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Is getting Defensive a Trauma Response?

A client contacted me recently saying -

 ‘I’m told I’m very defensive, that I’m prickly and unapproachable, I don’t want to be that way and it’s affecting my relationships – including my marriage. Can you help me please?’

I’m  going to call my client, Alex. to make it easier, but not his real name.

When we began working together, we began by exploring his past, as this often provides valuable information, as to where the root of the problem started.

 I asked about him about childhood and he assured me at the start he had a happy childhood. He and his two younger siblings enjoyed playing together, Their parents bought them lots of presents, and they went on holidays each year.  It sounded good. Until Alex was 8 years old when things changed. Mum had been experiencing bouts of depression, for some time, and it had caused tension in his parent's marriage, as well as Mum not being able to take care of Alex and his siblings as well.

Shortly after his 8th birthday, Mum took her own life, which was extremely traumatic for Alex and his family.

Whilst his father did his best to take care of the family, he also had to work, to financially support them all. which left Alex, being the eldest to do the chores, and also look after his younger siblings, which was a heavy burden of responsibility for such a young child as well as not having anyone to support him in his grief.

His father was ill-equipped to emotionally support his children and there was no extended family to help. Dad sunk into a deep depression, turning to alcohol to numb his pain. But those alcoholic bouts were often angry and at times, violent towards the children.

Alex’s way of coping with this was to retreat inside himself, to avoid his father’s angry outbursts. He walked on eggshells, becoming hypervigilant, waiting warily for the next angry explosion.

He was living in survival mode. He learned not to trust others, because either they left /abandoned him, as in the case of his mother, or couldn’t be relied upon, either physically or emotionally, as in the case of his father.

As children, we are very adept at developing coping strategies to cope with situations around us. But those strategies don’t always work as well as adults, which is why Alex’ friends told him he was defensive.

I prefer to use the word protective, rather than defensive, because we are protecting ourselves from hurt.

Whilst Alex craved connection with his father, and later with friends, he also didn’t feel he could trust others, and his coping strategy was to push people away, becoming unapproachable and prickly.

Keep away – I’m scared you will hurt me

But that came across others as keep your distance, no admittance!

So the therapeutic work was to allow Alex to talk about his childhood experiences and the traumas he had gone through, acknowledging  his pain, without judgment, by doing so he began to make some sense of it. Sometimes clients talk about it as ‘joining up the dots’. Over a period of time, Alex became more aware, not only of the difficult times he had experienced but also of how he was triggered in the present. And with that knowledge, he was able to make positive changes – slowly..... Baby steps are always the best way, slow and steady even though we are all impatient to feel better immediately.

Alex's story is not an unfamiliar one, whilst the events may be different, and not all traumas are experienced in childhood. But whenever they occur we are affected, often triggered by current events, at which times those childhood strategies automatically come into play. Which aren’t always helpful, because we don't get the reactions we crave.

How do we change those negative patterns?

By slowly, and gently delving into the root of them and then bringing them from the unconscious into the conscious, that’s where I come in – by supporting and guiding, helping you join up the dots, and then working together to find healthier strategies, and leaving the old less effective ones behind.  



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