I want to get close to somebody, but I can’t seem to develop the kind of meaningful relationship I want. Truth is, I’m not very good at relationships in general. And my loneliness during the holidays made that all too clear!
Unfortunately, when we most need to connect, we’re apt to feel vulnerable and withdraw or put up a wall that goes where we go. While trying to protect our hearts from pain, we protect them — perhaps, more so — from love.
How do we open our hearts to the love we want, without taking a bullet in the process?
The best answer is to know — and love — yourself so well that you don’t personalize rejection; but that can be the work of a lifetime. For the moment, you can accept that intimacy is worth the risk and make a conscious effort to lower your defenses.
The problem is that you might have no idea what your emotional defense mechanisms look like, let alone how to drop them. You could be using a shield today that you unconsciously developed 30 years ago.
So — especially if you don’t know you’re protecting your heart — take a look at the following list of emotional defense mechanisms lovingly presented by Marilyn Kagan, LCSW, and Neil Einbund, Ph.D., in “Defenders of the Heart.”
Denial: The tactic of overlooking the obvious to reduce anxiety.
Projection: Attributing your own unacceptable, shocking or embarrassing thoughts, feelings and impulses to someone else in order to relieve your anxiety about them.
Rationalization: Dealing with disappointment, fury or hurt feelings over an unbearable situation by covering them up with convoluted, self-serving and often seemingly logical excuses.
Intellectualization: Using words, definitions and/or theoretical ideas to explain away emotions associated with painful, uncomfortable events or thoughts.
Humor: Using laughter or joking, especially sarcasm and irony, to get out of a jam or to soften feelings of anguish or discomfort in a given situation.
Displacement: Diverting alarming, humiliating or unpleasant feelings and impulses from one situation, object or person to someone or something seemingly less threatening.
Sublimation: Channeling thoughts or feelings that are intolerable to you and/or to society at large into behaviors that are unobjectionable.
Procrastination: Delaying tasks or actions that need to be started or completed as a way of steering clear of your uncomfortable, distressing internal angst.
Altruism: Giving of yourself — whether time, money or energy — in a way that both gratifies and wards off your own desires and needs.
Passive-aggression: Unassertively and indirectly expressing feelings of resentment, hostility or hurt toward others.
The list is easy to identify with, right? In fact, your defense mechanisms might be so ingrained that you think of them as an innocuous part of your personality. Don’t just brush them off, though. While they offer you some temporary solace, they also keep you from the meaningful connections you want in your life.
And as a practical matter, they can make you seem guarded, condescending or insecure as you interact with other people. What seems natural to you just might seem, well, glaring to others — the way somebody else’s defense mechanisms sometimes seem to you. We’re all in the same business of trying to survive.
You probably find it easier to drop your defenses when you’re talking to somebody who is down and out … or fatter or poorer or sadder than you are. But those people who seem to have every reason to be secure and happy learned to protect their hearts, just as you did.
As you grow your awareness of your own “defenders of the heart,” you’ll also lower them, even if it’s only bit by bit. As you expose your heart, you’ll see that it’s a good heart. And, as you get to know yourself, you’ll be getting to know others.
Then the closeness you want is yours!