[NOTE: OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SITE THAT DEAL WITH THE ISSUE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL DEFENSES CAN BE FOUND UNDER THE SUBJECT MENU HEADING “DEFENSE MECHANISMS” IN THE SIDEBAR AT THE RIGHT.]
Almost everyone understands the basic concept of psychological defense mechanisms. At one time or another, we’ve all said (or been told), “Stop being so defensive!” We understand that the defensive person is protesting a little too strongly against something he or she doesn’t want to admit is true. Take that dynamic inside the mind and you have an internal defense.
One of my favorite theorists, Roger Money-Kyrle, looked back over his long career as a therapist and the different ways he had conceived of defenses; in the end, he came to think of them as lies we tell ourselves to ward off truths too painful to accept or unbearable emotions and feelings. What makes them so difficult for us to recognize ourselves is that we’ve spent a lifetime believing those lies and we want to go right on believing them because the alternative is to feel pain. It’s much easier to identify someone else’s defenses than our own.
If you think about your friends and family, I’ll bet you can identify someone with a defense that you and others around him can easily see but he can’t. For example, I have an acquaintance who regularly falls out with her other friends and becomes indignant about the insensitive ways they treat her. The other person is always to blame for the disagreement. She isn’t my client, and I’ve never talked to her about this pattern, but I’m fairly confident she suffers from deep-seated feelings of shame and unworthiness. She can’t face those emotions and wards them off with an indignant sense that others have treated her badly.
In another post, I discuss the relationship between shame and indignation, where the later acts as a defense against the former. Here’s one way that I see it in myself: If I’ve had a fight with a loved one, I’ll catch myself mentally rehearsing its details again and again, reliving it line by line for hours. In my thoughts, I’ll forcefully argue my side of the story, proclaiming my own innocence and insisting on the other person’s faults (much like the acquaintance I described above). Eventually I may recognize that I “protest too much” and realize that I need to re-evaluate what happened with a more critical eye to my own insensitivity. More often than not, I’ll realize that I wasn’t so perfect after all, and that at least half of the “blame” is mine.
Finding Your Own Way:
Many of my clients have described this exact same internal process, and I’ve come to think of it as “the rant.” More on that score another day, but for now, I suggest you start listening to yourself more closely. Are you carrying on imaginary conversations with people in which you try to convince them that they are at fault? Do you want to enlist other friends to support your “side”? Do you repetitively re-live spats or disagreements with a growing surge of indignation? If so, it’s a good sign that you’re lying to yourself because you don’t want to accept that your behavior might also have been hurtful.
Use that recognition as a starting point for a deeper examination of your character: what does your behavior reveal about your problem areas? Can you find any threads that might connect the various disagreements you’ve had? Any common criticisms that friends have leveled at your over time? Our defenses are very difficult to penetrate on our own, but these are some useful ways you can start.