Every now and then I walk home from work. It’s really my favourite way to end a shift, especially this time of year when the air is cold and my face feels alive the moment I step outside the office door. Unfortunately the boots I often wear to work are less friendly on ice – and so sometimes it’s a bit of a slow go as I gently navigate slippery sidewalks and slick streets.
The other evening I was nearing home down a notoriously slanted sidewalk that directs itself toward the road, and lost in thought I lost my footing on a slick patch of ice. Not surprisingly my body twisted and tilted, steadying itself until both feet were solidly underfoot again. I marveled for a moment at the readiness of my body to step into action at the first sign of impending danger, sending out signals to change position and shift muscles and ensure that my tailbone was preserved.
What I found to be interesting though, is how the contorting of muscles and the flailing of arms that were intended to keep me from being hurt may also result in injury to my body. That which is intended to protect may actually result in another type of harm. I felt my back muscles tense and clenched after I was steady, and I wondered in reality what would cause more damage – a slip and fall, or the strain from stabilizing a body in motion?
And, perhaps because I was on my way home from work – or perhaps simply because my brain thinks constantly about relationship and safety and how we live in the world – I couldn’t help but think that this describes so perfectly what sometimes happens to folks who work hard at keeping themselves safe from emotional danger.
It is instinctive to avoid pain. My body aimed to avoid crashing to the ice without me inviting such a behaviour. It was automatic and controlled by a part of my brain that operates without me asking it to. My brain is wired to look out for my well being. But sometimes our best option (ie: flailing wildly to stabilize a falling body) may also incur collateral damage (like a sore back the next day).
I think this happens to people, too. In our best efforts to avoid pain (I speak namely to emotional pain here…but perhaps it applies across the board), we take on behaviours or actions (often instinctively and without conscious thought) that help us sidestep discomfort. But sometimes these actions intended to help end up causing different pain in our lives.
Let’s imagine that loneliness is the perceived ‘danger.’ For some their response to loneliness may be to seek out connection at any cost – resulting in engaging in relationships that are not healthy or deeply fulfilling. Or perhaps loneliness for another may mean that that space is filled with food, so the ache can be numbed. Both of these safety strategies may result in pain, albeit they both manage to buffer loneliness.
Or perhaps rejection is the thing that we fear and that feels frightening. Maybe our best way to contort and avoid it is to shut people out – wearing a mask of anger or indifference to keep ourselves from getting rejected by others. We may feel isolated and alone, but at least in control – which for some may be a pain preferred to that of rejection.
Or maybe we are afraid of others not hearing us when we share an opinion or idea, so we take on the characteristic of agreeableness in order to avoid feeling talked over. But agreeableness may leave us feeling more unheard and unimportant, potentially leading to anger or irritability.
All of these perceived ‘solutions’ may bring about additional problems and difficulties, even if they successfully help us avoid the initial danger. Sometimes our strategies to avoid hurt/pain/threat simply create different pain or problems.
As a therapist, I find it helpful to see behaviour (all behaviour) as adapative in some way. To see the things we do (or don’t do) as emotional contorting. Much like our body twists and contorts to avoid a fall, so we take on behaviours and strategies to avoid emotional pain. These strategies and behaviours may have their own long term negative consequences, but they are often effective at helping us avoid the initial perceived emotional threat.
Part of the way I stay curious about clients sometimes seemingly unhelpful behaviour is to remember that we have a better reason to do what we do than not do it.
Part of our work is figuring out what the flails and spins in our life are working to keep us safe from, and then building new skills and strategies around that area. I always assume that if we knew better, we’d do better. If we’re employing destructive protective strategies, then it must be that we are fresh out of other healthier and more adaptive options.
Afraid of rejection? Let’s figure out why, and help build discomfort tolerance. Can’t handle loneliness? Let’s explore barriers to building connection, perhaps working at increasing social skills and helping figure out where safe spaces to network may be. Want to feel heard but are afraid of being talked over? Let’s work at helping you build resilience and solid boundaries so you can take up your space.
Perhaps today you can see some of the emotional aches, pains, and strain you may be experiencing not as evidence of failing at being a human, at not being good enough, or at doing things wrong. Maybe we can instead frame them as your best way to avoid a crash landing, and as your body’s best effort to avoid greater pain. Let’s practice being gentle with ourselves, trusting that we have a better reason to do what we do than not do it – and that if we knew better ways, that we would use them.
We are all doing the best we can to stay safe and not fall. If your best efforts aren’t working, then maybe it’s time to find someone to help you learn new ways to stay safe and intact.