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Common and Mature Defenses, and Beyond

Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

“God wisely designed the human body so that we can neither pat our own backs nor kick ourselves too easily.” —Author Unknown

Recognizing common social defenses is vital to living in the present. Common social defenses can be understood as cognitive mechanisms used to seek relief from conflicting emotions and anxiety that are usually outside of our conscious awareness. The ego-mind or imaginary self is thought to use defenses to protect us from being overwhelmed and not being able to function to meet the needs of survival and life. Illustrations of more impairing psychological challenges are immature defenses, including regressive behavior, dissociation, hypochondria, somatization and fantasizing disconnected from human interaction.

Within the range of normal behavior are everyday social defenses by which people protect themselves from change, emotional vulnerability, relationships and difficult aspects of reality. Unfortunately, they are prone to dysfunction by reinforcing the very unworkable life conditions in which people get stuck. Although each of the following common defenses can apply to feelings, thoughts, behavior or situations, behavioral examples are offered in most instances as ones most people can readily relate to. Here are seven classic forms worth noticing:

PROJECTION is the attribution of emotionally unacceptable behavior inside yourself and project or attribute this to others; for example, condemning another for selfishness when you won’t face your own selfish behavior or to praise someone else while rejecting praise for yourself. Projection is very common. Psychologist Fritz Perls, one never prone to use hyperbole or overstate matters, was attributed to have said on his deathbed, “Everything is projection.”

RATIONALIZING makes a behavior appear reasonable and rational when it is clearly not so, for example, telling your partner that it is good that the garbage pick-up was missed because it is more efficient to have all the garbage picked up next week.

INTELLECTUALIZING seeks to analyze and interpret behavior on the mental level, often disregarding emotional and practical considerations; for example, assigning calculated motives to the performance of the simplest act of kindness.

QUALIFIERS tend to soften communication, indicating permission for not following through on commitments, appearing in conversation as maybe, perhaps, possibly, kind of, a little bit, I guess, and so on. While the motive may be to preserve the relationship when giving hard news, qualifiers often negate the force of communication and undercut personal power.

DISPLACEMENT is the transference of feelings from their true cause to a more acceptable or less threatening substitute, such as chewing out a co-worker instead of expressing anger directly to a manager, or lashing out at a child or pet after a stressful day.

COMPENSATION OR OVERCOMPENSATION is exaggerated behavior intended to make up for real or imagined deficiencies, such as extreme confidence after a show of no-confidence or an act of generosity after stinginess. Acting super confident can aim to mask or cover up feelings of little or no confidence, while acting superior can also be a smokescreen for feeling inferior.

EXCUSES are a form of denying reality and then giving reasons, like “That’s just the way I am” or “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” Far-fetched reasons are used to excuse hurtful behavior, such as “I really didn’t lie, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings” or “I was just testing the car brakes when the tree ran into me!!” Excuses are sometimes considered to be of three varieties: (1) “I didn’t do it”; (2) “I did it, but it isn’t so bad”; and (3) “Yes, but. . . ” (with one or more reason(s) or explanation(s) offered that, again, is a rationalization or intellectualization).

Each common social defense offers unbelievable explanations that act as a smokescreen for a lack of personal responsibility. Used in these dysfunctional ways, explanations are self-justifying and excuse irresponsible behavior. Under such conditions, advice to ‘consider the source’ makes sense. In these cases what a friend once told me hits the nail on the head: you don’t have to explain to your friends and your enemies won’t believe you anyway!

Of course, explanations can also help you make sense or understand the purpose for some feeling, thought, behavior or situation. Responsible explanations are helpful in enlisting people to cooperate and follow through in actions. In this sense, explanations may help someone comply with a task or create some order out of confusion. Usually, a little goes a long way.

Some defenses, like denial and dissociation, are necessary at times for our emotional and psychological survival. To prevent a worse outcome, like death or psychosis, very intelligent and creative individuals dissociate or go blank during episodes of shock, abuse, or terror.

More commonly, it takes some period of time for you to adapt to major changes, like the loss of a loved one, of a job or a home. Sometimes “healthy denial” serves the purposes of protection, balance and release in situations with little possibility of control, such as taking off in a plane or being anesthetized for surgery. Practically speaking, necessary defenses serve you best when they are used as a temporary shield, until you can make effective adaptations. Consciously let go of a defense only when you can replace it with a healthier one, as you mature and develop.

The first step in developing more mature defenses is to progressively release your preferred, but unworkable, defenses. This can be realistically accomplished over time in a process that begins with your identifying and buying out of each defense. To buy out means to let go of an emotional, cognitive and behavioral pattern you had the habit of doing automatically that is no longer needed as you more and more use healthier defenses like those that follow.

The second step is to acknowledge and further develop your mature defenses. These are essential to prevent being overwhelmed by over-stimulation, work duties, emotional demands in relationships in addition to high levels of stress or change. Mature defenses include:

1. Relaxation, such as deep breathing, visualization, meditation and prayer

2. Anticipating and planning to productively use life resources, (so long as this is balanced with responsible follow through in actions)

3. Briefly postponing and even suppressing the expression of a feeling until timing or conditions are ripe (and processing it later)

4. Redirecting or sublimating your energies into work or play (so long as this isn’t avoidance of responsibilities)

5. Honest or real equanimity or keeping emotional balance in reality with minimal reactivity by cultivating patience and compassion, perspective and understanding

6. Acts of kindness, altruism, service and contribution

7. Humor, wit, irony and paradox at no one’s expense.

As you gradually release immature defenses, and wean yourself from common social defenses and replace these with mature defenses, the prospect of letting go and surrendering all defenses, at least most of the time, is a vision worth considering. As you see through the false self or ego-mind that does not even exist, what would the point of having any defenses be? While you can call upon these mature defenses as apparent “old friends” when difficulties and challenges arise that may throw you for a loop, do these really have any place, interest or importance for you, to “have to” engage any of them in your life? Does being who you truly are, your True Self or authentic liberated self, require any defenses at all? Or, is being you enough? Pause, look and see for yourself.

Keep Reading By Author Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.
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