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Defenders of the Heart

by Marilyn Kagan, LCSW & Neil Einbund, PhD

The following excerpt is taken from the book DEFENDERS OF THE HEART: Managing the Habits and Attitudes That Block You from a Richer, More Satisfying Life by Marilyn Kagan, LCSW and Neil Einbund, Ph.D. It is published by Hay House (November 1, 2009) and will be available at all bookstores or online at: www.hayhouse.com.


Think for a moment about your heart. In our culture, we regard it as the place where our feelings and emotions live, and all of us are very concerned about its vulnerability! For decades, popular songs have brimmed with our universally felt fears: from plaintive questions such as “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” to poignant pleas like “Un-break My Heart.” Who at some time or another hasn’t felt they had a “Hungry Heart,” been in search of a “Heart of Gold,” or been at the mercy of someone else’s “Cold, Cold Heart”?

Now if you’re like most of us, you think of yourself as a fairly openhearted person. You’re kind. You do things for others. You like to think of yourself as trustworthy and giving.

But the truth is that the majority of us are not really as openhearted as we think we are. And there’s a good reason for that. Our hearts are precious to us. They deserve to be handled with care and to be protected. So to that end, in our earliest years, we begin arming our emotional hearts with a barrage of protection strategies. This is a necessary step in everyone’s development. We equip ourselves with the habits and attitudes without which our hearts would be too open, too easily damaged by people and situations that either aren’t kind enough or simply aren’t right for us and the lives we want to lead. These habits and attitudes are what we call Defenders of the Heart.

It’s completely natural and necessary to use these Defenders when we’re very small children figuring out how to make our way in the world of family, school, and friends. And while they may protect us while we’re young, they can actually hurt us in adult life. Unless we become aware of and attentive to them, these Defenders tend to keep on going like a computer program that runs constantly in the background, unseen and limiting our progress. Over time, they become so habitual that they turn into blockades.

On the face of it, these Defenders may appear very different; in fact, they have a commonality of purpose. We’re sure you’ve heard of some of them—Denial, Humor, Procrastination, and Passive-Aggression, for example—as they’ve become part of our lexicon (even though sometimes we use them inaccurately). But some that may not be so well known to you are Projection, Sublimation, Altruism, Displacement, Rationalization, and Intellectualization.

Your Defenders were built at such an early stage of your life that in your adulthood they now feel like second nature. They started growing around your heart to shield you from fears, anxieties, and tensions that you just couldn’t bear to feel.

You must have them to survive, but too much of a good thing becomes a bad one. As a result, you’re often unconsciously held in check by Defenders that are working too hard, too often. These overbuilt defenses barricade your heart from trying out newer, better pathways to a rewarding life. They keep you stuck in unsatisfying patterns.

Unfortunately, unless you gain an awareness of them, these defensive habits that you developed long ago can eventually become destroyers of your happiness. Our experience as therapists has shown us that every person we’ve ever counseled has needed to get a better handle on one or more Defenders of the Heart. The crucial thing to know about them is that over time they become so set in stone that whenever you’re faced with upsetting situations, you just keep falling back on them. They seem like normal reactions. However, your entrenched Defenders drain much of the joy from your life and actually can prevent and even destroy all the good feelings they were originally meant to ensure.

There is wonderful news, though. When we’ve had the privilege of assisting people in learning to recognize their Defenders, they can bring them down to healthy levels. The result is always a fuller heart—a greater sense of peace and contentment, with more achievement and fulfillment.

The Caged Heart

All this time, of course, we’ve been talking about your emotional heart. To help give you a very clear idea of how your Defenders of the Heart often work against you, we want to offer you an illustration that you can wrap your head around. Think for a moment about your actual physical heart: that little red muscular pump in your chest that keeps you alive. How is it protected?

Nature has given your physical heart an ingenious shield—a cage of strong yet flexible and lightweight bones. In a term that structural engineers use, your rib cage is “elegant.” It does its job with a highly efficient design and just the right amount of materials. But what if your elegant rib cage were overbuilt? Imagine the consequences if it were solid bone.

There actually is a rare and dramatic disease called Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva that causes bone to form in the wrong places. Over time, it can restrict victims’ mobility so much that they resemble a stone statue. Unless you’re closely related to someone who has this condition, there’s very little chance that it would ever attack you. But just consider this for a moment: what would it be like if some strange disease were to put solid bone into all the spaces between your ribs?

First, your body would become heavier to carry around. Second, it would become so rigid that the simple act of bending would be impossible for you. Anytime you wanted to reach for something, you would have to lean with your whole upper body. Lacking normal flexibility, you would also find it much harder to keep your balance.

That is very much like what happens to our emotional selves—usually without our actually realizing it—when our Defenders of the Heart are overbuilt. We carry around stiff armor. We become inflexible. We find it harder to reach for the things we desire. We become socially and emotionally awkward. We must struggle to stay in balance. Most damaging of all, we can’t let the very people and experiences we want, need, and love come into our hearts. That’s a very limiting way to live, and also very unhealthy. The two of us consider the rigidity of these Defenders of the Heart to be the number one cause of unhappiness, isolation, and disconnection.

Once using our Defenders becomes a lifelong knee-jerk reaction, they work against us. They prevent us from new and fresh experiences, expanding our horizons, making better love relationships, and living a richer existence.

It’s only when you’re able to feel the weight of all of your emotions that you’ll be able to find fulfillment in your life.

Understand that you’re not the only person who feels that a more complete and pleasurable life is somewhere just beyond reach. Dissatisfaction and heartache are really epidemic. Ten million Americans are on antidepressants, and at least one in five suffers from mental illness at some time in life. Costs of illegal-drug abuse are estimated at more than $100 billion annually, with alcohol abuse costing close to twice that much. Nearly always, the people who abuse drugs are “self-medicating” for undiagnosed depression.

We’re aware of the various problems and the discontent in our own lives, yet all of us know some people who seem to have it all together. They’ve got great kids and a mate they’re glad to see when the day winds down. Even the dog is happy to see them! They have a job that allows them to pay their monthly bills without cramping their lifestyle. They’ve been able to enjoy those family trips every year. Perhaps they’re even among those lucky or smart ones who have been socking it away for old age or for the kids’ college funds. It seems they’re where they want to be. They have the good life.

Sure, they may endure the stresses and strains of juggling a busy calendar. They might dream of having more money, a bigger house, a swankier vacation, lower cholesterol, or fewer battles with the kids and spouse at home. They’ve got just a few bumps in a rather smooth road, but essentially no major potholes. Yet many of these people who live in what appear to be great circumstances have an emptiness in the pit in their stomachs—as if something is still missing in their lives. Questions float in their heads:

· “What’s my problem?”

· “Why do I get this despondent, empty feeling?”

· “What’s wrong when nothing seems to be wrong?”

· “What could possibly be missing when life looks pretty sweet?”

· “Where is this lack of contentment coming from?”

This yearning to quiet the aching heart is nothing new. Great scholars, deep thinkers, spiritual teachers, and religious leaders through the centuries have all had explanations for this malaise. Despite outward appearances, the fact is, we all have Defenders; and at one time or another they have a hand in giving rise to these kind of questions.

What we’ve found is that most of us become more enmeshed with one Defender than another. Depending on how you react to things that happen in your life as you grow, you may go beyond your most-used Defender and call upon various others to protect you. For example, you might have harnessed Humor (Chapter 5) in high school when you found out that cracking a clever jibe at someone else’s expense took away from your feelings of insecurity. Or maybe in order avoid the pain associated with the crushing defeat of losing your first job in young adulthood, you made an excuse to account for the firing—you pulled out Rationalization (Chapter 3)rather than feel the terrible blows of rejection.

Knowing more about what your Defenders are and how you use them in certain stressful, anxiety-provoking situations will assist you in becoming the captain of your own destiny. Rather than being ruled by them without any conscious awareness on your part, you’ll lower your Defenders and have them serve you instead of block you.

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