Shutting out Others to Survive
I had three clients last week threatening to do the “submarine move.” It’s when someone puts up strong boundaries to keep out whatever or whomever triggers their negative feelings—like sealing the hatches in a thick-walled submarine and diving deep beneath the surface.
In all three cases, the submarine move trigger was the feeling “I don’t matter.” And, each of these clients is very familiar with this pattern for themselves. When confronted with a painful situation in which they feel like they aren’t being seen or heard, their knee-jerk reaction is to shut the other person out. All three of them told me that they wanted to completely end the relationships that were triggering this feeling—two of them romantic, one professional.
Does it mean that they don’t care about being seen and heard by that other person? Not at all. Like we all do, they long to matter to someone else just being exactly who they are. And unfortunately, the more they do the submarine move, the less they can be seen and heard. If you think about a submarine, not only does it have impenetrable walls, but it is hidden below the surface of the water—the outside world doesn’t even know the submarine exists. As a result, the submarine operator feels more and more that they don’t matter to others.
Some people with this pattern simply tell me that the other person clearly doesn’t care about them, so they’re calling it all off. Others focus more on particular behaviors in the other person that “aren’t the right way” as an excuse to shut the other person out. In order to survive, people with this pattern feel that they must keep their negative feelings tightly buried, so they throw the blame “out there”—the other person’s behavior is just wrong somehow. This allows them to rationalize the shutting out process, rather than feel their negative feelings.
Like the submarine move, all human survival mechanisms are developed early in life in relation to our parents and early surroundings. First, we absorb from their negative moments the feeling that “there is something wrong with being human” and that becomes embedded in our sense of self. Then, in response to that negative feeling (called Learned Distress), our little brains develop survival mechanisms that best fit with how our parents are. The submarine move is developed when what feels safest is to keep negative feelings buried by shutting out anything or anyone who might trigger them.
As clients work with me to unlearn this pattern, it always gets triggered in a bigger way. We can only unlearn Learned Distress that we feel, so buried Learned Distress like this has to find a way to come to the surface. One of my clients from last week had started dating someone new, and it was going really well. She was feeling “I matter” in ways she never had before. But, to have even more of that good feeling revealed, she needed to uncover and unlearn even more Learned Distress. So, situations came up between the two of them that triggered the most intense fear that the only safe move was to call things off. She was convinced that things he said and did proved that this new relationship was headed in the same bad direction her others had. I encouraged her to sit tight and give it a few more days without doing anything, as this intensification of someone’s pattern is a very typical occurrence as they are unlearning intense layers—it’s actually a good sign!
She managed to do just that, and by the next time she called, none of her fears had come to pass. In fact, he showed her even more that she matters to him. She told me things like, “No one in my life has ever been this nice to me or treated me this well,” and, “I never thought I would find someone who fits so well with me.” My other two clients are also managing to be patient as these big cycles of change happen for them, and they’re finding that it is safer than they ever thought possible to be open and vulnerable in relationships.
Do you do the submarine move? Realize that this is just a reaction to the intense fear that it isn’t possible to matter, and realize also that it’s possible for this pattern to change. It really can be safe to bring the submarine to the surface, climb out into the sunshine, enjoy the view, and interact with the outside world, just as the unique human being that you are.
Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.