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When people get hurt in relationship and do not receive healing from the wounds, they can have a natural, logical, and defensible tendency to become protective against more pain. A wound that does not receive attention remains sensitive; a person becomes wary of being relationally “cut” again. The younger one is when unattended hurt begins, the more wary they become of a potential recurrence. Wariness, even defensiveness, simply becomes common sense—natural, logical, and defensible.
However, the defense that protects can eventually become the defense that damages our ability to engage in life fully with full-hearted participation. Full-hearted participation—meaning a person is fully engaged physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—is a good definition of courage. The defenses that protect us can eventually become the diminishment of our courage.
The defense of our hearts requires that we wear armor around our hearts or put our hearts in a hard-shelled box of protection. If the willpower of protection continues too long, however, we become protected, ironically, against trusting and receiving the love we actually need. And tragically, our lack of vulnerability can hurt the very people we wish to love. Hurt people can become hurtful people. We must push through our protection against hurt to love again, and to stop the damage that will power can cause.
I have seen and experienced myself four forms of “justifiable” protection that eventually harm everyone we would love or who would love us. Awareness of our defensiveness and admission of our defensiveness can be the first movements of returning to full life again.
We defend ourselves from pain through resignation. A person who survives in resignation has resigned from the experience of living fully by saying, “I will not be bothered by life.” These people practice not being moved emotionally or allowing themselves to care too much. They practice the philosophy of false acceptance that precludes the tough grief work that comes with caring. Essentially, they say that life is a crap sandwich and one can eat it or starve. Another way of saying the same thing is, “It is what it is,” which translates into a person blocking the experience of the feelings that come with life occurring the way it does for everyone.
- We defend ourselves from pain through defiance. People who protect themselves through defiance reject their own neediness of others with, “I will not be in need.” They have a fist clenched against anyone who could put them in the position of admitting their own vulnerability. They become withdrawn, silent, or more aggressive by trying harder or being more determined when threatened by what they perceive as anything that robs them of self-sufficiency. They have contempt towards their own vulnerability that needs arousal, and therefore, contempt towards those who would render them vulnerable. The tragedy is that love can only be experienced through our capacity to be vulnerable and through accepting the vulnerability of another.
- We defend ourselves from pain through compromise. The defense of compromise communicates the following: “I will give myself to emotional risk based on the amount of risk you take.” While it seems logical at first, compromise in a relationship is a form of demanding that the other person has to prove herself or himself over and over again, and it is never enough. The other person has the experience of never being able to do enough. “I will give 50% if you will give 50%,” never adds up to 100%. Although that process may work in business, it is destructive to loving relationships. Healthy relationships require that a person be 100% emotionally involved, with the daring hope that the other person will also join.
- We defend ourselves, finally, through cowardice. The defense of cowardice is a willful, determined concentration on never having to experience the vulnerability of being human. It is an attempt to eradicate human pain by saying, “I will do whatever it takes to block myself from being exposed.” This form of refusal of one’s own vulnerability is the most powerful defense a hurt person can conjure. It requires that every situation be experienced as a threat. It eradicates the possibility of love because the defensive position is a commitment to seek the advantage at all times. The risk of caring, cowardice will not permit.
Fortunately, most of us do not have the willpower to achieve this most dangerous form of refusal. Most of us have the ironic good fortune of knowing that we are hurting; we have not been able to conjure up full blown will power to block ourselves from caring about others. Nevertheless, the other three defenses can create great pain in others who would love us because we so fear being hurt again.
The solution to our willpower is willingness—the willingness to become vulnerable again. It does require a return to our original hopes, our original courage, and, of course, to dealing with our original hurts. By becoming aware of our defensive stances, admitting their origins, and acknowledging our need for change, we can take the steps we need to take to actually heal. The process of change through admission can let us be loved again and let us love again.
Most importantly, it lets us become willing to hurt again. Love hurts. Those people who rediscover that love is worth the pain, also find that they hurt far fewer people along the way to living fully again because they can love deeply again.