Most children learn to ride a bicycle using training wheels until they are confident enough to attempt riding without them. Having raised several children of my own, I’ve held on to the back seat many times only to let go on “2” (in the “1-2-3” count) and watch them ride on only two wheels.
Emotionally, many adults use emotional training wheels (defense mechanisms) to make it through life. It may be in their relationships, career or in some other aspect of their lives. They simply have not grown through a particular emotional stage and therefore hang on to supports that they no longer need. Such individuals do not know the freedom that comes from emotional health.
Emotional health implies one is – healthy! But what does it look like and how does it feel?
Emotional health is highly subjective. What is considered “normal” to some might be way off the charts to others. Perhaps the best way to know one’s emotional health is to examine where one is emotionally unhealthy; in other words, where one hurts, emotionally speaking.
When men arrive at my office, rather than ask them “What’s wrong?”, which they often respond to nebulously; I say: “Tell me about your emotional pain.” Not too many men are able to articulate an answer sufficient enough to make a diagnosis, but it gets the conversation started.
What’s hurting you emotionally is most likely where you are out of balance and therefore where you are emotionally unhealthy. For instance; if you feel sad about your marriage or a relationship with someone you love, there’s a reason for the sadness. You may or may not be aware of the cause of the sadness, you simply know you are sad. Another example: You may be financially successful but feel like it’s not enough, or you feel hollow inside despite your sizable net worth. The negative emotions you feel indicate an emotionally unhealthy part of who you are, but again, you may or may not know why or how you came to feel that way.
The point is that it’s easier to identify a negative emotional state rather than a positive one. Perhaps it’s because we spend so much of our lives in emotional pain that we really don’t know what it’s like to have emotional health. We settle for unhappiness and a little misery here and there, hoping that circumstances will change, or, that we will be happy in the next life, or stage of being.
What prevents someone from enjoying emotional health? Are they stuck in an emotional condition that’s imprisoned them since childhood? Was there a traumatic event that occurred in adolescence that they never quite got over? (Trauma can be physical, emotional and/or spiritual.) Some may have been abused as children, physically, sexually and/or emotionally, and continue to be in abusive relationships as adults. Some may have experienced the loss of a parent early in life either due to death, divorce or otherwise. Some may have been in or witnessed a traumatic event like an automobile accident, battlefield trauma or natural catastrophe (hurricane, earthquake, etc.) When these types of trauma occur, the traumatized victim defends himself or herself in a way to survive the event physically, emotionally and spiritually. The method of defense varies, but the defense mechanism often remains in place long after the event that spawned it. It’s comparable to keeping training wheels on a bicycle years after one is fully capable of riding on just two wheels.
What To Do
Sometimes sticking to the familiar feels safer than the perceived risk something new and unknown, whether for better or worse. If one wants to move beyond their painful emotional place, one needs to take action. While it is not necessary to have professional help, it is certainly recommended and worth the time and money, otherwise the individual could find themselves in another emotional trap.
Here are some suggestions:
- Find a licensed therapist that specializes in an area of mental health that you feel is appropriate for you. (Marriage and family, trauma, addiction, etc.) You might ask friends and family members or your primary therapist or clergy for a referral. You might also visit websites like psychologytoday.com or your state department of health, and use their directory of therapists.
- Self-help books are useful, but beware; some are less useful than others.
- There may be support groups in your area that you may attend.
o Divorce, grief, trauma groups.
o Alcoholics Anonymous, or other 12-Step support groups for:
- Eating disorders
- Sex addiction
o Al-Anon for family members of an alcoholic.
o Co-dependents Anonymous.
o Church sponsored support groups.
o Anger management groups.
- Practicing mindfulness and meditation are particularly helpful in personal growth and moving out of a stuck situation.
- Find something new to do. Doing something different physically helps you do something different mentally and emotionally.
Life presents challenges to all, and for some the challenges are quite harmful mentally and physically. The defense mechanisms used for survival may have served their purpose at the time, but when the individual continues to use these defenses later in life, they continue to survive rather than thrive. The solution(s) requires that the individual becomes willing to take action for change and then consistently takes action until they are free of their emotional bondage. Like a child who outgrows their training wheels, adults can outgrow their defense mechanisms and find emotional health and therefore freedom.
Dr. Kenneth Chance, D.Div., is the CEO and President of Arrowhead Lodge, an Arizona drug rehab for men in Prescott, Arizona, a long-term Arizona licensed drug and alcohol rehab program for men age 30 and older. For more information visit www.arrowheadlodgerecovery.com or his website at www.kennethchance.com. Or call 1-888-654-2800.