Each of us has our specific go-to ways of protecting ourselves from pain or trauma, often subconsciously chosen in large part based on our inborn temperaments and personalities. Some of our protective mechanisms were learned in very early childhood, before we even had words; others were developed later on in childhood. In either case, these coping styles or defense mechanisms tend to be habits that have been around for a while.

As children, we are often helpless when it comes to meeting our own needs, regulating our internal feelings and sensations, and controlling the external environments we find ourselves in. Finding relief from physical pain; satisfying needs like hunger and comfort; learning to cope with frustration when things don’t go our way; and waiting when things take time, etc. are all experiences that put us in a position of great need over and over again, and often we are left to our own devices way too much of the time, or are traumatically disappointed or disillusioned when it comes to having those needs met by others.

In addition, beside for being dependent on others to manage our regular, everyday needs, many of us experience painful or traumatic emotional events in childhood, such as being shamed or excessively criticized, dismissed or rejected, parentified/given too much responsibiilty, or burdened with painful family secrets or the need to silence ourselves or our feelings. The list can go on, and it becomes clear that all of us have experienced pain in our lives, even in the best of circumstances, and certainly when circumstances or caregiving were suboptimal or traumatic. 

Some of us are naturally more resilient than others, and some of us are also extra good at being resourceful when it comes to finding ways to get our needs met. In addition, some of us have an easier time speaking up for ourselves or molding ourselves to the demands of the particular environments we find ourselves in, sometimes because we were simply born this way; more flexible, more assertive, or more able to bounce back by nature.

But regardless of our inner resources or how much pain we suffered, all of us have found ways to protect ourselves or to try to prevent pain, for better or worse. We do the best we can to make do with our challenges, our lacks, and our suffering. Some of us have others we can turn to for comfort or help, making us less alone when things don’t go our way. Others of us have trouble trusting, opening up, expressing ourselves, or asking for our needs to be met. Some of us find ourselves with parents or friends or school environments that are just a huge mismatch for us, and this makes things especially hard.

One of the more common coping mechanisms for children who are bright and often more introverted is to rely on our very own minds to protect us and to fill some of our attachment needs (I learned of this idea from a book called The Mind Object: Precocity and Pathology of Self-Sufficiency).  We learn to use our precocious abilities to imagine things, learn things, and understand things to make us feel safe and to try to figure out how to meet our own needs rather than leaning on others. The mind becomes almost its own person inside of us, telling us what to do, and making us feel we’ll be safe if only we listen to it or rely on it enough. Getting feedback from others about how precocious, smart, and/or mature our minds are, feeds into this belief. And when we’re rejected, in need of comfort, or worried, instead of turning to others for help, we think instead, or worry, or plan, or try to figure things out. This precocious ability gives us a false sense of being in control, though at times it actually does protect us (learning how to tell whether being in our “mind” is helping or hurting us is something that therapy can often help with). Sometimes we take refuge in our imaginations, and often we lose touch with our feeling selves, or with the help or comfort that others can provide, leaving us isolated and even at times tyrannized by a mind that won’t ever go silent or that demands we listen to it at all times. 

Learning to re-access our emotions and our need for others, as well as to let go of the fantasy that if only we “think” enough, we’ll be safe and in control, can help us reclaim those parts of us that have been hijacked, underdeveloped, or overlooked by our reliance on the mind as “object”.