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Breaking Down Walls

Building Emotional Walls

Everything’s a metaphor for our inner self. And so it is with walls.

We all know what it means to ‘build walls’. It’s what we do when something has deeply hurt us and we don’t want to risk it happening and damaging us again. We think we are defending ourselves from the intensities of pain, loss, anger and negativity.

But a wall, unlike a shield (which all good warriors need to defend against the negative), cannot be held up to protect us, then lowered when not in battle. The ‘idea’ of a shield requires a more mature, conscious and self-aware approach to self-protection (a topic for a future blog post). A wall is more permanent. It creates a barrier which blocks out the emotional intensities of not just the bad feelings, but unfortunately the more positive emotions too. It numbs us and prevents us from experiencing the fullness of love and life.

We know we’re kidding ourselves by thinking we’re safely protected from the risk of being hurt. Because we know that deep down all those feelings still exist, just the other side of the wall. But we daren’t get in touch with them. We’re afraid they may overwhelm us. Instead we justify the wall by telling ourselves that others are dangerous, or can’t be trusted, or that we can’t trust our own judgement anymore.

Sometimes by isolating ourselves from intimacy we think life is easier. And temporarily this might feel true. But sooner or later we grow to understand that it’s only through our connection to others that we can really feel alive – even though relationships with others come with risks. Life can be lonely when shut off from love. And loneliness can hurt just as much as the feelings that caused us to put up the wall in the first place.

Each person’s wall has been custom designed and built to his or her own emotional specification. It’s sometimes possible to recognise exactly when the wall went up. Maybe you were betrayed by someone you deeply loved and trusted and swore you’d never trust love again.

Some people may realise they started building the foundations of a wall early in life. As a child, the world is intense and is either black or white, good or bad, love or hate, so flimsy walls may seem to quickly pop up and fall down again when things improve. It’s not a natural thing to build big walls as a child because we need the nurturing of love and support from our family and friends.

But if emotional pain is severe or consistent the only protection is the symbolic ‘hardcore’ wall and it comes at a price.

When my sister was dying of breast cancer she was determined to visit the Berlin Wall before she died. I have no idea why it was so important for her to go there in her final few weeks. There is nothing in our family background which connects us to Germany or the old ‘Eastern block’. Was seeing the dismantled Berlin wall symbolic for her in some way? Her last gift to me was a souvenir piece of the Berlin Wall. We had shared an upbringing of verbal and sometimes physical abuse. Was she battling with her own internal wall?

Breaking down the walls

Do you have a wall? How big is it?

As all demolition experts know, a really big wall needs to be carefully dismantled. You can’t just attack it with a sledgehammer! It can come crashing down and crush you. If you’re too aggressive bits can fly off and hit you in the face!

Take a good look at the wall. See if you can determine how it was constructed. Look for recent patchwork and for clues to what caused the need for repair. You may remember taking some of the wall down in the past, only to find the rest starting to tumble down and overwhelm you, so you quickly underpinned and patched up the cracks.

It’s often easier to see other people’s walls than your own. When you know someone well you might know what they’ve been through and suspect they may have created certain defences. Sometimes you can literally see their rigidity and feel the barriers go up when they are vulnerable. Be careful not to judge or point this out to them or they may pull up the drawbridge and run to the arrowslits! However, by observing the defensive process in others you can then do a bit of inner reflection. Have you got a similar process going on in a certain area of your life?

So what has all this got to do with feeling valued?

Ask any elderly person what matters to them. What helps them feel good in their old age? Or ask them what they regret. They want to know they mattered – that their existence made a difference somewhere. That they were loved, and the love they gave was valued and passed on. Or maybe instead they’re filled with sadness and remorse wishing they’d overcome their walls of self-denial when they had the chance.

By knowing we’ve given of ourselves and it has made a difference makes us feel good about ourselves. We experience self-love. Walls cut us off from all this.

Remember: If we’ve built blocks against emotional pain we must first dissolve the blocks we’ve erected before we can truly feel again. To break down our walls we need to be careful to dismantle safely. Get help from someone you trust if you think your wall is too big for you to break down on your own.

You don’t need walls to be safe in the world. You just need to learn how to use a shield. (To be continued …).

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