When the weather is sunny and warm, we don’t go out in a raincoat. When we feel that our neighbors are friendly, we don’t worry too much about fences.
Everyone who is born into the world gets an immediate sense of their environment – if it is responsive to our needs, we feel happy, relaxed and content. If however we feel that we are surrounded by disturbing events, an unfriendly environment, we start to put up an emotional shield – sometimes a raincoat will do, sometimes we need solid fences.
Psychological defenses are rather like the fences that we build around our homes and property. If we live in a friendly place, our fences are just a token – neighbors happily chat over low fences, other fences respect our privacy, high enough and no more. The more hostile the environment, the more solid are our walls. Reinforced concrete, glass and barbed wire, electric and electronic devices can help to make us feel more secure when faced with an environment that we see as being hostile.
The Simon and Garfunkel song “I am a Rock” is a classic description of the way in which a person uses psychological defenses to protect themselves against experience of emotional pain. The downside is that the more effective a defense system is to keep others out, the more we are surrounded by and dependent upon the structure. The fortress that protects us can very easily become our prison.
When it comes to our emotions, none of us like to be hurt. From the moment we are born we start to get an idea about what it is we need to do to get a good response, one that makes us feel good, from our environment. If we are cold, hungry or wet we make appropriate sounds – and someone sorts it out – this develops trust.
It is a great day for our development when realize that this “someone” doesn’t actually have to do this for us – they do it because they care. This develops in us a capacity to love. We value ourselves and value others, regardless of fault or failing.
Many people who later resort to drug abuse have had problems at these stages.
When adults fail to provide the support that a child needs, early in its life, deep seated distrust comes from being let down and unsupported in times of emotional need.
Children feel insecure in themselves when attempts to give and receive affection fail in an environment that they have earlier trusted.
When an environment is supportive, children don’t raise barriers, When they feel threatened and anxious, they put on the raincoat and put up their fences – their survival is at stake.
When someone chooses to use substances in preference to human relationship, it suggests a betrayal of trust or doubt about the value and worth of having human relationships. Even though drug cultures provide community and a sort of friendship, drug use is the focus of and central to the bonding of the group.
Much care needs to be taken when encouraging an addict to speak out about their emotional issues. If addicts feel threatened they will simply retreat further into their defenses.
Getting addicts to open up windows and to create gateways in their walls is what addict help is about. Once pathways of real communication are open, emotions can be exposed.
When the environment is friendly, there is no need for fear. When addict help is reassuring, the defensive walls are opened up to new ways of communication.