Breaking down the barriers to a better life
MIND MOVE: Defences can prevent us fulfilling our potential, writes TONY BATES
MARY* WAS A young woman who felt anxious most of her life. She didn’t trust people, she was fearful in social situations and she had no close friends. Her work meant everything to her and she used it to hide from the world.
She had very good reason for feeling the way she did. As a child she had known all kinds of rejection and very little affection. She had learned to survive in the only way she knew how. But it was hard for her to keep going and one day she sank into a very deep despair. Like most humans, she discovered that when the heart is denied the nourishment and affection it needs for too long, it breaks.
Her GP was perhaps the only person she trusted and with his encouragement she agreed to seek help. This was a major step for her, but she was so down she realised she had nothing to lose.
When we met, she took a long time to feel safe and open up. We worked together for almost two years. As she learned to trust she began to heal. She saw how the very things she had done to feel safe in the world had actually made her life hell. The same defences that protected her from what she feared kept her from experiencing a life that could be different.
Gradually she got to a place where she felt secure enough to take risks. She spent time in the company of other people. She made a friend with a man who didn’t ask her to be anything other than the person she was.
In spite of her attempts to drive him away, she felt drawn to him. Over time, she let him into her life and began to experience intimacy for the first time.
At the very point in therapy where she made a real breakthrough, she panicked. She had discovered that life without constant anxiety was possible for her. But this was more than she could take. She looked at me intensely and asked: “If I am not anxious, who am I?”
A life of feeling anxious may have been miserable, but at least it had given her a sense of identity. And without that identity, she didn’t know how to live.
Our sense of identity is the story we have woven from experience to remind us who we are and what we can expect from others. Our stories often operate in the background of our mind, as part of an ongoing conversation we have with ourselves about “the way things are”.
These stories are self- fulfilling: if I believe others will reject me, I react to them in a negative way and they in turn withdraw from me. Our behaviour makes something happen that, in turn, reinforces the story.
Our particular way of surviving in the world may be self-defeating, but it most likely represents the best we could do to survive at an earlier time in our lives when we had few options. Our chosen way of being in the world may have helped us to reduce the stress we felt, or to keep people away.
Without these familiar defences, we don’t know quite how to behave. And we fear that if we were to change, the people in our lives might not know how to relate to us, or that they might not want to relate to us.
Relationships are challenged when one person changes. It can confuse everyone involved and cause uneasiness, even resentment.
When we see that the pain of living a certain way outweighs whatever feeling of security it may have given us for years, we place ourselves at the threshold of something new.
When we see that the story we have been repeating in our life is now too small for the person we are becoming, and when we open ourselves to a new larger story that is less constricting, life starts over for us and we step into the unknown.
Mary married that man she met nearly 10 years ago and I didn’t see her again. I thought of her this week because she called to seek advice about a friend. I was able to ask about how her life was working for her. She is still happily married; the sad story she lived for years turned into something beautiful.
* Not her real name
Tony Bates is chief executive of Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health, headstrong.ie