Psychological 'walls' harm us over time — instead of protect us

Appraising a ubiquitous feature among modern folk.

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  • In uncertain social situations, we tend to defend ourselves by putting a psychological "wall" up.
  • For those who are very cautious, people who engage with them may feel an outright "dismissal."
  • Cultivating trust is more important than ever in overcoming many peoples' walls to build relationships with them.

What is the wall? No, not the colossal fortification that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the wildlings — or the grand partition that President Trump foresees along the Southern Border — I mean, the wall. The seemingly impenetrable one that we summon up, within the twinkling of an eye, when interacting with others.

Indeed, unlike its counterpart in the series Game of Thrones, this internal stronghold could — no doubt — withstand the blue flames of dragon's breath. Despite bellicose attempts to knock it down, it stalwartly looms over the hazy silhouettes of many suspicious figures. But, again, what is it? Where does it come from? Why do we raise it up to heights so high that no assassin could scale it?

To help us better understand this ubiquitous psychological structure, we've contacted one of New York's top relationship coaches, Susan Winter, who specializes in "higher thinking." As it turns out, there's good reason why many people might have their guard up in uncertain social situations.

So what is it?

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"'The wall' you speak of is the self-protective barrier the ego puts in place for our defense," says Winter. "Our natural defense system will automatically come into play whenever meeting someone new. We're assessing their potential merit, or harm: 'Is this someone I want to know? If so, how far do I let them into my life?'"

As far as defensive strategies go, there are some perks here. For instance, Winter believes this fortification gives us a chance to mentally assess incoming information that we receive about an unfamiliar person. "The wall allows us time to review our gut feelings about their words, actions, and comportment," she says. "This is an essential step to take before jumping headlong into a friendship, business alliance, or romance."

How these walls manifest in everyday conversations varies — they may be subtle or quite recognizable. After all, no two people are entirely alike. We each have different experiences, not to mention different interpretations of those experiences — some of which include traumas. "If a person is extremely cautious, they will be defensive," Winter says. "Anyone interacting with them will feel a distance; from a harsh coolness to outright dismissal. If subtle, the observer will sense a private person who's reserved."

The cold shoulder

Though it may seem obvious to some, this defensive strategy among "extremely cautious" individuals is often linked to painful past experiences. Much like walls in the real world, this psychological barrier exists to protect. Although there are defensive perks — i.e., checking ourselves from giving sensitive information to insensitive people — there are unforeseen adverse effects, as well. Especially if this defensive tactic is unceasingly in play.

"The negative side of constantly having one's wall up is that no one can get in," says Winter. "What appears as 'good news' to protect us, is actually 'bad news' that isolates us: The wall disallows anyone to truly befriend, support, aid, or love us."

The inability for people to tap into our authentic selves — that is, that part we are trying to vehemently guard — is caustic to our everyday connections with others, contributing to loneliness, which is currently at epidemic levels in the U.S. It also makes modern dating even more difficult — in case you haven't noticed, we live in a time when even those who front as confident individuals are, interiorly, riddled and careworn by low self-esteem.

"The wall is especially noticeable when it comes to dating and romance," says Winter, describing the unusual tactics of "cautious" individuals when they feel on the brink of being exposed. "This level of involvement creates a natural vulnerability that causes some individuals to posture as someone they're not, deflect direct questioning, or evade all attempts at connection."

Take a risk, but use your gut. 

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So, what is to be done? Can anything be done? Are we to disbelieve everyone? Are we to trust with reckless abandon? As with many things, a "golden mean" approach, between both extremes, is probably best. That is, just as we check ourselves from letting our guards down too expediently with people we don't know — whose patterns we haven't yet made sense of — it's also important to check ourselves when we realize we're not giving others a proper chance.

"The question is one of trust," says Winter, about developing meaningful relationships. "Will this person hurt us? Can we trust this person with information about us? If they know certain facts or feelings we share, will they use that information to harm us or to help us? . . . Until we know conclusively that a person is a friend, not foe, we'll keep the wall up."

It's also important to keep tabs on the fact that not everyone is out to intentionally hurt us — Thupten Jinpa, the chief English translator of the Dalai Lama, even avers kindness is a fundamental human trait. Yes, even among constantly warring, ruddy-faced humankind. We would, indeed, cease to exist, as a eusocial species, if we didn't, at endless points of our evolution, take care of one another. On top of this, even in the face of attacks from others, we're capable of remarkable degrees of resiliency.

All of this said, yes, be aware of when your walls are up, but also be vigilant to assess when the glimmering gates can be opened. It's a risk — many things are — but it's one worth taking. Our perpetuity depends on it.

The Science of Compassion: Kindness Is a Fundamental Human Trait

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