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The Invisible Cage Of Abuse: Protection Or Jailer?

During an experience of abuse, your resourceful young self used coping strategies to try and protect yourself from the pain. These behaviors served you at the time. They were your army of protection against the abuse.

However, when you continue to use these behaviors as an adult, you become your own eternal jailer. These strategies, which I call the 4 D’s, keep you locked up inside the invisible cage of abuse. They are the bars that make up the four walls of the cage. They keep you boxed into abuse.

When you’re boxed in, you are not able to create or generate anything different than what’s in that box. This is how you end up turning the abuse inward and become your own perpetrator and victim simultaneously. It feels like you can never escape the past abuse because you keep repeating patterns of abuse with yourself and others.

Understanding the 4 D’s is like coming to terms with the structure of the invisible cage that you have lived in so far. The aim of my book Kick Abuse In The Caboose (scheduled for a 2016 release) is to break that structure down. The first step in moving beyond abuse, and the constriction of the cage, is to become aware of what the 4 D’s are and how they keep you locked in your current model of reality.

The 4 Ds That Keep The Invisible Cage Of Abuse In Place

1. Denial

The first of the 4 D’s is Denial. This can show up in many different ways: denying that abuse occurred, denying that it was wrong, denying that it was a family member or friend, denying that it was the perpetrator’s fault and blaming yourself instead. As a child, denial was a useful coping strategy. It kept you from facing the painful reality of abuse.

Yet as an adult, denial creates a twisted and confused sense of reality. What’s true? What’s real? What can you trust? Denial actually erodes trust in yourself and your perceptions.

Moving beyond denial requires a great deal of courage and vulnerability to get honest with yourself and see what beyond the coping strategy and into what is true.

Take a moment right now and reflect: what ways have you used denial to cope with your past (and potentially current) abuse?

2. Defending

The second of the 4 D’s is Defending. Defending can be the most obvious of the 4 D’s to identify because it is often an immediate reaction to something or someone in our external world.

The Defending bars of the cage went up when as a child you put up invisible walls to try and protect yourself. However, these barriers become locked into your body and now as an adult you walk around feeling tight and guarded. This leads to being in a constant state of fight or flight, hyper vigilance and a frozen emotional state.

You might feel like an animal in a cage that is constantly being poked with a stick. Defending is the outward expression of its fear. Its predominant message is, “Don’t come near me or I will kill you.”

Defending can be melted with good humor. It needs to be appropriate humor though, because if it feels like someone is laughing inappropriately at your defensiveness, it can cause you to retreat further. When I work with people, I often dissolve their defenses with humor. It allows for the 24/7 hyper vigilant posturing to go and take a coffee break. A lot of compassion and space are also required to let the nervous system soften and the defenses to be let down.

Take a moment right now and reflect: what ways have you used defending to cope with your past (and potentially current) abuse?

3. Disconnecting

The third D, Disconnecting, is a constant state of separating your mind from your body and your body from you mind. Again, as a child, this coping strategy helped you compartmentalize the act of abuse and disconnect from it. Perhaps you experience sexual or physical abuse, so you separated from your body and stayed in your mind so you didn’t have to be present with the pain and trauma.

But just like the defenses get locked in your body, so too does this pattern of disconnecting become your default pattern for living. You become afraid of truly inhabiting your body, for it may require you to feel the pain of what you once experienced. The strategy that kept you safe becomes the one that keeps you separated from yourself

When you are disconnected, you may find yourself frequently eating to fill an emotional need as opposed to eating because you are hungry. Everything in your life becomes manufactured to help you avoid what the real issue actually is. You may find yourself checking out and developing a whole host of distractions that enable you to check out more and more.

In order to stop the pattern of disconnecting from yourself, first look for and acknowledge the strategies you have been using to do so. This awareness will begin to give you more choice: do you desire to keep repeating that pattern or would you like to try something else? Anything that gets you back into the body is going to make you feel more connected.

To really move beyond abuse though will require you to be okay with connecting with your body and re-connecting with all the experiences that got locked in there. Please know this does not need to be overwhelming. With skillful support, you can reconnect with your body with less struggle and more ease.

Take a moment right now and reflect: what ways have you used disconnecting to cope with your past (and potentially current) abuse?

4. Dissociating

The most pervasive of the 4 D’s is dissociation. This is when you check out and split off from what you’re experiencing in your body. Separation and distance become the norm instead of connection, communion and oneness.

Dissociation is an extreme and constant state of hyper vigilance from which we filter our reality. Part of you lives constantly on the ceiling or in another world. It often manifests as conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dissociation is a constant state of being frozen and numb. Because of the high level of stress hormones circulating in the body when we live from this state, it has the potential to trigger chronic physical health conditions if we remain in this state over time. It can also lead to more intense psychological illness and separation disorders. Sometimes it can create personality disorders of the more severe kind.

Take a moment right now and reflect: what ways have you used dissociating to cope with your past (and potentially current) abuse?

(Since this is the most severe form of the 4 D’s, you may not even be aware of where and how you’ve dissociated. It most often requires professional support to retrieve all the parts of yourself that dissociated and to move beyond this coping strategy.)

If you are able to identify one or all of these coping strategies alive and at play in your life, please don’t judge yourself. Instead see this as a sign of how resilient your younger self was. You were trying to protect yourself and you did a really good job.

But now it’s time to see how the 4 D’s keep you trapped inside yourself, away from real contact with the world and away from your real self. In my work with thousands of people around the world I have seen these bars dissolve again and again and again, with support. Please know this is possible for you, too. Awareness is the first step to the dissolution of the cage of abuse and the 4 D’s.


If you liked this article, you may also enjoy: Why Would You Make Friends With The Cage Of Abuse?


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The Invisible Cage Of Abuse: Protection Or Jailer?

Dr. Lisa Cooney

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APA Reference
Cooney, D. (2016). The Invisible Cage Of Abuse: Protection Or Jailer?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 Jun 2016
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