A world of opposites, Part I: Harden or Soften

A world full of opposites. Part 1. Harden or soften.

The first time any of us encounters pain or trauma we have two immediate options: we harden or crumble.

Take the first time someone was mean to you at school. What did you do?

The answer to this will in large part depend on your upbringing and early life at home.

I had an older brother who – for better or worse- had already educated me on the rudiments of playground law.
As such, when people were mean to me, I reacted defensively, fought back in kind, fire with fire, an eye for an eye.

I also made a mental note of the insult or attack they had used. I studied it to see if it had any grounding. As we all know, an insult that contains truth is much more damaging than one that doesn’t.

 Part of early defence is working out which insults hold weight and which don’t. If the insult did hold weight, I might consider adapting my behaviour, or preparing a response.

In this way, by being exposed to the stimuli of attack, one progressively develops a complex system of defence. We harden.

To primary school Josh or Jane, what are the alternatives?

Perhaps I could have cried, made a show of my weakness and hoped for sympathy from my attacker.
This is quite common in nature. The weaker males in a pack will often prostrate themselves before the alpha male as a sign of reverence and a show of weakness. They make it clear they aren’t a threat. They ask for protection.

I could also have sought assistance from an external authority,
Ie, the teacher.
Both these strategies are a form of softening, they involve reliance on an external source for protection. As such, they should not be used unless absolutely necessary.

Advanced armour
As we grow older, the attacks become more complex, and so too do the defences.
By early teens, the fire with fire method is ineffective in most scenarios. The primary goal of defence at this age is to show you are not bothered by the attack at all, even if – and especially when-  you are. One must learn to display indifference, even when feeling hurt. Especially when feeling hurt. This is a subtle art, one cannot be too obvious about it.

People who go around saying “I don’t care” too frequently will soon convince their peers the opposite is true. It is a very rare person who constantly says they don’t care and actually means it. We’re talking enlightened Buddhist who has shed all desire and concern for self, wizened bad-ass old lady, or at the other end of the spectrum, a person so absorbed by their own ego that they genuinely have no concern for others. Think coked-up narcissistic Nihilistic psychopath. Patrick Bateman. Jeremy Kyle (I joke). Donald Trump (maybe, minus the coke).

Most children- and adults – care. And they care a lot.

So if saying you don’t care is ruled out, what’s left? Well, openly showing too much care will not do either. A rapid or disproportionally aggressive response such as a shouty “F*ck off”, for example.
This is a clear sign of weakness and of possible volatility, likely to excite one’s attacker and lead to a growing number of attacks. This is perhaps the worst thing one can do as a child: outright defensiveness without sufficient supporting force (either physical or verbal).  

Me in actual armour, also made by me.

The solution

We must dance a constant back-and-forth, a pitter patter exchange of fighting off attacks as nonchalantly as possible.

Invulnerability – a frail kind of strength
As we grow old, we learn more and more sophisticated ways of defending ourselves from attack. With the gift of foresight, we also put in place preventative measures against future possible attacks.

We make ourselves invulnerable.
This is the model of existence promoted in much popular culture today.
It is present in music, TV and our politics.
Our politicians must present a perfect, varnished image. Anything less shows weakness, making them unfit to rule.
You need only look at the way Diana Abbott’s calamity of numbers was received. Yes, she made numerous mistakes with numbers she should probably know. But how many people stopped to consider the situation before haranguing her as stupid, idiotic and worse?

A compassionate observer might consider:

1. How many mistakes we all make on a daily basis, away from the public eye
2. The pressure of interviews, and the effects this may have on your performance, particularly when you’ve made a mistake.
3. What other commitments she may have that might have drained her brain that day
4. Her solid academic record (History at Cambridge, albeit a 2.2)
5. Her incredible electoral success. (She won her seat by a HUGE majority).

Based on the response from both individuals and the media, it seems invulnerability is essential to being a good politician.

In music, too, particularly mainstream hip hop, there is the hackneyed refrain “I’m better than you, I don’t need you” repeated ad nauesum.

I have already discuss this in detail here.
Programs like Love Island showcase similar attitudes, for the most part.

The motivation

I understand why people want to harden themselves so. It is the natural first line of personal defence. It is also related to appealing ideals: independence and invulnerability to harm. These sound great.

The problem is, what worked for 5 year old you, and possibly even 14, 18 and 21 year old you, isn’t necessarily going to work for adult you. And it certainly isn’t maximising what you can do for everyone else.

Each new layer of defence you add takes you away from yourself.
Let’s say you struggled with the opposite sex in school. You go away, read some books, pick up some new skills.
You suddenly become quite adept at pulling.
The problem is, in order to do this, you’re putting on an act. You’re being “attractive”. You’re presenting a false image.

Or maybe you weren’t blessed physically. This was exploited ruthlessly by bullies. So you hit the gym, got some lip-fillers and a boob job. Now you constantly post pictures of yourself to Instagram. You go out in revealing outfits. Now you feel stronger and more confident. The problem is, your hardened glossy exterior may become hard to bear. It may start to restrain you. You may feel pressure to always ‘look your best’. You aren’t willing to go to the gym without a full face of make-up. You put filters on your Instagram posts.

The same applies to males. Maybe you were gentle and tender. Your response to attack was to go away and make yourself tough. Now you have to live up to being a ‘proper man’, meaning you bottle up emotions that would be better off expressed. This is one of the big issues with traditional concepts of masculinity, and is undoubtedly linked to the high male suicide rate in the West.

The converse case is just as common. In response to rejection and ridicule by the mainstream, some of us deliberately reject mainstream ideals, thus making ourselves impervious to them. This applies to many people in ‘fringe’ communities, such as goths – who reject traditional concepts of beauty as well as musical taste – or ‘alternative’ / hipster/ indie people who eschew common notions of fashion and lifestyle.

These are stereotypes, of course, but ones which in my experience bear plenty of truth.

I have built such armour plating myself.

In response to ridicule, feeling fat and disgusted with myself, I made myself strong, physically and mentally. I made my own value system so I couldn’t be hurt by conventional views.
I made by body very powerful. I pushed it as hard as it would go, so I knew it was durable. I ran my blood to water and mashed my body to a pulp, week after week. Partly because it was fun, but also because I had to prove to myself I had no fear. I was the master of myself. I was invincible.

I made myself smarter. I thought about everything deeply. I did my best to have a response before the discussion had even begun. I was armed and ready.

I made myself attractive, largely in the way described above. I was less-rejectable.  

Of course, I gained a lot from these pursuits. I represented my country
and fulfilled a dream of being paid to play rugby. I got a career. I attracted a lot of women.

Unfortunately, I outgrew these defences.

My armour had become a cage.

Trying to be all these things – to play all these roles –  took a lot of energy.
At least twice, it very nearly killed me.

Moving forward

I suspect that building defences is a natural phase we all go through.
It is our first-line defence to trauma.

Like a scab on a wound, however, our emotional armour must make way for fresh flesh if we are to heal and grow. We need to soften.

Sometimes this will happen without any effort at all. You may wake up one day and realise you have been pretending. You have been acting as something you’re not.

The majority of the time, however, we need to become aware of what we are before we can know what we aren’t.

This takes time, effort and bravery.

Self-exploration is a brave act because getting closer to admitting who you really are might involve admitting some rather uncomfortable truths about yourself. Perhaps some of the things you tell people and yourself are lies. Maybe you aren’t actually that bothered about the kids in Africa. Maybe you don’t really love your family all the time. Maybe you sometimes hate people who are more ‘successful’ than you.

Self-actualisation, the act of being the person you really are, of walking the walk, so to speak, is no less courageous. When you act in line with your true self, attacks are directed at you, not the front you’ve created. You really are out in the open. Exposed. This is a scary notion, at first. It invites vulnerability.

But think of the upside.
No more pretending.
You are who you are.
Your relationships are real, based on a foundation of truth.
You can stop second-guessing yourself and others.

I should add, you might find- as I have- a deeper sense of security that is much stronger than the armour you had before. By choosing to soften, you may actually become more robust.

Go ahead, give it a try, you have only your cage to lose.

As ever, the first step starts with awareness. Find some space. Breathe. Who knows what you might be.


I has written a poem to sum this up. I hope you like it.

I’ve been building this armour, each day since the womb,
May I have the skill to unpick it, lest this cage become my tomb

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