Developing Defense Mechanisms From Past Pain

When I was 15, I told my friend that I liked a girl in my class. 

By that afternoon, the whole school knew about it. 

Feeling humiliated, I made a decision: Never tell anyone something that you don’t want repeated to everyone you know.  

As I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, I’ve been thinking about how and why we develop defense mechanisms. 

Moments like my friend exposing my high school crush can impact us so deeply that we decide not to trust people. 

The story we tell ourselves is, “Well, if this person who was supposed to care about me let me down, everyone else could hurt me too.  It’s safer to trust no one than to risk being vulnerable and feeling disappointed.” 

It’s so interesting how we create stories and behaviors that we perform our entire life based on a single incident that caused us pain or trauma. 

From a biological perspective, this defensive strategy totally makes sense.  Our bodies and minds are designed to feel pain so that we can protect ourselves from further damage. 

This is why people who can’t feel pain are in constant danger.  If you can’t feel that a hot stove is burning you, you might not realize that you’re irreparably damaging yourself until it’s too late. 

So once we feel pain, our minds look for identifying characteristics of whatever caused us pain so that we can avoid it in the future.  These characteristics could be “sharp objects” or “hot surfaces” or “men” or “authority figures.” 

It only takes one event for us to create a story about how all (fill in the blank) will cause us pain and shouldn’t be trusted. 

So how do we break free from these stories that we believe have protected us up to this point? 

It’s incredibly hard, first of all.  We can tell ourselves, “Not all hot surfaces are dangerous,” but we’re still going to flinch when we touch one until we have enough experiences to recognize what will and won’t hurt us. 

The same thing applies to trusting people.  It takes time, patience, practice, and a willingness to be vulnerable, which can feel very uncomfortable. 

For me, the first step is to recognize that the incident that hurt me happened once.  It was one specific situation, and even though similar events happened later in my life, it doesn’t mean that I should never share anything personal with anyone. 

The same applies to any generalizations we might make:

“A man hurt me so men can’t be trusted.”

“A bully made fun of me for showing emotion so I’ll never express myself again.”

“My parents told me my art was a waste of time so I’ll stop creating.”

“Someone wasn’t grateful for the gift I gave them, so I’m not doing anything nice for anyone else.”

It’s so easy to extract “life lessons” from these moments of pain, but all they do is give power to the person who hurt us at the expense of our own happiness and connection with other people.

To live “wholeheartedly,” as Brené Brown calls it, we have to decide to live courageously.  We have to take the risk to be vulnerable when we can.  We must accept that failure is part of the process if we want to do anything meaningful in this world. 

And that is a challenging change to ask of us because it opens us up to pain.  But it also opens us up to incredibly rewarding and fulfilling connections with people.  And that trade-off might just be worth it. 

Have you developed any “life lessons” from past pain?  Have you been able to change any of those lessons over time?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.  

Posted on April 16, 2015 .