Defensesand coping strategies

An occasional lie to support our egos might not be so bad. Butlies breed lies: "Oh what a tangled web we weave whenfirst we practice to deceive!" your grandmother may have toldyou. And as you continue lying, before you know it, you havegone so far from reality that you are faced withnothing but problems.

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Freud talked about this at great length: The poorego("I") is surrounded by the often-conflicting demands of three powerfulentities: reality (the great undeniable), theid (representing ourbiologicaldrives), and the superego (representing parental - i.e.society"s - demands). When all those pressures get to be toomuch, the egofeelsoverwhelmed,like it"s about to be washed away. We all too often feel likewe"reabout to lose control, go out of our minds, go crazy, die... Thisis anxiety.


The best way of dealing with anxiety is to solve the problems thatcause it. But if this is beyond you, you may have to block someof the demands: Shut out reality, or pretend you don"t haveneeds, or ignore those feelings of shame or guilt.

One of the nicest ways of understand defenses is from the Swissexistential psychologist Medard Boss: He considers defensivenessas a matter of not illuminating some aspect of life, andpsychopathology analogous to living in darkness. Therapy, inturn, involves re-lighting one"s life - a process we might well call"enlightenment!

Sigmund Freud

The ego deals with the demands of reality, the id, and the superegoas best as it can. But when the anxiety becomes overwhelming, the egomustdefend itself. It does so by unconsciously blocking the impulses ordistortingthem into a more acceptable, less threatening form. Freud calledthesetechniques the ego defense mechanisms, and he, his daughterAnna Freud (right),and other disciples have discovered quite a few.

Denial involves blockingexternal events from awareness. Ifsomesituation is just too much to handle, the person just refuses toexperienceit. As you might imagine, this is a primitive and dangerous defense -no one disregards reality and gets away with it for long! It canoperateby itself or, more commonly, in combination with other, more subtlemechanismsthat support it.

I was once reading while my five year old daughter was watching acartoon(The Smurfs, I think). She was, as was her habit, quite close to thetelevision,when a commercial came on. Apparently, no-one at the television stationwas paying much attention, because this was a commercial for a horrormovie,complete with bloody knife, hockey mask, and screams of terror. Now Iwasn"table to save my child from this horror, so I did what any goodpsychologistfather would do: I talked about it. I said to her "Boy, that was ascarycommercial, wasn"t it?" She said "Huh?" I said "That commercial...itsurewas scary wasn"t it?" She said "What commercial?" I said "Thecommercialthat was just on, with the blood and the mask and the screaming...!"Shehad apparently shut out the whole thing.

Since then, I"ve noticed little kids sort of glazing over whenconfrontedby things they"d rather not be confronted by. I"ve also seen peoplefaintat autopsies, people deny the reality of the death of a loved one, andstudents fail to pick up their test results. That"s denial.

Anna Freud also mentions denial in fantasy: This iswhen children, in their imaginations, transform an "evil" father into aloving teddy bear, or a helpless child into a powerful superhero.

Repression, which AnnaFreud also called "motivatedforgetting,"is just that: not being able to recall a threatening situation, person,or event. This, too, is dangerous, and is a part of most otherdefenses.

As an adolescent, I developed a rather strong fear of spiders,especiallylong-legged ones. I didn"t know where it came from, but it was startingto get rather embarrassing by the time I entered college. At college, acounselor helped me to get over it (with a technique called systematicdesensitization), but I still had no idea where it came from. Yearslater,I had a dream, a particularly clear one, that involved getting lockedupby my cousin in a shed behind my grandparents" house when I was veryyoung.The shed was small, dark, and had a dirt floor covered with - youguessedit! - long-legged spiders.

The Freudian understanding of this phobia is pretty simple: Irepresseda traumatic event - the shed incident - but seeing spiders arousedtheanxiety of the event without arousing the memory.

Other examples abound. Anna Freud provides one that now strikes usasquaint: A young girl, guilty about her rather strong sexual desires,tendsto forget her boy-friend"s name, even when trying to introduce him toherrelations! Or an alcoholic can"t remember his suicide attempt, claiminghe must have "blacked out." Or when someone almost drowns as a child,butcan"t remember the event even when people try to remind him - but hedoeshave this fear of open water!

Note that, to be a true example of a defense, it should functionunconsciously.My brother had a fear of dogs as a child, but there was no defenseinvolved:He had been bitten by one, and wanted very badly never to repeat theexperience!Usually, it is the irrational fears we call phobias that derive fromrepressionof traumas.

Asceticism, or therenunciation of needs, is one most peoplehaven"t heard of, but it has become relevant again today with theemergenceof the disorder called anorexia. Preadolescents, when they feelthreatenedby their emerging sexual desires, may unconsciously try to protectthemselvesby denying, not only their sexual desires, but all desires. They getinvolvedin some kind of ascetic (monk-like) lifestyle wherein they renouncetheirinterest in what other people enjoy.

In boys nowadays, there is a great deal of interest in theself-disciplineof the martial arts. Fortunately, the martial arts not only don"t hurtyou (much), they may actually help you. Unfortunately, girls in oursocietyoften develop a great deal of interest in attaining an excessively andartificially thin standard of beauty. In Freudian theory, their denialof their need for food is actually a cover for their denial of theirsexualdevelopment. Our society conspires with them: After all, what mostsocietiesconsider a normal figure for a mature woman is in ours considered 20poundsoverweight!

Anna Freud also discusses a milder version of this calledrestrictionof ego. Here, a person loses interest in some aspect oflifeand focuses it elsewhere, in order to avoid facing reality. Ayoung girl who has been rejected by the object of her affections mayturn away from feminine things and become a "sex-lessintellectual," or a boy who is afraid that he may be humiliatedon the football team may unaccountably become deeply interested inpoetry.

Isolation (sometimes calledintellectualization) involvesstrippingthe emotion from a difficult memory or threatening impulse. A personmay,in a very cavalier manner, acknowledge that they had been abused as achild,or may show a purely intellectual curiosity in their newly discoveredsexualorientation. Something that should be a big deal is treated as if itwerenot.

In emergency situations, many people find themselves completely calmand collected until the emergency is over, at which point they fall topieces. Something tells you that, during the emergency, you can"taffordto fall apart. It is common to find someone totally immersed in thesocialobligations surrounding the death of a loved one. Doctors and nursesmustlearn to separate their natural reactions to blood, wounds, needles,andscalpels, and treat the patient, temporarily, as something less than awarm, wonderful human being with friends and family. Adolescents oftengo through a stage where they are obsessed with horror movies, perhapsto come to grips with their own fears. Nothing demonstrates isolationmoreclearly than a theater full of people laughing hysterically whilesomeoneis shown being dismembered.

Displacement is theredirection of an impulse onto asubstitutetarget. If the impulse, the desire, is okay with you, but the personyoudirect that desire towards is too threatening, you can displace tosomeoneor something that can serve as a symbolic substitute.

Someone who hates his or her mother may repress that hatred, butdirectit instead towards, say, women in general. Someone who has not had thechance to love someone may substitute cats or dogs for human beings.Someonewho feels uncomfortable with their sexual desire for a real person maysubstitute a fetish. Someone who is frustrated by his or her superiorsmay go home and kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage incross-burnings.

Turning against the self isa very special form ofdisplacement,where the person becomes their own substitute target. It is normallyusedin reference to hatred, anger, and aggression, rather than morepositiveimpulses, and it is the Freudian explanation for many of our feelingsofinferiority, guilt, and depression. The idea that depression is oftentheresult of the anger we refuse to acknowledge is accepted by manypeople,Freudians and non-Freudians alike.

Once upon a time, at a time when I was not feeling my best, mydaughter,five years old, spilled an entire glass of chocolate milk in the livingroom. I lashed out at her verbally, telling her she was clumsy and hadto learn to be more careful and how often hadn"t I told her and...well,you know. She stood there stiffly with a sort of smoldering look in hereyes, and, of all things, pounded herself on her own head severaltimes!Obviously, she would rather have pounded my head, but, well, you justdon"tdo that, do you? Needless to say, I"ve felt guilty ever since.

Projection, which AnnaFreud also called displacementoutward,is almost the complete opposite of turning against the self. Itinvolvesthe tendency to see your own unacceptable desires in other people. Inotherwords, the desires are still there, but they"re not your desiresanymore.I confess that whenever I hear someone going on and on about howaggressiveeverybody is, or how perverted they all are, I tend to wonder if thispersondoesn"t have an aggressive or sexual streak in themselves that they"drathernot acknowledge.

Let me give you a couple of examples: A husband, a good and faithfulone, finds himself terribly attracted to the charming and flirtatiousladynext door. But rather than acknowledge his own, hardly abnormal, lusts,he becomes increasingly jealous of his wife, constantly worried aboutherfaithfulness, and so on. Or a woman finds herself having vaguely sexualfeelings about her girlfriends. Instead of acknowledging those feelingsas quite normal, she becomes increasingly concerned with the presenceoflesbians in her community.

Altruistic surrender is aform of projection that at firstglancelooks like its opposite: Here, the person attempts to fulfill his orherown needs vicariously, through other people.

A common example of this is the friend (we"ve all had one) who,whilenot seeking any himself, is constantly pushing otherpeopleinto them, and is particularly curious as to "what happened last night"and "how are things going?" The extreme example of altruistic surrenderis the person who lives their whole life for and through another.

Reaction formation, whichAnna Freud called "believing theopposite,"is changing an unacceptable impulse into its opposite. So a child,angryat his or her mother, may become overly concerned with her and ratherdramaticallyshower her with affection. An abused child may run to the abusingparent.Or someone who can"t accept a homosexual impulse may claim to despisehomosexuals.

Perhaps the most common and clearest example of reaction formationisfound in children between seven and eleven or so: Most boys will tellyouin no uncertain terms how disgusting girls are, and girls will tell youwith equal vigor how gross boys are. Adults watching theirinteractions,however, can tell quite easily what their true feelings are!

Undoing involves "magical"gestures or rituals that are meantto cancel out unpleasant thoughts or feelings after they"ve alreadyoccurred.Anna Freud mentions, for example, a boy who would recite the alphabetbackwardswhenever he had a sexual thought, or turn around and spit whenevermeetinganother boy who shared his passion for masturbation.

In "normal" people, the undoing is, of course, more conscious, andwemight engage in an act of atonement for some behavior, or formally askfor forgiveness. But in some people, the act of atonement isn"tconsciousat all. Consider the alcoholic father who, after a year of verbal andperhapsphysical abuse, puts on the best and biggest Christmas ever for hiskids.When the season is over, and the kids haven"t quite been fooled by hismagical gesture, he returns to his bartender with complaints about howungrateful his family is, and how they drive him to drink.

One of the classic examples of undoing concerns personal hygienefollowingsex: It is perfectly reasonable to wash up after sex. After all, it canget messy! But if you feel the need to take three or four completeshowersusing gritty soap - perhaps sex doesn"t quite agree with you.

Introjection, sometimescalled identification, involvestakinginto your own personality characteristics of someone else, becausedoingso solves some emotional difficulty. For example, a child who is leftalonefrequently, may in some way try to become "mom" in order to lessen hisor her fears. You can sometimes catch them telling their dolls oranimalsnot to be afraid. And we find the older child or teenager imitating hisor her favorite star, musician, or sports hero in an effort toestablishan identity.

A more unusual example is a woman who lived next to my grandparents.Her husband had died and she began to dress in his clothes, albeitneatlytailored to her figure. She began to take up various of his habits,suchas smoking a pipe. Although the neighbors found it strange and referredto her as "the man-woman," she was not suffering from any confusionabouther sexual identity. In fact, she later remarried, retaining to the endher men"s suits and pipe!

I must add here that identification is very important to Freudiantheoryas the mechanism by which we develop our superegos.

Identification with the aggressoris a version ofintrojectionthat focuses on the adoption, not of general or positive traits, but ofnegative or feared traits. If you are afraid of someone, you canpartiallyconquer that fear by becoming more like them. Two of my daughters,growingup with a particularly moody cat, could often be seen meowing, hissing,spitting, and arching their backs in an effort to keep that cat fromspringingout of a closet or dark corner and trying to eat their ankles.

A more dramatic example is one called the Stockholm syndrome. Aftera hostage crisis in Stockholm, psychologists were surprised to findthatthe hostages were not only not terribly angry at their captors, butoftendownright sympathetic. A more recent case involved a young woman namedPatty Hearst, of the wealthy and influential Hearst family. She wascapturedby a very small group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries called theSymbioneseLiberation Army. She was kept in closets, raped, and otherwisemistreated.Yet she apparently decided to join them, making little propagandavideosfor them and even waving a machine gun around during a bank robbery.Whenshe was later tried, psychologists strongly suggested she was a victim,not a criminal. She was nevertheless convicted of bank robbery andsentencedto 7 years in prison. Her sentence was commuted by President Carterafter2 years.

Regression is a movementback in psychological time when oneis faced with stress. When we are troubled or frightened, our behaviorsoften become more childish or primitive. A child may begin to sucktheirthumb again or wet the bed when they need to spend some time in thehospital.Teenagers may giggle uncontrollably when introduced into a socialsituationinvolving the opposite sex. A freshman college student may need tobringan old toy from home. A gathering of civilized people may become aviolentmob when they are led to believe their livelihoods are at stake. Or anolder man, after spending twenty years at a company and now findinghimselflaid off, may retire to his recliner and become childishly dependent onhis wife.

Where do we retreat when faced with stress? To the last time in lifewhen we felt safe and secure, according to Freudian theory.

Rationalization is thecognitive distortion of "the facts" tomake an event or an impulse less threatening. We do it often enough ona fairly conscious level when we provide ourselves with excuses. Butformany people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy thattheynever are truly aware of it. In other words, many of us are quitepreparedto believe our lies.

A useful way of understanding the defenses is to see them as acombinationof denial or repression with various kinds of rationalizations.

All defenses are, of course, lies, even if we are not conscious ofmakingthem. But that doesn"t make them less dangerous - in fact it makesthemmore so. As your grandma may have told you, "Oh what a tangled web weweave..."Lies breed lies, and take us further and further from the truth, fromreality.After a while, the ego can no longer take care of the id"s demands, orpay attention to the superego"s. The anxieties come rushing back, andyoubreak down.

And yet Freud saw defenses as necessary. You can hardly expect aperson,especially a child, to take the pain and sorrow of life full on! Whilesome of his followers suggested that all of the defenses could be usedpositively, Freud himself suggested that there was one positivedefense,which he called sublimation.

Sublimation is thetransforming of an unacceptable impulse,whetherit be sex, anger, fear, or whatever, into a socially acceptable, evenproductiveform. So someone with a great deal of hostility may become a hunter, abutcher, a football player, or a mercenary. Someone suffering from agreatdeal of anxiety in a confusing world may become an organizer, abusinessperson,or a scientist. Someone with powerful sexual desires may become anartist,a photographer, or a novelist, and so on. For Freud, in fact, allpositive,creative activities were sublimations, and predominantly of the sexdrive.

Alfred AdlerOther theorists are more likely to talk about things like "copingstrategies" rather than defenses. This idea begins with AlfredAdler. He talks about three of these maladaptive approachesusinga number of different terms:1. The getting or leaning personality - someone who takes care oftheir needs by relying on others to take care of them.2. The ruling or dominant personality - someone who dominatesothers in order to take care of their needs.3. The avoidant personality - someone who simply avoids life"sdifficulties when possible, and may not have their needs taken care ofat all.At one point, he also uses the ancient Greek and Romanclassifications: phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic,respectively.Adler, like Freud, saw personality or lifestyle as somethingestablishedquite early in life. In fact, the prototype of your lifestyletendsto be fixed by about five years old. New experiences, rather thanchangethat prototype, tend to be interpreted in terms of the prototype,"forcefit," in other words, into preconceived notions, just like newacquaintancestend to get "force fit" into our stereotypes.

Adler felt that there were three basic childhood situations thatmostcontribute to a faulty lifestyle. The first is one we"ve spoken ofseveraltimes: organ inferiorities, as well as early childhood diseases. Theyarewhat he called "overburdened," and if someone doesn"t come along todrawtheir attention to others, they will remain focussed on themselves.Mostwill go through life with a strong sense of inferiority; A few willovercompensatewith a superiority complex. Only with the encouragement of loved oneswillsome truly compensate.

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The second is pampering. Many children are taught, by theactionsof others, that they can take without giving. Their wishes are everyoneelse"s commands. This may sound like a wonderful situation, until yourealizethat the pampered child fails in two ways: First, he doesn"t learn todofor himself, and discovers later that he is truly inferior; Andsecondly,he doesn"t learn any other way to deal with others than the giving ofcommands.And society responds to pampered people in only one way: hatred.

The third is neglect. A child who is neglected or abusedlearnswhat the pampered child learns, but learns it in a far more directmanner:They learn inferiority because they are told and shown every day thattheyare of no value; They learn selfishness because they are taught totrustno one. If you haven"t known love, you don"t develop a capacity for itlater. We should note that the neglected child includes not onlyorphansand the victims of abuse, but the children whose parents are neverthere,and the ones raised in a rigid, authoritarian manner.Karen HorneyKaren Horneycame up with nearly the samethree types, and coined theterm "coping strategies:"