Protective coloring. Personal camouflage. Adaptations. Defense mechanisms. All things designed to protect and deflect. The dictionary defines camouflage in nature as the defensive reaction of an organism, using a combination of materials or coloration for concealment, either by making animals or objects hard to see or by disguising them as something else. Animals and insects also developed anti predator adaptations and defense mechanisms in an effort to ensure their survival and the survival of their species.
Fawns have dappled coats so that they can hide in meadows from predators, fish blend into sand, insects resemble sticks and leaves. Some animals and insects have developed ways to make themselves taste very bad to predators. Skunks shoot highly pungent liquid from glands next to their tails, animals inflate themselves or roll into a ball so that their outsides protect soft insides or are covered with spikes or thorns, the turtle pulls its head into a shell, and possums play dead.
As humans, we’ve developed our own defenses and adaptations – mental and physical – that may distance and protect us from unacceptable or painful realities or emotions, allow us to hide, or defend us from attacks, both real and imagined. Things like denial, projection, dissociation, and compartmentalization are all defensive strategies that protect us, insulate us from harm, and they become natural to our bodies and minds.
Camouflage and defenses also influence and form how we present ourselves to the world and other people – both positively and negatively. One of my long-term defense mechanisms is a bold display of self-sufficiency, competence, and “having my shit together.” I built this coloring because in my family, I was not encouraged to have needs or ask for help, so I learned to present a façade of not needing anything, because then I wouldn’t be disappointed or shamed.
I’m very interested in what I think would count as a physical defense that’s a little protective-coloring in nature. Things like clothing, hair, and makeup – both radical or ultra-traditional; piercings and tattoos; attitudes like the one I give off; and even other things like weight and chronic illness. All of these things can be seen to help us blend in (sometimes by standing out), avoid detection, or deflect contact.
I was married for the first time at twenty-four, and was at a great weight and fitness level for my height. Over time as I struggled with my marriage to an overly dependent, needy husband, I started to gain weight – slowly but surely – and I couldn’t stop it or lose it. I levelled out at about 225 pounds.
It protected me from him in different ways – from having sex I didn’t want, to being able to take care of him – and it was evidence of how unhappy and angry I was, although I wasn’t yet therapeutically sophisticated enough to know that yet. I could also make the argument that developing my chronic illness was a way to hide and defend myself from the constant needs of my family and others.
Although defense mechanisms may allow us to maintain a strong, consistent, positively valued sense of self, as well as defend us against the attacks of others, they can also be hurtful or work against what we really want or need. Problems occur when they escape our control and conscious awareness, or engage regardless of whether we’ve even been threatened, or before there’s even a chance of contact.
Sometimes the defense mechanism suits what we want. Created physical defense mechanisms like being in charge, hard to read, having one’s shit together, or not needing anyone may functionally serve the initial goal of protection. But this type of camouflage may ultimately impede us from a yearned-for connection. Defenses don’t bring us close to people or allow them close to us; they only allow for distance and protection.
Sometimes we are not aware we have a defense mechanism at all. If we are not aware of what our mechanism puts out there on our “behalf,” we may be shocked by what we are getting back. I wasn’t aware for a long time of what I was putting out there for others to observe. It took me a long time to make friends in college; once I did, I learned that it was my own defense that put them off for so long.
Until we become aware of and change our mechanism or protective coloring, we will keep getting the same response and we will feel the same confusion. Why doesn’t anybody know me? Why doesn’t anybody understand me? Why isn’t anybody helping me? Why can’t I get further in my life? Why does nothing fit or work in my life?
My mechanisms may have protected me from being disappointed, hurt, or overwhelmed, but they also made it very difficult to get help, attain intimacy, and make friends. With my excessive weight gain, I was metaphorically protected from a situation in which I was uncomfortable, but being overweight was unhealthy, uncomfortable, and I hated how I looked and felt.
I have worked FOR YEARS to cut through my coloring, and show vulnerability and that I did have needs. I also got myself out of my marriage and into a better situation, started a LOT of internal and emotional investigation, and slowly lost the weight and increased my health. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I feel much more comfortable- emotionally and physically.
As I’ve learned myself, the benefits of this kind of self-exploration can be immeasurable in terms of increased intimacy, physical comfort, and success in life. It may also give you an amazing freedom of choice. So if it seems like there’s nothing but struggle, discomfort, and unhappiness in our lives, it might be worthwhile to start taking a look at our defensive, camouflaging devices – whether we’ve rolled up in a ball to display our spikes, habitually fade from sight, make ourselves look big or threatening, or whether we’re leaving a bad taste in other people’s mouths.