Mary picks a fight with her husband at night so she doesn’t have to deal with her sex anxiety. Looking for what’s wrong with her husband distracts her from her discomfort and the feelings of vulnerability that are causing her anxiety in the first place. By not directly addressing her core feelings with her husband, Mary misses an opportunity to be understood and problem-solve.

Michael doesn’t feel settled or at ease with himself unless he drinks beer after beer. The alcohol calms his physical tension and mental anguish, but that strategy for dealing with his underlying pain is not sustainable. Eventually his drinking will lead to health and relationship problems.

Halley stays home instead of going out on weekends because social situations stress her out. She feels safe at home and also lonely. Dealing directly with her fears would afford her the opportunity to engage more with others in a way that feels good for her.

Robert curses out strangers when he feels disrespected. Precious emotional energy is used up by his hair-trigger anger. Instead he could get curious about his overreaction. Learning to “let it go” is a valuable asset.

These are all examples of defensive behaviors. All of us use defenses to deal (or not deal) with emotions. Defenses are developed to avoid painful feelings. Defenses are brilliant adaptations our minds make to help us cope with vulnerabilities. While defenses serve a purpose, especially in the environment and at the time in which they were originally created, there is a cost for the protection they offer.

Defenses can be healthy, sometimes problematic or very problematic.

A healthy defense is one in which we have choice and control. For example, after a stressful day at work, we can choose to distract ourselves with a funny movie.

Medicating stress with a drug such as alcohol is an example of a sometimes-problematic defense; it can become habitual.

A very problematic defense involves self-destructive behavior that hurts you and your relationships. Addressing core emotions directly will help you lead a less-defended life. Your most authentic self will feel safe to come forward.

We can begin to remedy these problems by noticing when, how and for what we are using our defenses. Once we become aware that we are avoiding something, we can ask ourselves what emotions might be there. Slowing down really helps when it comes to figuring out what we feel.

Slowing down so you can begin to notice what’s happening in your body helps bring attention to your emotional world. When I notice I am out of sorts or too up in my head and I want to know what emotions I am experiencing in the moment, I do the following: I ground myself by sensing the soles of my feet on the floor. Then I take four or five deep breaths. Sometimes I picture myself on the beach to deepen my relaxation even more. The idea is to relax as much as possible. Feel free to try this yourself.

Now relaxed, I ask myself, “What am I feeling inside right now?” Then, without judging myself and instead being completely open and validating to what I find, I try to label all the emotions I notice. Simply validating emotions makes them feel calmer. Maybe you also sense how these emotions affect you physically.

It is not unusual when having a feeling to identify tension in your stomach. Maybe you notice a hopeless or sad feeling. Maybe you start to get in touch with parts of you that hold resentments or fears. Whatever it is, accept it. If you don’t know, it’s OK.

This exercise is not easy in the beginning. Sometimes, when I’m confused about what I am feeling, I try on each of the core emotions: sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement, or disgust to see if any of them fit. Again, validate what you find by reminding yourself that feelings just are.

This is a great beginning to learning more about the relationship between your defenses and your emotions. Next time you recognize a problematic behavior, you might even be able to stop and notice that you have been here before. You will now more easily recognize the emotions the defenses are obscuring. If you’re feeling really brave, maybe you’ll share your feelings, wants and needs with someone you love. This is a major step to getting unstuck and creating positive change.

Beer drinker photo available from Shutterstock