Dismantling the Walls of Self Protection
By: Tosca DiMatteo
When I think about those things that we do habitually, it’s usually a result of many experiences piling on over time and not necessarily one huge, catastrophic thing that completely shakes us to our core. I share this first story with you as an experience that has stuck with me — but it’s really just one of many.
In ninth grade, I decided to throw a party at my parents’ house (with their permission). Maybe it was because I was in a high school where I felt some sense of belonging. And maybe I was just stepping into the joy I felt when hosting.
I created fliers and handed them out at school…yes, I mean the WHOLE SCHOOL. (Side note: I called it the JUST SLAM party. Uuuughhh, so embarrassing!)
I told my parents to order LOTS of pizza because it was going to be EPIC. Not because I had an RSVP process that told me so, but because my heart believed that EPIC was going to be reality. I spent a whole weekend clearing out the entire basement to make space to dance. And though my dad pushed back, he ordered LOTS of sheet pizza and even set up a sound system so we could rock out big time. I was STOKED.
After much anticipation, four friends showed up.
I ate pizza for lunch, for weeks.
I WAS DEVASTATED. EMBARRASSED. MORTIFIED.
This kind of disappointment, this kind of heavy feeling in my heart is a feeling that I would grow into avoiding at all costs. Even in my adult life now, I am most at risk with this kind of disappointment and sadness around my birthday. I realize now that I’m not alone in that, but that doesn’t make it easier. As my own coach once told me: “It can be hard to get the love we want.”
One year, I took some very drastic actions to avoid disappointment, which basically means I did everything to protect my heart. That particular year I really didn’t want to face the possibility of people saying no to celebrate my birthday with me. So I decided to go on a trip to a whole other city to spend time with one friend.
What could go wrong with choosing a different adventure? After all, I only needed one yes and they were in!
The answer? EVERYTHING.
It turns out that my friend didn’t have any emotional space to celebrate my birthday. Like many birthdays of the past, it was filled with tears of sadness and disappointment — the exact thing I tried to avoid.
It didn’t take long for me to realize what I did to myself and I decided to turn it around 180 degrees! Fast forward to the year I was turning 40 and I put every ounce of intention into creating the birthday experience of my dreams. I created a vision of celebrating with friends in Tuscany, Italy and I got started early in the planning. I sent out invitations to those I cared most about — and as expected some declined. This time I didn’t wallow in it, but rather I honored that who was meant to be there would be.
The result was that I had a trip of a lifetime that not only filled me up (and then some!), but the experience kept me going for a long time after. While in Tuscany I claimed so much more for myself — including letting more letting love in — and I can say THAT has been a complete game changer.
You see, here’s the thing about self-protection. We think that it’s serving us, we think it’s all part of the conversation on how to be your own best friend. But what we’re really doing is blocking ourselves from opportunities to be loved, appreciated, and celebrated.
Don’t get me wrong — there are healthy ways that we can protect ourselves from those we know we have to. But what I’m talking about is when we take actions that build a wall around us, brick by brick. What I’m talking about is making choices that perpetuate our cycle of pain. Ask yourself: Are you setting a healthy boundary or building an unhealthy wall?
You see, a boundary is about being very discerning in who is allowed in because you have very strong evidence of what they are (and are not) capable of.
Building a wall is about not giving anyone an opportunity to show you who they are and what they are capable of. Walls are about not trusting others. Walls are about avoiding vulnerability at ALL costs. Walls are about bringing our past to the present, even when WE are different, the SITUATION is different, and the PEOPLE involved are different.
Let’s dive in on how we can break through these walls and create openings to let people into our lives vs. shutting them out. But first, I want to help you to see how you might be building walls.
Signs you may be building walls:
- You create stories vs. stick with the facts.
- You deflect conversations and questions about you.
- You rarely, if ever, take support when it is offered.
- You say to others often, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
- You’re in your head all the time.
- You feel lonely most of the time.
- You give people space — even when they haven’t asked.
- You think in binaries: “You’re with me or against me.”
- You’ve stopped dreaming about what you want in life.
- You wear doing things on your own as a badge of honor.
- You talk about emotional things void of any emotion.
- You say no to invitations.
- You seek proof for your narrative vs. being curious.
- You stopped getting invitations to hang out.
- You create stories vs. stick with the facts.
How can you stop building a fortress around yourself?
[Related: Employee Languishing: It’s a Real Thing]
1) Release the pain.
Allow yourself the opportunity to truly feel your hurt and pain. Listen to me on this, please! This is EVERYTHING. A big reason why we get stuck behind our walls is because we are too afraid to feel the emotions of the hurt of the past.
Trust me, I spent most of my life stuffing my emotions down deep — thinking they would just disappear. I hate to be the one to tell you, but the only way to the other side is THROUGH the emotions. When you give yourself permission to process the guilt, the pain, the embarrassment, those feelings have a chance to actually transform. They can become less scary. And your body realizes: You know what, I’m actually not in danger. I’m gonna be just fine.
So, what this looks like is letting yourself cry when emotions come to the surface. It looks like journaling about your feelings and old situations. It looks like working with people (like therapists, coaches, and somatic healers) that can hold space for you to express and release those feelings without judgment. It can also look like a self-forgiveness practice or writing a letter to yourself, or those that hurt you. It’s easy to say “let that stuff go” — it’s harder and more courageous to actually peel back the layers and honor the depth of your pain.
So go explore all the ways you can release — there are many ways available to you!
2) Separate fact from fiction.
When our inner critics are running the show and helping us to build those big thick walls, it’s often because they are telling us a story that isn’t actually true.
Let’s take my birthday story — my inner critics were telling me that the people I care most about would intentionally disappoint me. That wasn’t factual. In fact, I didn’t even know what could have been possible, because I never even reached out.
Ask yourself some questions like:
- Are these feelings coming from past experiences, or from the present situation and people involved?
- What do I absolutely know for sure?
- What stories am I telling myself about this situation?
- What evidence do I have?
Be honest with yourself about the facts as this can help you to objectively evaluate where boundaries are needed versus creating Fort Knox.
3) Imagine the possibilities.
There is a difference between knowing what you want and being unattached to what it actually looks like. For example, I can know that I want to feel good on my birthday, but how that comes to fruition can look 1,000 different ways. If I’m attached to one way for that to come to me, then I’m not really allowing for possibilities that could be even better than I imagine.
Now look, I know this whole language of “possibilities” can come off as some BS thing that coaches say. I get it. Trust me, I get it. But the truth is that I spent years building walls because I didn’t allow myself to imagine that good things could happen to me. And I’ll be honest, giving myself permission to dream is still something that I struggle with.
I’ll give you a very real example — which is also multifaceted. I was in couples therapy with my husband and had been extremely triggered and felt like I could never, ever trust that anyone could support me, most especially when things got the most real. I had a whole story about how I had to live life expecting nothing from nobody and I believed that story. The truth that I learned over the course of many sessions was that “my stuff” was colliding with “his stuff” and we had to deconstruct what was happening and how we were reacting to each other. I had to see that it was possible to be supported by my husband and that he in fact wanted to.
Now just to take things down a notch to simplify here’s another example…when I don’t get a response from someone after I asked if they want to get together, I have to short circuit my brain from the story it wants to tell me. I have to imagine all the reasons why they didn’t respond. I have to not make the story about me. And then I have to imagine what could be possible. Yup, it’s as tiring as it sounds AND that is how I smash those bricks — enter one of my favorite songs for doing so: Sledgehammer.
4) Pass the baton from your head to your heart.
By now, you are probably catching the drift that when we build walls, it’s usually because our monkey mind is running the show. I’m in a constant practice of passing the master controller from my head to my heart. It takes effort for me to go from living from a place of having to “figure it all out” to honoring what my heart is telling me. Here’s an example of what this could look like:
Head: This company is not going to hire you.
Heart: It’s possible that this interview might go way better than I imagined.
Head: Don’t let yourself get excited because you’re just going to get disappointed.
Heart: I am enough, and I’d love to work for this company if that’s in my highest good.
You see what I’m saying here? The head can be very constricting and shut ideas down, the heart can be open and unattached. I encourage you to get more familiar with what it feels like to let your heart lead vs. make decisions from your head.
5) Have honest conversations.
I spent a lot of my life thinking that other people knew what was going on in my heart and that they just didn’t care. I mean, is it not OBVIOUS what my desires are? Is it not so incredibly CLEAR what I need from you?
No. No it is not, AT ALL.
People don’t have a freaking CLUE!
Why? Because all they are focused on is their own world! They aren’t thinking about your heart and your needs (and when you find people that do — well dang, you better hold onto them like water in the desert!).
So what does this all mean? It means that if you want to start really coming out of that turtle shell you go into when things get tough — you have got to let yourself open up about what’s happening with you. And when you experiment with this, I encourage you to start with those whom you trust the most, first. Because absolutely, discernment is crucial here to start to build the muscle of vulnerability with those that can actually give you what you need.
I share this because I got this wrong at first when I started to turn that corner very slowly of honoring what I really wanted. I sent a letter to someone extremely close to me and poured out my heart of desires. The email I got back was fraught with their own insecurities and projections. It was a very hard lesson to learn, but I realized OH — this is not someone I can be vulnerable with. I learned that I had to choose wisely who I opened up to — so that I could see positive results to beget more confidence in opening up more. I had to get back up after getting the wind knocked out of me and try again. Because it’s a GREAT excuse to keep laying the bricks down when it backfires on you. Excuses are GREAT at robbing you from both opportunity and joy in the long run.
You have to learn to trust again. You have to learn to let people back in. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it can be that simple. Let people know what you are experimenting with, what you are trying to do differently, and what you need. I know without a shadow of a doubt that you will be amazed at what starts to shift within you and with your relationships.
And I’m not saying do the hardest things first (which is basically what I did with the story I just shared) — but rather the opposite. Start with the small risks.
6) Take small risks.
Taking small risks is about practicing being vulnerable in situations where there aren’t huge stakes involved. Taking small risks is about putting a little bit of faith and trust back in YOURSELF to honor what you want and in OTHERS to honor that not all people will disappoint you.
This might look like starting with asking someone that you really jive with if they might be interested in grabbing coffee some time. So, if for some reason they can’t in the immediate future, it won’t be as devastating as throwing a party for your entire school.
It could also look like asking a coworker to help you out with a project because you’re in a state of overwhelm and want to try to not do it all on your own for once.
Maybe it looks like telling your coworker you have to go to the doctor and you may not be able to work the rest of the afternoon because it may get you really emotional. And maybe, just maybe by opening up, you will be able to receive some compassion and support. So take that small step. And if something just popped into your head about what that step could be, trust your intuition.
I know how incredibly painful it is to live behind a wall of your own making. And trust, there are still plenty of situations in which I feel myself take bricks and happily stack them right in front of me. But I have learned that this is not the way. It’s not the way toward living a full life. It’s not the way to receive. Building walls is not the way to have more ease or experience more joy. I hope you start to see that the walls you’ve created don’t really serve you. They aren’t actually protecting you, they are restricting what’s possible in life, love, abundance, and prosperity.
[Related: Giving Grace]
Tosca DiMatteo supports businesses to create people-centric cultures and individuals to experience transformational change to live their truth unapologetically. For details, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started or schedule an exploratory call here.
Originally published at https://www.ellevatenetwork.com.