Relinquishing Ways We Avoid Our Feelings (Defenses) That Hurt Us

In previous articles, I discuss how to some extent we all experience early trauma feelings that intrude into our lives causing us distress. I also discuss how the defenses we use to avoid these intrusive feelings leads to more unhappiness. Here, I discuss how we can learn to relinquish the ways we avoid our intrusive feelings in order to feel happier.

Relinquishing our defenses, the ways we have learned to avoid our intrusive feelings, is a process. Although I present the steps of this process in a linear fashion, in actuality they are overlapping and recursive.

Step I: Understanding our defenses

In order to relinquish our defenses, the ways we avoid intrusive feelings, we must first understand them. Typically, we are unaware of the defenses we use to avoid intrusive feelings. A good place to start is by reading about psychological defenses and then reflecting on oneself. It can also help to seek the assistance of a counsellor who uses a depth approach to counselling (depth approaches theorize the use of psychological defenses to avoid early feelings).

Vancouver psychologist Dr. Geoffrey Carr’s Making Happiness is a very helpful introduction to understanding our defenses. Some of the defenses that he describes are addictions to substances and compulsive behaviors, fantasy, distraction, pride and blame, control of ourselves, others and the world. Also, the works by Santa Barbara psychologist, Dr. Robert Firestone, are very helpful in identifying psychological defenses, particularly the fantasy bond and the negative inner voice.

Step II: Going against our defenses

As we understand our defenses, it is important to let go of them. For example, if addictive behavior is a way we avoid intrusive feelings, we can stop the addictive behavior and seek pleasure in alternative, healthy activities. If living in fantasy is a way we avoid intrusive feelings, we can give up fantasy and seek gratification in reality. If distraction is a way we avoid intrusive feelings, we can notice when we are distracting ourselves and learn to be more in the moment. If pride is a way we avoid feelings, we can relinquish it and base our worth on being human rather than on particular characteristics we are proud of. If blame is a way we avoid intrusive feelings, we can let go of this negative behavior and learn to take responsibility for ourselves. If control of ourselves is a way we avoid intrusive feelings, we can learn to be less controlled. If control of others is a way we avoid intrusive feelings, we can become less dominant in our relationships and more open to others’ influence. If control of the world is a way we avoid intrusive feelings, we can open ourselves to experiences and situations we have avoided previously. If the fantasy bond is a way we avoid intrusive feelings, we can go against withholding behavior with significant others and reveal more of ourselves in order to have more real, loving relationships.

Letting go of our defenses is easier said than done. As we let go of the ways we avoid feelings, typically the trauma feelings intrude more forcefully causing us more anxiety and distress. Also, the negative inner voice becomes louder, intensifying our intrusive feelings of anxiety, shame, and pain. It is important, therefore, that we let go of our defenses gradually in order that we are not overwhelmed by the intrusive feelings. It can also help to see a counsellor who can assist us in letting go of our defenses and managing the increased, intrusive feelings.

The main way that Stan, a single, middle aged, accountant, avoided intrusive feelings was pride. He took pride in his superior intelligence and ability to work longer hours than others to avoid intrusive shame. In counselling, he learned to let go of basing his worth on these characteristics and to establish his worth on being an ordinary, human being. For a full description of Stan’s story, see the clinical case, Individual Experiencing Anxiety and Depression.

The main way that Dan, a 29 year old, married man in the high tech sector, avoided intrusive feelings was sexual addiction. He acted out sexually in order to avoid intrusive anxiety and loneliness (emotional pain). For a full description of Dan’s story, see the clinical case, Sexual Addiction.