There seems to be a lot of talk about building walls at the moment. Walls that are intended to keep out the ‘illegals’ and provide a sense of security for those on the inside.
Politics aside – it has made me aware that I work with walls every day of my working life: not physical walls of course – but emotional ones.
If we have been hurt in life, it is a natural response to protect from more hurt. Up goes the wall. Sounds obvious – but pain is painful. It doesn’t matter if you live in the northern hemisphere, or right here in the Hills District of Sydney, human beings inherently try to avoid pain. Most of us recoil and run away from it. Most of us want to avoid it. And this is fair enough.
In relationships the wall can look like emotional distance, coldness, even anger. It can look like avoidance; “I might get to know you but I’m not going to be vulnerable with you because I don’t want to get hurt again.”
But the problem with a wall is – whilst it effectively keeps the bad stuff out, it also keeps the good stuff out. A well-built wall may give a sense of safety and protection, but it can get pretty lonely behind it after a while. What was first built to create refuge can become like a prison. People with walls around their hearts are often lonely and disconnected, even when they are in a relationship. Their partners are often unhappy because they are being kept at a distance.
So the obvious answer to feeling unfulfilled or lonely is to tear down the wall, right? Be vulnerable, feel your feelings, face your hurt, take a risk, learn to trust again?
Well – yes and no. Intimacy and closeness require facing our hurt at some point and becoming vulnerable. I’m all for it. Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability is brilliant (www.brenebrown.com).
But vulnerability can be frightening- even terrifying for a person who has been hurt. If you have had a wall up to protect yourself and suddenly it is removed, you are going to feel extremely exposed.
So the answer is, don’t lose the wall altogether. The wall is a healthy. It creates a boundary of protection between you and those who are unsafe. But what we need is put a door into the wall. You can then open it to let in the ‘goodies’ and keep it closed to those who do not treat you well. You get to choose. You have the control. You then can invite closeness and vulnerability as you feel safe to do so.
Knowing who to let in and who to keep out is a whole other learning curve, but when you finally learn to open the door someone who is deserving of your trust – there is no question that you will experience a whole new level of connection and closeness in your relationships.
Deborah Sanasi BA (Psy) MA (Couns) is the Principal Therapist of Norwest Counselling in the Hills District of Sydney.