Don’t Create What You Defend Against. Don’t Build the Wall

I started thinking of the idea for writing this blog long before President Trump suggested building his wall. In my work as a psychologist and in my own experience of life I have seen so many times how mounting a strong defense often results in an even stronger offense from the other side. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that most defensive strategies, misguided as they may be, are borne out of love. They may even work in the short run, but in the long run they cause more suffering and pain.

Short Term Gain for Long Term Pain

A lyrical metaphor for this negative self-fulfilling prophecy can be heard in the song “Mother,” written by Roger Watters and first released on Pink Floyd’s iconic 1979 album, “The Wall.”

The song is about an overprotective mother who tries to shield her son from the pains of the world. In setting up psychological defenses in/for him (the child internalizes the parents’ defenses), she helps him build a wall to keep the badness of the world out. But, in so doing, she guarantees that he will end up being trapped, alone, and isolated.

The song begins with the son expressing his fears and asking if he should protect himself:

Mother, do you think they’ll drop the bomb?
Mother, do you think they’ll like this song?
Mother, do you think they’ll try to break my balls?
Ooh, aah, mother, should I build the wall?

And, of course, the loving but overprotecting mother takes defensive action. Here is the mother protecting her son in the lyrics to the song:

Mama’s gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Mama’s gonna put all of her fears into you
Mama’s gonna keep you right here under her wing
She won’t let you fly but she might let you sing
Mama’s gonna keep baby cozy and warm

Ooh, babe, ooh, babe, ooh, babe
Of course mama’s gonna help build the wall

The song ends with:

Mother, did it (the wall) need to be so high?

                                 Parenthetical material added

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Going back to the non-lyrical world, I have heard many recounts over the years of parents who were not willing to stand by and watch their children suffer the profound grief over losing a loved one. These well- intentioned parents shield their children from full knowledge of the loss or encourage (or force) the child to go back to school and engage with their full slate of activities after a very short time period. The result is unresolved grief that can last a lifetime.

Parents who try to shield their children from disappointment and failure similarly can set up what can be lifelong patterns of under-performance and disengagement. Consider for example a very bright and eager child whose parent too readily steps in to help him with his homework, who intercedes with teachers and friends at the first sign of the slightest disagreement, who solves all of his problems for him and tries to make sure he feels like a winner.

I have worked with many such individuals and the message that they received from the loving and (over)protective parent was, “You’re not capable.” After enough repetitions of this cycle, the “I’m not capable” belief becomes ingrained in the individual’s self concept and operates unconsciously. What you get in adulthood is a highly intelligent under-performer who is prone to low self-esteem and depression.

Of course we do this to ourselves also, sometimes in very subtle ways. If you are socially anxious, for example, you may perceive that an acquaintance doesn’t like you because that person tends to look over you in social situations, or inattentively brushes by when you try to say hello. Feeling foolish and rejected, you may decide not to give this person the time of day anymore. You decide that the next time you see this person, you will not look their way; you will not say hello; you won’t care (even though you do); and you will look happy.

In the short run, this strategy may help you take your power back. But, what if the other person’s behavior had nothing to do with you? What if that other person is just unaware and distractible and actually likes you just fine? Over time, this person may notice you never look their way or say hello. They might even think, “Wow, you sure are standoffish!”  And, now they will stay away from you and tell other people that you are aloof; when, in fact, you are just self-conscious and hurt… and now more alone.

This same type of self-fulfilling prophecy can happen when someone who worries about not being interesting or popular tries to be the life of the party… only to look the boorish fool. Or, when someone who is afraid of looking inept at work tries to overcompensate by being hypercompetitive and domineering.

Of course, I could go on and on with my examples. Why don’t you see if you can come up with some of your own?

When have you tried to defend yourself and made the situation worse or increased the likelihood of the bad thing happening?

Just think about the last time you had a fight with your significant other. You probably thought that this person was taking you for granted, or being hypocritical, or wrongly accusing you of something; and you decided that you weren’t going to let that person just roll over you like that. So you did the only thing a self-respecting, self-loving person would do…you defended yourself…strongly. And how did that go?

For most of us, this would result in an escalation of the argument, more intense and angry words from the other person, and more unsavory ugly emotions and thoughts in ourselves. And, often the damage and residual feelings of the conflict lasts for hours, if not days. So, did your defense work? Did you win? Are you a winner?

The problem with the strong defensive approach is that it does not motivate the other person to change. On the contrary, strong defenses usually elicit an anger reaction in the opposing party; and anger does not make people want to change. It makes them want to fight.

What does make people want to change is anxiety.

Firm, but gentle responses that are unanticipated knock the opponent off balance and leave them unsure of where they stand…anxious.

The only way to lower their anxiety is to reengage with us in a more meaningful way that offers some chance of resolution. What would happen if you firmly but softly stated, “Those words really hurt. I didn’t like that.”

Try it and see what happens.

Sometimes, we don’t even need an opponent to mount a strong defense against something bad happening.  In a prior post, I wrote about how emotional hijackings can lead us to attempt to “fix” problems in ways that only make them worse. In this clip from the movie “Swingers,” for example, Mike is trying to leave a telephone message for a love interest but the answering machine keeps cutting off the last word of his sentence. Fearing that he looked like a fool, he keeps calling back and trying to fix the situation. The net effect is that he looks even more like a fool. Sometimes it is better to just let something go instead of trying to fix it.

On the more clinical end of things examples abound:

  • Fear of having a panic attack makes having panic attacks more likely.
  • Being stressed out about not being able to get to sleep will make it less likely that you get to sleep.
  • Fear of public speaking leads to more difficulty with public speaking.

The key?  Accept the anxiety and don’t be afraid of it, don’t worry about falling asleep, and realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re nervous about speaking in public.

There are also examples in the arena of world affairs and politics. I don’t usually wade into this, but I think it’s worth mentioning.  If you defend your position by attacking your opponents, you often strengthen the voices of those opponents. If you fear being seen as ineffective, you may exaggerate your achievements and look even more ineffective. If you invade a country to protect against terrorism, you may inadvertently create more terrorists.

And what about building that wall? Will it make it more likely that our bad dreams will come true? Will it put others’ fears into you? Will keeping the bad stuff out keep us locked in and isolated?

We should all ask ourselves these questions. Maybe then we won’t create what we defend against. 

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