From our earliest relational experiences in life, in bonding encounters with caretakers and family members, continuing via the trials of navigating childhood and young adult institutions, we develop emotional and physical armoring to help us survive the inevitable difficult experiences. Even the most secure of attachment styles between infant and caretaker have disruptive breaks and discontinuities that create anxious emotional reactions before a secure bond is restored. Infancies spent amidst insecure attachments can result in frequent feelings of being imperiled (after all, we are dependent on others to survive until well into our teens, at the very least). By the time we arrive in the challenging dramas of workplaces, social and romantic encounters, we can find ourselves quite defensive, vigilant, armored.
The role of armoring is to shield us from re-experiencing some of the woundings that resulted in childhood, via our interactions with stressed or narcissistic caretakers, bullying or insecure classmates, etc. Whether ignored, criticized or attacked, we develop defensive strategies to help us get proceed through an occasionally sinister landscape of these vulnerable years, wherein any rejection can feel life threatening, while we hunt for approval and acceptance.
Our defensive postures range from a series of muscle contractions in the body—contracted shoulders and abdominal muscles, locked jaws, etc, that create a state of underlying tension that results in constant guardedness—along with emotional frameworks such as fear, suspicion, craving, anger and on. Perhaps most noticeably, armoring—also known as our coping strategies—develops a vast array of beliefs and behaviors. We protect ourselves via critical and judgmental ideations, competitiveness, bravado, drammatically inflating and deflating self-narratives that justify every unskillful action, not to mention all the desires and feelings we conceal from others, fearing expulsion and exclusion from the groups we seek acceptance.
Of course, a certain degree of protective sturdiness is useful, for without it we surely wouldn't be able to proceed amidst all needless limiting remarks, hostile encounters, even the deflating micro-aggressions we receive from the world. Developing tolerance and perserverance requires a thick skin.
But too much armoring becomes immobilizing and difficult to shed, and so we are kept from easily opening to others and new experiences. We often move slowly and guardedly even through the most secure and sheltered environments. Well meaning words from friends and colleagues can be interpreted as hostile from an armored perspective; it brings to mind how policing and security personnel often abuse innocent, peaceful citizens, for the armored mindset brings with it an adversarial psyche into harmless situations, turning potentially benign assemblies into outright tense, if not violent confrontations.
Armoring becomes a burden we drag along with us: the coping tools that help us survive childhood—such as avoiding difficult conversations, keeping grudges, resorting to half-truths in culpable situations—become ineffective in adult situations which are not life imperiling. Shame arises in the aftermath. Worse, we begin to confuse ourselves with our shielding, such as our obsessive anxious or critical thoughts or the momentum of our busyness. We lose awareness of all that could flourish in the sunlight, if only the defense mechanisms and protectiveness were put aside: the possibility of establishing ease in our own skin, a peaceful, calm mind, thoughts of compassion and calmness.
Eventually our armoring keeps us confined behind the eyes and ears, for we experience the sensations of the body itself as insecure and difficult. We prefer the constricted realm of visual impressions of the world, along with the stream of commentary we add to each visual event. Losing track of the body, we feel it as a dark companion rather than a source of comfort and space for the mind to spread out it.
An armored life is like a stressful 'kill-the-zombie video game, where we are simply trying to survive each moment, rather truly living freely in the world. The more ironclad and guarded, the more we abide in restraints, far removed from the unmediated and vulnerable connections that make life with others truly worthwhile.
Thankfully, a process of divesting ourselves of needless aversion and wariness is always available. Even those most abused can, with the help of a loving spiritual community or therapeutic environment, discern how the contracted state born of early encounters doesn't protect us in adult life, but rather leads to needless isolation. Finding our way to the refuge of a loving support group requires taking risks, dropping the armor, and that requires finding others who have been wounded as well.