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What’s Your Default Setting? - 6/27/2011

Let me try to paraphrase Freud, who said that, whenever people are faced with conflict or stress of a heightened nature, most of us regress back to our primary line of emotional defense.  If you think about it in terms of WWI, the French had the Magineau Line, which they thought was their ultimate line of defense.  If you think about it in terms of human beings, when faced with stress, some of us regress to being the passive, acquiescent, retiring people we were as children.  Others of us become combative, have temper tantrums or evidence self-destructive behavior; for example, a youngster banging his head on the grocery store floor because you won’t buy him candy.  The point being that each of us developed coping techniques at a very young age that we resort to or utilize throughout the remainder of our lives.  

These coping  behaviors may appear different on the surface, depending on your age; children act one way, while adults act another.  For example, a child may run from the dinner table, screaming, “I’m not hungry.”  Years later, as an adult who is upset or stressed, he/she may jump in the car and go for a drive.   Similarly, a child who, when faced with conflict, begins to gorge himself on cookies, may well become an adult who, when stressed, begins to drink.  It’s the same for a thumb-sucking child who, years later, relieves stress by smoking.  In each instance, the behavior on the outside differs from child to adulthood but,  inside, the emotional dynamics remain the same.

Think of it in terms of purchasing a new computer which has a default setting set up at the factory. Each of  us has a default position, or form of coping behavior which is set up during childhood.  Later in life, we retreat to it whenever we feel the need to protect ourselves.  For example, you can determine my emotional  state of  health by how much I weigh.  There are, of course, times when I eat  because I’m hungry and other times because the  food is exceptional.  Sadly, there are too many occasions when it doesn’t matter if I’ve eaten, or what’s being served.  Those times,  I compulsively, but unconsciously, shovel in food to try to fill an emotional hole inside me.  Over the years, I’ve learned to let my behavior serve as a sign post, which warns me regarding where I am and what I’m feeling.  It helps me to recognize that I’m upset.  That awareness causes me to look inside and take conscious steps to deal with my feelings, instead of regressing to my default position.    

Our lines of defense are often difficult for us to recognize but, once you’re on top of yourself, you can begin to see your primary, secondary and even tertiary default positions.  I know that I have three.  One: Fast - I become hyper, feel pressured, have to achieve more.  Two: Funny - I become excessively humorous, find something to laugh at or to mock, which enables me to ease the stress I feel by diverting my attention.  Three: Fat.  On the one hand, eating temporarily satisfies me.  On the other hand, it causes me to realize that part of me doesn’t like me.  Years ago, when I weighed 250 pounds, I must have been in a far worse place than I am now at 196 which, I realize, is still excessive and disappointing to me.  

Let me give you another example that you may relate to.  Robert and Cathy came to therapy when Cathy’s weight reached its highest peak.  But, that wasn’t the only indication that something was wrong.  She was angry, cutting and hostile.  Her biting tongue found every excuse to put him down.  Conversely, Robert was quiet, passive and, in my opinion, even more angry than his wife.   Their default systems worked in unison.  When upset, she would become angry and verbally abusive.  He would retreat, emotionally and physically.  It was a pattern they unconsciously, but cooperatively, established early in their relationship.   However, their default positions were developed much earlier in their lives

Cathy was angry throughout her childhood.  She felt  rejected by her biological family and perceived herself the unwanted child of parents whose marital difficulties negatively affected  all of their offspring.  Her defense: a biting tongue, etc., was her attempt to elicit a reaction from parents who were oblivious to their children’s needs.  

Robert, on the other hand, came from a typical midwestern family where everything was “okay”.  Even more, you weren’t permitted feelings of upset because you were “okay”.   Essentially, you lived life according to the rules.  You didn’t complain.  You made the best of things. As an adult, he lived in a marriage for 30 years, never complaining, arguing, or angry.   After all, he’d “made his bed and had to lie in it.”  Inside, however, he harbored years of anger, but he wasn’t aware of it.   The straw that broke the camel’s back was a relationship he formed with a co-worker.  Although never verbalized, whenever he was with her, he felt a level of excitement and energy he had never experienced before.  Cathy immediately recognized this reaction and as a result, her anger and eating increased.  They eventually came to therapy, where they learned to recognize their default settings, i.e., the instinctive go-to behaviors, they adopt every time they feel upset or anxious.  

My question for each of you is, what’s your setting?  I strongly suggest that, in searching for an answer, you not look at or blame your spouse for how you react, although I’m sure his/her default position will be far more apparent to you than your own.  Instead, look at yourself.  See what you do to protect yourself then recognize that, in most instances, it results in negative behaviors and dysfunctional relationships. The three steps you need to follow are:

1. When you’re upset, but before you’re out of control, look out for your instinctive go-to behavior and curtail it.

2. Attend to the problem, rather than running from it.  Notice, I said the problem, i.e., your feelings, not the other person’s behavior.

3. Communicate your feelings, positive or negative, with your partner.

I promise you, if you fail to take these three steps, your relationships may continue but so will your feelings of discontent and your go-to behaviors.

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