Default Places

Posted on Sunday, December 5th, 2010 at 4:22 pm by Jennifer Lehr MFT
in All Posts, Emotional Healing, Marriage & Relationship Help, Podcasts, Self Reflection, The Therapeutic Process.

I had a hard few days, which in this case for me means that I was in workaholic mode, feeling frustrated and somewhat overwhelmed and being unrealistic about what I could and could not get done. I was pushing myself around ‘doing’ and not accepting the ‘being’ aspect of life.  Luckily, a friend stopped over and we had a conversation. The conversation was the beginning of me getting myself back in balance, back to a realistic perception of what life is.

We all have what could be called ‘default places.’  These are emotional and visceral experiences we have when we get triggered.  There are default emotions, default actions and default beliefs; for some a default emotion might be a strong sense numbness or aloneness accompanied by sadness.  It might be a sense of panic, an out of control desperate feeling or a sense of being trapped.  Our default actions might be an internal dialogue where we tell ourselves something about ourselves, or a move to have a drink when we feel stressed.  A default belief often drives these emotions and actions.  Whatever it is, it is a ‘place’ we ‘fall’ into. It is an experience where we lose perspective. I tend to have the default belief that I cannot waste time: that I have to be productive.  I also have the default belief that help is not readily available. So if I am in over my head with something I am working on, I can get triggered and move into feelings of overwhelm.

What drives my default place has a lot to do with how I was raised.  One of the family beliefs that existed as an underground current in my childhood, was that all of us didn’t intrinsically deserve to be here, but had to earn our keep, or prove our value.  I was raised to believe that productivity was god.  Yet there was no assistance in this. For example, when I was applying to art school and needed to put together a portfolio, my father, who was a very successful illustrator, promised he would help me do that.  But he didn’t want to let me use his brushes, his paint, or spend his time teaching me.  So he dragged his feet.  And I waited and waited and waited, as time ticked by. I wanted to get out of the house.  I needed to get the portfolio done, and all the help was there, but just out of reach. I couldn’t do it by myself, and the person who was capable of helping me, and said he would, kept putting my needs on the back burner.  I felt trapped. Consequently, I learned to strive endlessly, while also ending up in situations where the support I needed wasn’t there.

My ‘falling’ into a default place also has a lot to do with current triggers in my life.  I’m working on a project so huge, that I cannot see the entire thing at once, a project that continually tests the limits of what I am capable of.  And I need help with it.  But because I grew up in a family where the help was not there, where promises were made that were not kept, and I was left stranded and without support, I tend to be very sensitive to this kind of ‘abandonment.’  The recapitulation of this triggers a variety of feelings. I am off to the races, doing my default behaviors, because of my default beliefs and feeling my default emotions, and none of this serves me or anybody else.

As I was talking to my friend, in addition to talking about me, we discussed his struggles, his therapy, and his wife’s difficulty with going to therapy.  He said to me, “she doesn’t really want to go, she thinks it is all me.” Unfortunately, that is a really common attitude. I’ve been there myself.  I asked more questions and found that this person’s wife claims, “My childhood was fine.”  Oh boy – that opens a can of worms. Many of us had ‘fine’ childhoods and most of us had parents who loved us – at least to the best of their ability, and yet many of us had times as children when we wished we could be adopted, or suspected that the stork dropped us off at the wrong house. Or where we cried ourselves to sleep because we didn’t feel understood or we hid in a closet because we were scared.  It doesn’t matter exactly what. What matters is that this world, and life is a place where difficult and painful things happen, and as children we absolutely do not have the skills to deal with them alone, and yet, we often have to.  This matters because once we decide that our childhoods were ‘fine,’ we have nothing to look at and aren’t taking responsibility for our complexity. We don’t have the opportunity to do what I depicted above, that is to look at our default places and link them to past events thereby creating the ability to ‘unhook’ them.  This means saying, ‘when I was little I was raised to believe this, and to not expect help, and these are the feelings I fall into as a consequence given this situation, but I can now recognize what is happening. I can change that belief and ask for help now, or walk away from a situation that isn’t going to support me.’  Instead of being able to do that, the past forever colors our perceptions.  We remain trapped in a default place.

The way we change is to get to know ourselves.  Ask yourself, where the feeling places are that you get stuck in.  What do they feel like?  Examples could be, “I feel like I am down a well,” or “I feel as if I can’t breath.” What are some of the thoughts?  How about, “The world is passing me by,” or “Nobody cares about me,” or “I hate myself.” Do you know what the underlying beliefs are?  Some could be, “I’m not capable of a relationship,” or “I don’t have a right to put myself first,” or “I don’t deserve to be here.” Do you know what your triggers are? Maybe, “I feel like you never put me first.” Can you recognize your underlying feelings, thoughts and beliefs and how they influence each other?

Where did that default place come from in your history?  How did it develop?  Default places are emotional and experiential places we fall into over and over again.  They are familiar. Often they interact (usually badly) with our partner’s default place.  They came into being because they are a response to not feeling supported, to feeling alone, abandoned or disappointed.  If you tell yourself that your past was ‘fine’, then you will never start to unwind this in yourself.  You will never have the ability to say, “Gee, I fell into my default place. What is going on? What do I need right now? How much of this is about now and how much of this is about my past? Who am I impacting?  Can I get the support I need now?”

Do you work with, or defend against your default places?  Freedom isn’t an absence of limitations. It is what we do with our limitations; how we come to understand them and the dialogue we develop with ourselves about them and with them. Rather than creating an internal cut off, we can really get to know our own complexity and use that to create more personal awareness and freedom.

3 responses to “Default Places”

  1. Marie says:

    I currently find myself fearing “failure”. As a child I was a poor student, in a system where you were one of 30 in a classroom and your grade, i.e. 1 – 5 was top of the class and anything else was “less” – frequently I placed near the bottom of the class and stupid was the label that consequently followed me. Seems silly really since I was able to move 7,000 miles across the world and adapt into a foreign society and become a successful woman. I held many excellent jobs, had excellent references and was complimented on my work ethic. Yet, when it comes to getting my citizenship for example, I fear the testing process. I now want to seek further education in something I feel passionate about but I fear being judged. Trying to avoid that unworthy or out of control feeling I tend to push aside that which I need to investigate, try or take care of. Therefore I am my own worst enemy, how can I succeed if I don’t try? What happens if I try and I fail? I lack a sense of confidence yet when others tell me that I have an “eye” for photography that my photographs are great or ask why I don’t do more or sell my photographs I actaully judge myself and abandon myself. My challenge is to believe in myself, that is my default place.

  2. Jennifer Lehr says:

    Great comment. So it sounds like the default place that you go to is feeling out of control and unworthy. And the belief is something like I’m not good enough? (even though you know that it isn’t true) So what is the action? Do you then avoid taking risks that bring this up, or are you able to say to yourself, “this is about the past and I’m going to do it anyway.” Are you able to ‘talk’ to the inner critic (who may be trying to protect you from further embarrassment as it was developed when you were small) and help that part of yourself feel safer? Anyway, great insight and this is where the work lies for all of us who want to grow.

  3. The default place is a great description of where we go. I’ve been making my own self-hypnosis audio messages lately to create some “updated software programs” in my brain. Then, I can move out of the default place (or default mode as I call it in my writing) and customize my “programs” to be more in alignment with my true self, and not automatically respond to some pattern or program that may have served as a defense mechanism for me decades ago. I loved this article because it reminded me to keep asking myself questions about why I’m doing something, and to set my ego aside long enough to wait for an honest answer. Each time I do this, I know I am just a little more liberated than I was before.

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