Fortressing a limp

November 6, 2010

Why is change so rare and difficult? I heard a fascinating interview with a doctor this week. He gave an analogy about people who would come to him with back pain who he helped by treating their feet.

Why? Because in these cases, he discovered that the back pain originated in a foot problem, which was compensated for by the ankle, which then was compensated for by the knee, then hip, and by the time they did anything about it, their back had joined the chain of compensating adjustments and now was hurting.

The patients had re-arranged most of their body to keep the untreated foot problem alive. They altered the way they stood, walked, sat, and slept to facilitate the foot problem. They unknowingly built a fortress around the original hurt and protected it with everything they did.

Treating the back did not have longterm benefit. The problem kept reoccurring because the cause was the untreated foot. He analogized this to problems in our lives where we experience a hurt or problem such as a childhood trauma or dysfunctional conditioning by our family, then slowly and silently begin re-arranging our life to suit the hurt; often for decades or a lifetime.

Over years, we have actually created a network of supports to enable the hurt to continue and affect us. We unknowingly choose and get into habits of thought and behaviour that help keep this damage alive. We choose people, build relational dynamics, occupations, living environments, and daily routines that also nurture and protect the hurt. We fortress it. Or we let the untreated hurt destroy our relationships and hurt others. Why?

Perhaps simply because it’s familiar and in a paradoxical way, comfortable? And why can’t we detect it to any degree that we can bring about change on our own? Perhaps because it is so woven into our psyche, it has become effectively permanent (so far).

Then, when one part of the compensating behaviour is challenged (the knee-limp), it upsets the whole dynamic (foot, ankle, knee, hip, back) so we resist it. We may be fearful or confused by the new awareness so we retreat to the comfort of the familiar, even if it is only kind-of working.

After years or decades of this protective behaviour, we have a well-rehearsed limp; physically, emotionally, relationally etc.
It is no wonder that we recovering alcoholics, ACOAs, codependents, ragers, etc. cannot affect change on our own and that the journey of change requires time, effort, and lots of support. Equally sick people in our lives often resist change as much as we do because it takes them into the less familiar as well, so they may not want us to change. And they too have fortressed in their limps with compensating behaviours.

I am grateful today for the numerous voices that I can listen to that help me see more of the root causes of my problems, rather than just the symptoms. I am grateful today for the company and influence of healthy people who are also on journeys of recovery, who don’t need me to continue limping in order for them to remain comfortable. I am grateful today to God for bringing these people and circumstances into my life to help break the fortresses around my pains and dysfunctions. I know a freedom and contentment like I have never known. I feel like a freed captive.





  1. Right on, all the way! We can tell who’s safe to be with by how they react to our growth.
    We don’t want to change because we’d have to get to the root of the problem, which is our loyalty to our earliest training. That’s not just psychological, it’s also brain chemistry.

    Rewiring our brain is like fixing a once-broken bone that ‘set’ wrong & made the limb crooked – it has to be re-broken & then set correctly! Hurts like hell & takes a lot of time & re-training, but worth it in the end. Freedom, indeed.

    It’s just not fair that ‘they’ dumped all their damage on us & we’re left cleaning up the mess!

    • Hey Donna…

      Thanks for the reflections. I remember you saying how we are fiercely loyal to our upbringing… good or bad. And perhaps one of the supports of our fortress around our dysfunctions is the adaptation of our brain chemistry.

      I was told by a psychiatrist once that if a person is in prolonged depression, their brain shape and chemistry change to be more suited to processing depression and remaining depressed. I am sure this is true of any other condition.

      And if our neurology was predisposed to whatever negativity in the first place, it is a double-whammy of support for our dysfunction.

      Thanks for your insighful replies as always. I value them a great deal.



  2. Chaz, I live the way you put this into words. Well done. I too fortressed myself to protect myself. I thought it was the only way I could be safe. It was all I knew and my entire life. Coming into recovery at the age of 42, knowing nothing but that was difficult to change or understand.
    When I began the process of me steps I was lost. It was like trying teach a kindergarden child to be a doctor I was confused. I had no crasp on reality and how so call “normal” people functioned in society. As I started to learn and come to understand how to come to term with myself and face my fears. Cop with life on life terms, understand that I didn’t have to be a victim to my past and all the thing that I never knew. It become like my daily a part of my daily life.
    I know who I am. I am aware it’s going to take a life time of healing to fix the mess that was once me. I’m better today than I was but there is always
    room for improvement. I do my Physco everyday lol. I continue to do the work and I’ll continue to be a better me.
    Thank you for your posts they are always so great. I look forward to them. Xo

    • Sher…

      Thanks for the reply.

      Isnt it crazy how we have the notion we are finding a safe place inside our fortresses of dysfunction? I have been the exact same way and still have many traces of this that I continue to work on.

      And I too did most of my significant recovery work post-40. For those of us who did, we have a lot of unlearning and un-rehearsing to do. Which is a major reson change is so hard. Some give up or never try to any great degree.

      Or try a little, change a little, then feel they have arrived and slowly slip back.

      I too had to learn much of life on life’s terms. Life was a fantasy of lies inside my fortress. Outside, I was failing miserably and then returing home hurt. Only to be set up for failure once again and held there by all the supports I unkowingly put in place.

      Gladly sweet freedom showed up and continues to grow.



  3. Hey Chaz!
    Yes even in recovery, we continue to realize layer upon layer of thoughts that limit and keep us from experiencing full freedom from the fortress.
    As we continue clean and sober we have the opportunity to evolve and transend the limits of the ego!

    • Agreed… freedom is one of the huge benefits of recovery. Including freedom from the ego.



  4. What a great analogy, and so true. We become wedded to the pain we know, and it’s so hard to risk a new and greater pain by changing. Thank you for your insights. All the best.

    • And hard-won insights they are! I tried a lot of the alternatives to painful change, including but not limited to painful un-change. Ciao. Chaz

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