We all need protective walls. Our fences, windows and doors are physical barriers which keep 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.

I was calling at residents’ doors to address a local concern and 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 and throughout she kept the door as a protective barrier between us.

Alongside protective walls, we also need to make bridges of trust.

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, but there are many more everyday bridges of trust we make. The ability to greet neighbours by name is a valuable social bridge that helps to make a 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.

It is unhelpful to generalise as our experience of community is so varied but I hope it might be useful to end with some questions:

In the area where you live, what has happened to the traditional meeting places where people so naturally made community together in the past?

Is there greater emphasis on making community in our places of work?

Are there limitations to making community in our workplaces? Do our customs and conventions with colleagues contribute to us forming expectations and assumptions about others?

Would you necessarily know if neighbours were feeling side-lined and marginalised?

Do you have neighbours with high protective walls? Do you consider there are enough bridges of trust getting built amongst neighbours?

If you’re interested in these themes, I’d love to hear from you. 

Colin Berry is a therapist on welldoing