Saturday, July 25, 2009

Breaking Down Walls

I recently spoke at an Al anon workshop and the topic was breaking down walls. I think it is a very important topic, especially for those of us who are in recovery. It is important to be able to distinguish between healthy boundaries and emotional walls.

The concept of healthy boundaries is something most recovering people are not familiar with. Being able to maintain a boundary and not feel coerced into doing things we are uncomfortable doing is usually very difficult. On the other hand, we are all too familiar with the concept of emotional walls which can keep us lonely and isolated. Emotional walls serve the purpose of protecting us from hurt. The problem is we keep them up long after they are useful to us. Most of us build them thick and high; and it takes courage and self love to start to dismantle them.

Recovery provides the opportunity to become aware of the walls it took a lifetime to construct. Initially many of us believe protecting ourselves with emotional walls was the only way to feel safe. We are lonely and too afraid to trust anyone and we certainly don’t trust ourselves or our ability to keep ourselves safe.

Some of the most common bricks in our wall are anger, dishonesty, perfection, superiority and control.

The brick called “anger” is massive, as is the way in which we express it. Angry people are hard to approach and keep others at a safe distance. In addition, an angry reaction toward someone can be the end of a relationship. If we don’t realize that we are angry it is hard to understand why people stay a safe distance away. The twelve step programs teach us that anger is often an expression of fear. What are we afraid of? Often we are afraid that others will see us the way we see ourselves: as our distorted perception lending itself to diminished value and fraudulence.

Another brick is “people pleasing” or saying yes to something when we want to say no. If we agree to do something that we don’t think is in our own best interest we are being dishonest. I call it depositing in the bank of expectation: we are hoping to get something in return for our selfless act. When it doesn’t happen, we can become angry and disappointed. Sometimes when we agree to something we don’t want to do we will react in a passive manner and find a way not to do it, either completely or in part. This behavior makes us look unreliable and not trustworthy. The result is we are not asked again and we elicit anger from the people we disappointed. Alternatively, if we agree to do something we don’t want to do in order to be liked or to prevent anger from another, it can cause us to become angry and resentful toward them. The “people pleasing” brick results in us no longer liking the very people that we wanted to like us and therefore were afraid to say no to.

The bricks called perfection, superiority and control all compliment each other. Most people strive to be perfect due to fear of making a mistake.

“Superiority” creates a two way wall. When we project an attitude of superiority people are either afraid to approach us or they resent us. We make them feel bad about themselves. If we are superior we have a difficult time finding people we have things in common with, no peer group, and engender isolation. Many of us project an attitude of superiority and confidence when in reality we are afraid we aren’t good enough. We are afraid no one will like us or that we are unlovable. This, in turn, can reinforce the wall of “anger.”

Perfection makes it almost impossible for anyone to share things with us. We tend to feel that no one can do things the way we want them and we therefore do things ourselves. If we are perfect no one can measure up to our standards.

Control denies others of any participation in our life. Control is a wall that seems to be almost universal in the fellowship. For many of us asking for help is a sign of weakness when in reality it is a sign of strength, honesty and true humility.

Fear is the mortar that binds the bricks of anger, control, superiority and perfection. Healthy boundaries are an expression of self love, worthiness and awareness. Our needs are not more important or less important that other’s needs but certainly equal in importance to others’ needs.

Courage is the tool that tears down the bricks. Tearing down emotional walls requires courage and a change in behavior. I believe most human beings want to feel a sense of belonging and love. For love to exist some of the emotional walls we have erected must be torn down and replaced with healthy boundaries.

I recently heard this poem by Derek Walcott read on public radio and searched for it on the internet. Please read it, again and again.

Love After Love

The time will come when, with elation you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror and each will smile at the other's welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.

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