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How Pushing Past Defenses to Feel Your Feelings Makes You Strong — and More Human

Regardless how well intentioned, a defensive approach to getting your partner to cooperate does not, will not, and cannot work. There are compelling reasons to understand and let go of these patterns.

The root cause of defensiveness is a belief system that fosters an inner mindset, which, by its protective nature, emphatically opposes the formation of intimacy in your marriage and other key relationships.

Thus, it is your perceptions that activate this reactivity. Your beliefs, you may say, scare you into thinking that your survival is at stake whenever an event triggers painful feelings inside.

At heart, defensiveness is fear of intimacy.

Rooted in existential fears of rejection, abandonment, inadequacy, and the like, it is associated with fears surrounding your survival from the early years of life — childhood — a time when your physical brain and body literally needed love to survive.

Now, in adulthood, you face a different challenge. Your hope of finding the emotional fulfillment that you’re driven by inner human strivings to find in your connection to life rests in breaking the cycles of hurt and suffering. How? By diving deep into the very feelings you avoid, some of which you may not even know you have, to discover what no other person can give you, no matter how great their love for you.

The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live. ~ LEO BUSCAGLIA

It comes down to a choice between pain or suffering.

The choice is clearer now thanks to recent advances in the study of the brain. Will you take the helm as the captain of your life, as the agent and creator of your experiences, or remain a passive onlooker reacting to and hoping to avoid crises, perhaps even thinking of your self as a victim of certain persons or circumstances?

You are human. As such, you have a mind and you have a heart, each amazing in their own way — yet designed to work together. Only fear, existential fear to be more precise, can prevent these two interdependent powers from partnering to produce optimal outcomes for your happiness.

Your brain is a relationship organ — and you, a relationship being.

This means that:

  • When you avoid feeling the emotions of vulnerability that are a natural aspect of being human, unwittingly, you become the cause of your own suffering.
  • When, in order to avoid these feelings, you blame others or events for the pain you feel inside, you act in ways that are contrary to the best interests of your relationship.
  • When your relationships are on the line, so is your health and your happiness.

To your subconscious mind, which by the way does not know the difference between physical or emotional threats to your survival, a thought that crosses your mind and causes you to feel anxious in relation to  the other — for example, stewing on why your partner “always” procrastinates or “never” plans a romantic date — is enough to activate your body’s survival response.

In survival mode:

  • All normal processes of the body get interrupted, to include your capacity for clear thinking and logic.
  • The subconscious turns off its willingness to be influenced or make changes as, once in “protective” mode, it turns off the brain’s “learning” mode. (The brain can either be in one mode or the other.)
  • Your “IQ” drops several levels, which likely explains why, when you are triggered, you say or do things that you normally wouldn’t.

Your survival, remember, is the body’s top directive.

These neural patterns activate automatically, and can endure a life time – way past their expiration date in adulthood.

Unless you develop the learned skill of consciously feeling and processing your feelings and thoughts, in moments when you get triggered, these defense mechanisms can rob you of your capacity to choose your thoughts and actions freely.

If you do not express your feelings or ask for what you need from others, you risk eventual exhaustion from carrying the weight of others’ pain or your attempts to save others from feeling their pain. On the other hand, if you ask for what you need in ways that blast or blame the other, no one is listening — their brain is in defensive mode.

Neither of these two extremes work well as strategies for a healthy life and relationships.

Your intentions for not “feeling your feelings” are good.

It’s okay. Many get caught in these limiting belief systems and defense patterns.

Cultural beliefs have conditioned you, like many, to believe that painful emotions mean you or a loved one will be banished from a kingdom that overall bases self-worth on external standards of performance.

That’s even scary now. Imagine what that may have felt like to you as a child. Then consider that, whenever you get triggered today, so do some old memory pockets of what it felt like to be scared as a child.

These defense strategies, and the underlying belief systems that sustain them, are patterns that originated from suffering that was too overwhelming for you at the time it was first experienced, considering your cognitive development as a child.

You needed these defenses then. Now however all the equipment is in place for you to experience your feelings in vulnerable moments — and let healing take place.

It will take more than just talking about your feelings, however.

You need to feel them. You also need to let others feel theirs. Stop the protective maneuvering. You don’t need it, and it’s in the way.

It will not be easy to stop blaming others for your feelings or protecting them from feeling theirs.

Start today by shifting a belief or two. See yourself as equipped, capable of handling pain. Believe the same about others in your life. Rally one another to strengthen your courage muscles. It’s going to take practice.

To do otherwise would be to stunt your own and one another’s growth.

Emotions are not just airy-fairy abstractions. They are physical experiences throughout your body.

Feeling your feelings is a necessary part of healing defensiveness, as well as anxiety, depression, and other types of emotional suffering. When you feel your emotions, you begin to notice their intensity subsides, and a sweet sense of understanding and connection takes its place.

It is an encouraging process. It is also the path to sustaining your connection to life – to yourself and to one another. As it lowers your defenses, it makes it possible for your hearts to connect in mutual understanding.

The most powerful way, in my belief, to find fulfillment in your relationship is to use the power of your choices to:

Cultivate the optimal conditions that allow you to treat the other as you want to be treated — with honor, unconditionally.

When you take a chance to empathically connect to self and the other – and remain so during those challenging moments — your brain does the rest.

The rewiring of neural patterns that ensues is no less than a possibility for transformation.

How Pushing Past Defenses to Feel Your Feelings Makes You Strong — and More Human

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2012). How Pushing Past Defenses to Feel Your Feelings Makes You Strong — and More Human. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 17, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Jul 2012
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