As a child, you learn and internalize what it means to have and express your feelings and needs. For example, if you are repeatedly told when you feel sad that you shouldn't feel that way, you will learn that there is something wrong or unacceptable with feeling sad.
As a result, you develop coping mechanisms to manage the sadness. These interventions that originate as protective mechanisms have serious side effects. They make it harder over time to access your true or authentic self.
The sadness becomes "other", but it does not disappear. It becomes more and more difficult to access over time, or gets diluted via an automatic chain of coping events that occur reflexively and outside of awareness.
The focus turns away from your own experiences to trying to predict and control how others will respond to your experiences. This is a game that can never be won. What happens is that your experiences get buried in order to play it safe. After a while, you lose touch with who you really are, because everything gets filtered through this protective mechanism.
This is one of the most common issues that I deal with in my work. Symptoms of overactive protective mechanisms include loneliness, and depression, detachment and deprivation. It leaves a constant void that can never be filled because there isn't a true awareness and understanding of how the void formed in the first place and how it persisted.
I had a session today with someone that listed off a series of issues she wanted to address that had the common theme of feeling weighed down by the demands of others.
She wanted specific things in her relationships that were not in sync with what others wanted. She had a splitting headache. It was making her anxious and overwhelmed. She didn't want to disappoint the people that she cares about.
I pointed out this thread that I was hearing and asked her to slow down with me, take a step back and explore how she felt in each situation and what she wanted and needed.
I validated her concern for others, but I emphasized the impossibility of managing the relationships this way at her expense and at the expense of further intimacy in the relationships. I told her that the more she put her own feelings and needs on the back-burner, the more she was setting herself up for disappointment, resentment and loneliness.
It's sad that we are often conditioned to lose touch with our true selves in childhood, but it is possible to reconnect and rediscover this truth and authenticity. That is one of the many reasons why I love doing what I do. It's like being a psychic bridge builder. There's nothing like the feeling of helping someone reach and reclaim their lost internal islands.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and 5-year-old toy poodle.