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

Appraising a ubiquitous feature among modern folk.

Psychological 'walls' harm us over time — instead of protect us
Photo credit: Andrew Neel on Unsplash
  • 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?

Photo credit: Raychan on Unsplash

"'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. 

Photo credit: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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