Emotional Intelligence, Self-Development, Uncategorized

Defending the Barricades: How Emotional Entrenchment Works

No-one who has seen any rendition of “Les Miserables” ever forgets the moment when one of the main characters stands atop the barricades waving the French flag as a symbol of defiant defense against the encroaching regular militia intent to tear the revolutionaries apart. Signalling our entrenched defense of a position is as much an act of rebellion or revolution as it is an act of fear or of outright war. This is as true in emotional conflict as it is in any more overt armed conflict.

People take positions or stances for a variety of reasons. For example, Virginia Satir defines four coping or “survival stances”, methods of establishing some kind of emotional equilibrium based on a set of “rules” that govern the association between (generally low) self-esteem, triggers, emotional reactions, and behavioural responses. Specifically, she writes,

“The four survival states… originate from a state of low self-esteem and imbalance, in which people give their power to someone or something else. People adopt survival stances to protect their self worth against verbal and non-verbal, perceived and presumed threats.” (Satir, The Satir Model, pg 31)

The four stances Satir identifies are the Blaming stance, the Placating stance, the Super-Reasonable stance, and the Irrelevant stance. And because people tend to adopt such stances or positions as survival mechanisms in situations where the attendant behaviours for each stance provide a barricade protecting us from those perceived threats, we can, over time, emotionally invest in our stances very heavily. If we come to believe that maintaining these stances will keep us safe, hen any perceived threat will be defended against, sometimes with subversion and sometimes with tactical precision and military-grade offence. When we’re significantly invested in defending those stances to the point where we have no openness or tolerance for any threat against them, we are considered to be entrenched. We become entrenched in a variety of ways; it generally indicates there is no resiliency for change, no way to integrate or even consider differing or opposing viewpoints. We become heavily invested in our perspectives or views of reality, even if they are (at least to external perspectives) distorted or dysfunctional perspectives. We cannot afford to be wrong, so we will defend the barricades we build around our entrenched positions until we (metaphorically) die through convincing and conversion, or exhausted capitulation.

Last week’s blog post looked at gaslighting as a form of deliberate manipulation in the context of abusive relationships. It’s important to note that gaslighting sometimes also occurs as a consequence of entrenched individuals defending their defensive barricades. Most of us have probably uttered phrases, in jest or in seriousness, along the lines of, “You’re crazy!” or “You’re nuts, that’s not how it happened!”. It doesn’t happen out of manipulative maliciousness in many cases; it can also happen as a result of entrenchment defending its own invested worldview against the perceived threat of a different view. We can become dismissive of other perspectives, or possibly even contemptuous — remember, contempt is one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — simply because we don’t want to manage the internal upheaval that comes of having our entrenched beliefs, or entrenched narratives around our self-esteem, challenged by external, presumed-hostile forces intent on (presumably) destroying those beliefs. It’s often easier for people to repel the attack on our position than it is to self-regulate our inner turmoil.

And that’s the primary difference between two types of gaslighting: one is an active manipulation with intent to manage or force compliance from Other, the other is a way or repelling perceived threats as a defense of the Self. To the outside perspectives, it’s true that the effect may appear similar and the felt impact will be similarly painful. No-one likes being dismissed or diminutized, especially by someone close to us. But there are advantages in differentiating intent when it comes time to decode and deconstruct the defensive mechanisms when we get to working with this kind of challenge in the counselling room. In order to encourage entrenched perspectives to lower the barricades (or at least lower their defensive intolerance), we have to consider what it is they are protecting behind the barricades; what are they so afraid of? Roger Fisher and William Ury, authors of the classic handbook on negotiation, Getting to Yes, state from the outset in their works that arguing over *positions* is the most ineffective way of achieving a favourable resolution to any kind of negotiating or potentially challenging engagement:

“Whether a negotiation concerns a contract, a family quarrel, or a peace settlement among nations, people routinely engage in positional bargaining. Each side takes a position, argues for it, and makes concessions to reach a compromise. [..] When negotiators bargain over positions, they tend to lock themselves into those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attack, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince the other side of the impossibility of changing your opening position, the more difficult it becomes to do so. Your ego becomes identified with your position. You now have a new interest in “saving face” — in reconciling future action with past positions — making it less and less likely that any agreement will wisely reconcile the parties’ original interests.” (Fisher & Ury, pgs. 7-8)

This is an excellent summary of entrenchment, and why it is so difficult to “win” confrontations or conflict with entrenched parties. We see this in the counselling room all the time. When the arguments become less about achieving a collaborative solution or even compromise than they are about “being right” or “saving face”, then we’re facing an entrenched adversary who will likely do everything they can to save their position. Learning what lies at the emotional centre of the defended position is a key part of a resolution process, because it’s sometimes not going to be obvious from the defensive strategies lobbed out by those behind the barricade. As we often say in relational therapy, “The thing that we’re fighting about may not actually be the thing that we’re fighting about” — the WORDS of the argument may be about leaving socks on the bedroom floor for the eighth time this week, but the FORCE of the argument is ACTUALLY about not feeling heard and respected; the entrenchment, the emotional investment in one’s stance in the argument, results from feeling hurt, or needing to be right.

These kinds of emotional entrenchment conflicts are an excellent place for emotionally-focused therapy to introduce way of opening up defensive stances between couples especially, of exploring the underlying narratives tied to esteem-based interpretations that keep getting in the way of partners hearing each other. When these kinds of issues come into the office with individual clients, sometimes we can apply a more narrative exploration to clarify why a person continues to emotionally invest in a particular survival stance, even to the potential or ongoing detriment of their current relationships. We’re constantly looking for ways to increase the native sense of emotional safety and bolstered self-esteem, as a way of introducing more resiliency to how we face challenges to our worldviews and our sense of Self. There are ways to increase one’s flexibility and adaptability in the face of differing perspectives that does not mean “we were wrong” or that we somehow cease to exist if we drop an invested stance.

Sometimes it takes time and work to build security that makes that kind of resiliency possible, though; it’s more than simply “wearing each other down” in the way the French militia and the Revolutionaries in “Les Mis” wore each other down through frequent battles. It’s about learning about the underpinnings of each other’s stances, understanding why they are important to us, and working that into collaborative discussion strategies that build tolerance. We can’t stand on the barricades and wave the revolutionary flag forever; sometimes we just need help to dig ourselves out of our own entrenchments.

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