Walls are everywhere in the world we walk through.
They keep the heat in the house and the snow and the wind out. They give us borders, clarifying where our land stops and another’s begins. They keep those that break rules and commit crimes in a place apart. They keep the water in the reservoirs. When planes hit them, they fall down and it changes everything. We memorialize our heroes on them. We build them big, so big they are the only things we create that can be seen from space. It’s like we’re advertising to the universe, “Walls matter on this big, spinning rock!”
But perhaps the biggest walls, the most important walls, are the ones that cannot be seen at all. Perhaps the walls that really matter are the walls that we erect in our minds, that we build around our hearts, and that we place firmly between ourselves and other people.
My four-year-old son, Quinn, has walls like that, and I learned an important lesson about them one day last summer during a friendly game of Junior Monopoly. We were sitting in Starbucks and the hot chocolate was flowing (for Quinn, the temperature outside doesn’t matter, any milk with chocolate in it must be hot). As usual, I was losing. Badly. I’d like to promote myself as the sensitive father going easy on his son’s budding ego, but the truth is, the kid has my number in Junior Monopoly. I was losing, losing and having fun. Really having fun.
So I decided to tell him.
I looked him directly in the eye, and I said, “Quinn, it’s really good to be here with you.” Things can change so quickly. I could almost see the veil that dropped over his eyes. And before I could fully digest what was happening, the dice were sailing at a group of completely unprepared strangers. Needless to say, our time together did not end as well as it had begun.
What happened? I think my words got inside his walls. I think they snuck inside, like deep, close feelings inside the Trojan Horse of Monopoly. I got inside. And he wanted me out. He has claimed it as his space, and he gets to decide who comes in and how far in and when they enter, and I had somehow surprised him by going too far, without warning, when all he wanted was to buy ticket booths and sip hot cocoa.
You see, our walls are an essential part of who we are. Without walls, without a boundary on our selves, without something in us that says this is me and that is you, we risk a kind of psychic nakedness that results in chaos at best and, at worst, a psychotic confusion about what is real and what is not. We cannot exist as individuals without our walls. And if our walls all worked perfectly, the world suddenly becomes a lot less complicated place, our relationships become easy and peaceful, and choices are made simple.
But they don’t work perfectly. For most of us (all of us?), our walls are broken and, sometimes, badly in need of renovation. Some of us have walls that are always down, and the smallest comment can eviscerate us, or we become a receptacle for all of the vile things that one human being can do to another, or we confuse the goals, values, and desires of everyone we love for our own. Some of us have walls that are big, thick, and immutable, and no one gets in—ever—and we start safe and protected, but we end up lonely and aching. And some of us have walls that don’t know what they want to do, down one moment and completely erect the next, and the decision is often wrong, and no one knows what to expect from us, and it’s anybody’s guess about who we will be from one day to the next. When our walls are broken in one of these ways, we might find ourselves struggling to articulate our pain, but knowing that something just isn’t right. And so we come to the therapeutic space, and we hope for something new, and something good, to happen in us.
In this regard, there exists a deep misconception about the therapeutic space. Many of us believe that therapy is a place where our walls are completely dismantled, where total openness and vulnerability are made manifest, and nothing is withheld. But this is not the ultimate goal of therapy, nor should it be. Therapy is not meant to be a wrecking ball for the walls we have built. Therapy is a place where our walls are given the renovation they require.
If we walk through life in a state of psychological nudity, therapy is a place where we put brick to mortar, and we learn that not everyone has to get in, and when they do, it will be the right people and it will be up to me, and I will decide when and how.
If we walk through life behind an impenetrable wall of smiles, intellect, work, sarcasm, image, or isolation, then therapy is a place to build a door in our wall. Not a revolving door, where anyone can come and go as they please, but a door of our choosing, that opens from the inside, a door that makes it possible for you to confidently invite people in to your lonely space, because it is good to have company we can trust.
And if you don’t know what to do with your walls, if they drop when you don’t want them to and shoot skyward at the slightest provocation, therapy is a partnership with someone who won’t leave you alone when your too-tall walls are telling everyone else to leave, and who won’t invade you when the absence of boundaries invites everyone else in, someone who will insist that your decisions be slow and wise,
but most of all, definitively yours.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.