Images of protective walls and of bridges of trust can be useful for thinking psychologically about the neighbourhoods and communities where we lead our daily lives. During this brief entry, I mean to develop some themes concerning walls and bridges.
To begin with, I want to make a picture with you, out of an everyday interaction. I was calling at residents’ doors to address a local concern but one person’s response has remained in my memory. The door was barely opened and the resident spoke to me through a narrow gap. Cold calling at people’s doors has many limitations - - so often the timing is inconvenient and there is a natural guardedness. But this person interacted as though there was a tremendous threat outside her door. At first, the door was barely opened at all and throughout the conversation she kept the door as a protective barrier between us. She spoke of 2 recent incidents – a police arrest and a surveillance operation. These incidents seemed firmly lodged in her mind, perhaps as confirmations for her that her area really is unsafe. ‘We’ve lived here for over 40 years but it has become a horrible place to live’, she said. An impression of your home area as changed into a ‘horrible place’ sounds a terrible burden to carry. With such a burden, I am left wondering how often this resident will feel like venturing out.
We all need protective walls. Our fences, windows and doors are physical barriers for keeping us safe in our homes. A caution around strangers is a protective emotional wall. Protective walls are a recognition that we are all vulnerable and that we must protect our vulnerability from harm. There will be points in all our lives when we are more in touch with our vulnerability than at others. When we are not ‘economic providers’ we tend much more readily to get in touch with how vulnerable we are. At such times, our protective walls may feel especially important to us.
There is, though, a balance to be struck. If all we have are protective walls, our homes become our fortresses and we live as though under siege, a state of mind which will affect our health and wellbeing.
Alongside protective walls, we also need to make bridges of trust. Going to see a therapist is to build a very significant bridge of trust. (As an aside, I often think we can give a lot of trust to big brand names. In therapy contexts, the big brand name can be CBT. Is our trust in brand names always well placed? How do we become discerning in our choices and decisions?) As well as very significant bridges we build, there are much more everyday bridges of trust we make. The ability to greet neighbours by name is a valuable social bridge that helps to make neighbourliness and community. When stuck in a siege state of mind these everyday interactions can feel formidable but once those bridges are made they can make such a difference to how we feel about ourselves. Increased belonging and improved self-acceptance are some of the differences people readily notice when they have neighbours to greet as they go about their daily lives.
From a psychological perspective, it takes imagination to build bridges. We make bridges out of our ability to picture how things might look for the people we interact with. When the protective walls are very high, though, our capacity to imagine how things might look to others diminishes – the pictures we make are likely to be ones that reinforce our fears and insecurities. In a sense, we are likely to experience any approach as potentially hostile or intrusive.
This line of thought serves to emphasise, I believe, that bridge building is two-way and that people who are at vulnerable points in their lives require approaches that involve enormous sensitivity and imaginative engagement. Coercive strategies, for example, are almost inevitably going to be harmful. Effective approaches to people who are in touch with their vulnerability will be founded on choice, on sensitivity and on a capacity to imagine how life looks behind a protective wall.