When Defense Mechanisms Get In the Way

I’ve been seeing a meme floating around that says “the things that helped you survive get in your way when it’s time to thrive.” There’s a lot of truth to that, and not just in terms of emotions.

When it’s a physical injury

Here’s one way it might look when it’s a physical injury. I recently did something to my sacroiliac joint (SI) and it got out of alignment. It was a fairly small thing, but it destabilized my pelvis and lower back, and any movement of my body pulled on the injury. In response to that, all of the muscles that connect to my lower back and pelvis tightened up or spasmed because they were trying to stabilize the misaligned joint to keep it from getting worse. Some of them took turns, and others got wound up tight and stayed that way. It was an uncomfortable experience, to say the least.

I know how to take care of this sort of thing because this wasn’t my first rodeo. So I lay down a lot, iced my lower back, took advil and some CBD meds, and rested my back as much as I could. Once the initial reaction started to calm down, I used my theragun and did some very gentle movement practices and myofascial release work. After a few days, I got the muscles to release enough to let my SI joint slip back into alignment and much of the pain went away.

However, all those big muscles that had tightened up to stabilize the SI joint were still freaking out and about an hour later, they pulled it back out of alignment. So, more rest, ice, meds, massage and movement until the SI realigned. This time, I got the muscle spasms to relax enough that the joint was stable for a few hours, but then, it went out of alignment again. Rinse and repeat. Each time, the SI went back into alignment more quickly and stayed there longer and longer, until I finally got the muscles to relax while the joint was able to stay where it was supposed to be. It took about a week and half, and it was only that short a time because I have a lot of tools for this sort of thing and a lot of practice at it. And even then, it was another couple of weeks of working with my body on a daily basis to keep everything from tightening back up and starting the cycle again.

This experience got me thinking about that meme. My muscle spasms were the defense mechanism that was trying to protect the injury, and until I started taking steps to calm them down, they kept me stuck in the painful pattern. The thing that my body was doing to try to protect the injury was making it more difficult to heal it. I couldn’t get relief from the pain until I’d addressed both the original joint issue AND the muscle spasms, and that took patience, time, and consistency. That is such a perfect parallel for how we move through emotional healing. We have to deal with both the initial hurt/wound/trauma AND whatever defense mechanisms we’ve built up around it, especially when those protective patterns are keeping us stuck in the hurt.

How it looks when it’s an emotional hurt

I know someone who withdraws and pulls away whenever he feels rejected. It’s a defense pattern he developed as a young child because he learned that it helped him to not feel utterly awful when he didn’t feel safe and secure with his parents. But now, as an adult, it gets in his way when there’s a miscommunication or a misattunement with his partner. Even when he’s aware that it’s a minor conflict or a small misunderstanding, his self-protective pattern of withdrawal and isolation switches on. He knows intellectually that it blocks him from reconnecting with his partner, but his body and heart still try to make him pull away.

In order to have a meaningful reconnection, he has to address the initial miscommunication or misattunement (which is like my SI joint injury) AND the response in his system that tells him to withdraw (which is like my muscle spasms). If he only takes care of the immediate issue, his defense pattern will still keep him from coming back into connection with his partner, in the same way that my tight muscles kept pulling the joint out of alignment. If he only takes care of the defense reaction and never resolves the original issue, the hurt won’t heal.

In my coaching work, I’ve seen a lot of folks who want to address or resolve a past experience or a trauma as part of their sexual healing, and that’s awesome. But sometimes, they don’t want to hear that they also need to look at their defense mechanisms. They don’t yet understand that they’re doing something that’s reinforcing or recreating the pain they’re trying to take care of. They’re so stuck in their reactivity that they don’t see how they’re pushing away the people they want to be close to, or they don’t see how their anger at feeling rejected makes it hard to be around them, or that their silence about their needs and desires means that their partner can’t ever give them what they truly want. Whether the defense patterns are the full-on fight/flight/fawn/freeze of a trauma reaction or a less intense version, they can still block us from getting where we actually want to go. As the meme says, “the things that helped you survive get in your way when it’s time to thrive.”

How we move forward

In my view, one of the most useful and least painful ways to take care of this is a three-step process, but it isn’t linear. Just as with my SI injury, we need to keep coming back to this over time and trust that things will change. The first time you do it, it’s a leap of faith but with experience, most people come to see that it works.

Step 1: Deal with the immediate issue

There’s not much point in trying to change your defense reactions when the thing that hurts you is still happening. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to address the issue well when the reactions are super active. This is one place that a therapist, coach, or other practitioner can help. If you have someone who can guide you through the steps of dealing with the immediate situation with a minimum of added inflammation, it makes all the difference.

That’s often easier when you have a pre-existing relationship with them, and have built a measure of trust before things get painful. But don’t let that get in the way of contacting someone if things are already in a crisis. It might be more difficult to create the strong practitioner relationship when you’re in pain, but it’s less difficult than continuing without that support.

Step 2: Figure out your patterns

One way that people often try to map out their defensive patterns is by talking about them, putting the pieces together, and coming to an intellectual understanding of how they work. I think those are excellent tools and I use them a lot. But talking about emotional patterns is also quite limited in its effectiveness because this is about more than how we intellectually engage with this stuff. I’ve seen people go to talk therapy for years and develop a deeply nuanced understanding of their defenses, but they still get caught up in them at the drop of a hat. These patterns exist in our bodies, our emotions, and our nervous systems. Sooner or later, we have to feel our way through them, not just think about them.

One tool that I find effective is called “switching on the trigger at a 3.” Generally, when we go into those patterns, they’re big and loud. The volume is at 11, and there’s no way to hear anything else. If we can switch them on safely and at a lower volume, we can explore them more gently. The way we do that is pretty simple, though it takes practice to do it skillfully.

First, we identify the sentence or phrase that feels turns the pattern on. It might be something like:

  • I don’t want to be with you right now.
  • You made a big mistake.
  • I’m really angry with you.
  • You never do anything right.
  • You’ll never be good enough.

They’re usually short sentences and they cut deep when they’re said with a lot of intensity, which is why the reaction hits 11. So instead, I gently and softly say whatever we’ve agreed on, without the heat of a real situation. That turns on the reaction at a much lower volume, and I always try to aim for a 3.

Second, my client’s job is to breathe and feel what sensations arise in their body over the next few minutes. They don’t need to respond to the phrase. The goal is to feel what comes up for them somatically (in their body) and to notice how it rises, crests, and subsides. It might move from one place to another, and there might be layers of sensation that emerge at the same time or in sequence. Some things I’ve heard people say:

  • My chest and jaw are really tight.
  • I feel hot in my belly.
  • My hands and feel are tingling.
  • My throat is squeezing.
  • I’m holding my breath.
  • I want to smile to reassure you.
  • I suddenly feel chilly.

Identifying the body sensations that accompany the defensive patterns is an incredibly powerful tool because it helps make it easier to notice them earlier in the cycle, before they get intense. For many people, these sensations are so long-standing and familiar that they can be hard to identify. That’s even more true when they’re connected to a trauma because a lot of people find ways to tune their body sensations out to get by. It sometimes takes a few attempts, but almost everyone I’ve tried this with has been able to feel those sensations with a little practice.

Learning how to tune into those somatic signals makes it so much easier to keep things from escalating. When my SI joint first told me something was going on, it only took me a few minutes to realize that I had an injury that needed attention. It would have been easy for me to ignore it until the pain got serious, but because I didn’t do that, I was able to drive home and get the meds and ice pack set up before the muscle spasms made that more difficult. When my client feels into the messages from their body and knows what they mean, they can look for ways to deal with their situation before it gets bigger.

Step 3: Find the right tools

Once we’ve started to map out the defense reaction sensations, we can look for tools and building skills to move forward. There are a lot of different paths that can take, depending on things like:

  • the nature of the original injury
  • the current situation
  • what comes up in their body when the defense reactions show up in real life
  • the emotional patterns they developed in response to their hurt
  • their relationship with the Drama Triangle
  • their experiences of power relationships, especially as they relate to gender, sexuality, race and other related factors
  • their relationship and sexual history
  • what healing approaches they’ve tried

There’s nothing in that list that’s any different from what a therapist or coach might help someone explore. The shift comes from having the somatic information that often gets overlooked in talk-focused approaches, and from using body-based practices to move forward. Our defensive patterns get trained into the body and they get switched on without conscious choice. Working with the body helps us access more effective tools. That can be incredibly powerful for seeing when our defense patterns keep us stuck in painful situations. It becomes a lot less difficult to find ways to interrupt that cycle, break out of our habits, and find more useful ways to move forward.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up Over This

Having self-protective patterns is simply part of being human. And it seems to be part of the human experience for those defenses to sometimes keep us stuck in our behaviors and habits. So when you catch yourself doing that, try to remember that this is pretty much a universal thing for people and the fact that it happens doesn’t mean anything about you.

It can be really difficult to break out of those cycles without support because doing it solo means not having an outside perspective to help you see what you’re doing. As a somatic sex educator and relationship coach, I want to help you find new tools to create the relationships that support you and make you thrive. I offer in-person sessions in Seattle, as well as coaching over video. Get in touch with me to schedule a free Get Acquainted video call. Let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy.