Common Emotional Defenses


"Attempting to suppress emotions is dysfunctional; it does not work. Emotions are energy: E-motion = energy in motion. It is supposed to be in motion, it was meant to flow.

Emotions have a purpose, a very good reason to be - even those emotions that feel uncomfortable. Fear is a warning, anger is for protection, tears are for cleansing and releasing. These are not negative emotional responses! We were taught to react negatively to them. It is our reaction that is dysfunctional and negative, not the emotion.

Emotional honesty is absolutely vital to the health of the being. Denying, distorting, and blocking our emotions in reaction to false beliefs and dishonest attitudes causes emotional and mental disease. This emotional and mental disease causes physical, biological imbalance which produces physical disease."

Quote from Codependence: The Dance of Wounded Souls


Growing up in emotionally dishonest societies with wounded parents forced us to learn ways to distance ourselves from our feelings. In this article I am going to talk about three common defensive strategies we learn to protect ourselves and help us deny our emotions.

1. Speaking in the third person. One of the defenses many of us have against feeling our feelings is to speak of ourselves in the third person. "You just kind of feel hurt when that happens" is not a personal statement and does not carry the power of speaking in the first person. "I felt hurt when that happened" is personal, is owning the feeling. Listen to yourself so that you can become more aware of this defense and start changing it. Listen to others - both in person and on TV - refer to self in the third person and you will gain some insight into how they are wounded. You will probably be surprised at how often you hear this defense in the course of a day as you become more conscious.

To say, "I feel angry" or "I feel sad" is owning the feelings. It is emotional honesty and helps us to get in touch with the emotional energy that exists in our bodies. Referring to our self as "you" is a form of emotional dishonesty.

2. Story telling. This is a very common method of avoiding our feelings. Some people tell entertaining stories to avoid feelings. They may respond to a feeling statement by saying something like 'I remember back in `85 when I. . .' Their stories might be very entertaining but they have no personal immediate emotional content.

Some people tell stories about other people. They will respond to an emotional moment by telling an emotional story about some friend, acquaintance, or even a person they read about. They may exhibit some emotion in telling the story but it is emotion for the other person, not for self. They keep a distance from their emotions by attributing the emotional energy they are touching on to being about someone other than self.

Then there is the stereotypical Codependent of the joke: when a Codependent dies someone else's life passes before their eyes. If this type of Codependent is in a relationship, everything they say will be about the other person. Direct questions about self will be answered with stories about the significant other. This is a completely unconscious result of the sad fact that they have no real concept of self as an individual entity.

Perhaps the most common story telling diversion is to get very involved in the details of the story 'she said. . . . . then I said. . . . then she did. . . . .' The details are ultimately insignificant in relationship to the emotions involved but because we do not know how to handle the emotions we get caught up in the details. Often we are relating the details in order to show the listener how we were wronged in the interaction. Often we focus on how others are "wrong" in reaction to the situation as a way of avoiding our feelings.

If someone is telling you a story and you find your mind wandering and boredom setting in - it is because they are not being emotionally honest. Often the person will be coming from a victim/self pity perspective and may even be crying while telling the story - but the crying they are doing is not emotionally honest, it is part of a role they are playing and probably have been playing for years. Expressing feelings in a martyr's role created by the false self is very different from expressing grief in relationship to self. The martyr who is blaming is being dishonest both emotionally and intellectually.

3. Avoiding using primary feeling words. There are only a handful of primary feelings that all humans feel. There is some dispute about just how many are primary but for our purpose here I am going to use seven. Those are: angry/mad, sad, hurt, afraid/scared, lonely, ashamed, and happy/glad. It is important to start using the primary names of these feelings in order to own them and to stop distancing ourselves from the feelings.

To say "I am anxious" or "concerned" or "apprehensive" is not the same as saying "I feel afraid." Fear is at the root of all of those expressions but we don't have to be so in touch with our fear if we use a word that distances us from the fear. Expressions like "confused," "irritated," "upset," "tense," "disturbed," "melancholy," "blue," "good," or "bad" are not primary feeling words.

We were trained to be emotionally dishonest in childhood. In order to start peeling the layers of denial it is vital to get aware of our own emotional defenses. In order to start getting emotionally honest with ourselves - let alone with anyone else - it is vital to start recognizing our own emotional defenses. The little tricks of language and focus that we learned to help us distance ourselves from feelings that we did not know how to deal with.

Becoming willing to get conscious of our own defenses is a vital step to getting in touch with our own feelings. Learning to be emotionally honest with our self is an important part of a recovery/healing path.