THE BLOG
08/04/2014 04:10 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

4 Truths About Women Who Put Up Emotional Walls

Galit Breen

We're sitting side-by-side, toes in the sand, face to the sun. It's a glorious day at the beach. The rays hit just right, spotlighting what's important right now -- glittery water, happy kids, slow moments.

The women to my left are lying on their tummies. Their chatter is easy, their backs are crisping. One of these matters more to them than the other. The couple in front of us pass their baby hand-to-careful-hand. The baby is covered in a sunhat and sunglasses and a layer of thick, white sunscreen I can see from my beach chair. The pink ruffles on her swimsuit match her tiny, blush-painted toes. Their three form a triangle that screams Family. And since we got here, the only thing that's moved with the woman to my right are the pages of her book. She's found stillness; I mentally give her a high-five.

I look over at my kids and my guy and dig my toes deeper into the sand. I've found my own kind of stillness here; my husband and I have reached the point where days at the beach are braided moments of time with the kids and time with each other. And this is pure lovely.

In one of our quiet moments, we dissect what's sitting heavily in my mind. I had something come up with a friend that upset me and in the face of "What to do?" I went to my gut reaction: I put up an (emotional) wall. My husband, who became a pro at knocking these down when we were dating, his 20-ish-year-old voice saying something along the lines of, "I'm putting my feet up and staying awhile," guides me away from this familiar place. I'm listening.

Here are four reasons why putting up emotional walls is my worst trait and one that I'm openly, willingly and continually working on.

2014-07-10-beach.jpg

1. To manage what happens next. But this sense of control is a myth. Because in reality, things play out like they're going to and you have far less power over other people than you imagine (or you'd like). There's a sense of If I ___, then she will ___ that's also a myth. You just can't predict or control other people's behavior.

2. It's an easy defense mechanism. If I cut you out of my life or deem our relationship not "real," you can't hurt me. Approaching relationships like this means that you miss out on vulnerable, wild abandon in love. It's actually not that easy, is it? People are intricately connected and blocking off one relationship usually affects another. And the pain factor is high on all counts.

2014-07-10-water.jpg

3. When you put up walls today, you're acting as the person you once were. And the reality is, that person doesn't exist anymore. So your old mechanisms are protecting someone who doesn't exist and the today you doesn't need someone else's armor. (And this new person in your life isn't the one who hurt you. What worked then won't serve you now.)

4. Emotional walls come from a legitimate place. The reaction to hurt -- physical, emotional, or mental -- can be to shut down and to shut others out. This is an exhausting, entrenched habit and reaction and one that takes hard, uncomfortable work to undo and then even more hard, uncomfortable work to learn new ways. And this hard, uncomfortable work, can only be done by you.

2014-07-10-flipflops.jpg

I've learned these truths about myself by flipping over one tiny puzzle piece at a time. Realizing that I won't break from heartache was one. That not every relationship is a keeper was another. That this is OK was a third. That I can't predict how things will turn out, that relationships change, that this isn't a negative reflection of me were all truths I needed to learn and to keep as my own and that I sometimes need to be reminded of.

Deciding that risk sits on the low side of the seesaw and love sits at the top is key.

The flip side of this coin is not beating yourself up for wall building being your go-to. It's an imperfection, for sure, but it's also just a part of you. Once you're aware of it, you get to step back and decide if a situation (or a person) are wall-worthy. And more often than not, they aren't. But they just might be love-relationship-friendship-worthy. Once you see this, then one puzzle piece at a time, you can step away from your walls and toward people instead.

Are you an (emotional) wall builder? How do you keep the walls down in the relationships that you do let in?

Subscribe to the In(formation) email.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers.