflect on the current utility of these strategies. It may be that they are not needed now; it may be that a person is confusing present day reality for past. And perhaps other measures, ones that are less restrictive, can be put in place now to protect. The urge to protect oneself and feel safe is genuine. But now, especially as an adult who has more resources than were available when one was a child and formulated these strategies, there are more possibilities to create safety.
There seems to me to be a natural evolution in the construction of defenses. Take baseball. I remember when the umpire wore a huge chest protector (either over his shirt in the National League or under his shirt in the American) – a seemingly cumbersome shield that surely impeded his movement. Now, with the advantages of greater technological achievement, the padding is thinner, less bulky, but no doubt more effective at absorbing foul balls and wild pitches. That’s the aim of psychotherapy as well: helping the client to feel protected against life’s foul tips and passed balls while still agile enough to engage as fully as possible in life.