Healthy systems, in anticipation of or in response to events or conditions, develop firm, but flexible boundaries. In the wake of a significant trauma, however, a system may develop a more extreme configuration – either overly rigid or overly flexible - that protects itself and its most important elements in order to best survive the immediate situation. Crucial as this response may be for short-term coping, this defensive structure may remain long after the original trauma has run its course, continuing to generate dysfunctional behaviors that inhibit the system’s ability to meet its needs and to develop or maintain sustainable health and maturity.
Trauma – consisting of several types and originating from personal, family, social, global and environmental sources - has grown so prevalent in many of our human systems that it has become normalized. Events and conditions that significantly diminish our ability to meet our evolved human needs have often come to be perceived as inevitable or even desirable. Thus, the resulting structural changes and defensive behaviors associated with trauma have become pervasive, exerting a profound impact on our lives, our institutions and our planet.
The Process of Individual Psychological Defense Mechanism Development
Trauma’s Impact on Intrapsychic ConfigurationInternal Family Systems (IFS) introduces two concepts fundamental to an understanding of this process. First, it offers a comprehensive explanation of multiplicity of mind, the notion that an individual experiences him or herself as consisting of various parts or subselves, each focused primarily on meeting particular needs and behaving like a distinct personality. Second, it distinguishes the Self, a unique part of the human psyche that lies at our authentic core and is designed to serve as a wise leader of this inner system of subselves.
According to IFS, a healthy psychological system, like any healthy system, is marked by certain systems indicators. These include appropriate development of the various parts, a certain degree of balance and harmony in the relationships between the parts, and strong but compassionate leadership by the Self. In such a state, an individual can form an authentic identity, generate reasonably flexible but protective boundaries, and successfully meet in balance the human needs that paradigms like the Hierarchy of Needs and Nonviolent Communication (NVC) identify as so central to health.
However, when trauma threatens an individual’s ability to meet his or her needs:
- Parts may mistrustfully disconnect from the Self, cutting off its leadership, in an attempt to protect the Self from injury or protect other parts from the now suspect Self.
- Some parts may take on extreme roles and leadership positions for which they are not optimally designed.
- Some parts may “introject,” or take on, the beliefs, identity or voice of people and systems in the environment involved in the trauma.
- Some parts may suppress or “exile” other parts in an attempt to protect those parts or to protect the rest of the system from them, leading to imbalances and polarizations in the system.
- Traumatized parts may take on burdens that freeze their development at the time of the trauma.
These defensive configurations threaten health because parts in extreme roles, without the benefit of the Self’s optimal leadership, take on a fearful, desperate or manic quality. In these states, typical of the “emotional hijacking” described in the field of Emotional Intelligence, where our limbic system overwhelms our more rational and thoughtful cortex, we cannot access our strengths and respond maturely to the present reality. Instead, these extreme parts drive the individual to act based more on a suspicious power struggle with other parts than in the best interest of the whole system. They perceive and prioritize needs that may not truly be most important and may advocate the use of misguided strategies to meet them. These misguided attempts to meet perceived needs are, according to Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication, a major source of conflict within human systems.
This combination of unrealistic priorities and misguided strategies fuels a vicious cycle as the defense mechanisms become the very source of strong resistance to their own dissolution. True systemic needs, exiled along with the parts that would otherwise advocate for them, go unrecognized and unmet. Meanwhile, we frustratingly pursue inaccurately perceived needs, creating self-fulfilling prophecies, generating the very conditions our extreme parts most fear and, in coping with this painful outcome, further amplifying the blame, polarization and mistrust between the parts that solidifies the unhealthy defensive structure.
Vulnerable Windows in Early DevelopmentThe development of such defenses can be initiated by a trauma at any point in our lives. However, there are particular windows during which we are especially vulnerable to the activation of this process. While those sensitive periods include pivotal developmental moments throughout life, traumas of neglect or invasiveness impacting early developmental stages involving core identity, boundary and relationship template formation are particularly likely to spark the creation of specific extreme defensive configurations.
Children are almost totally dependent on their caretakers for fundamental physical and psychological survival and development needs. In addition to the obvious basic security and resources that they require, children are also extremely affected by the level of trust and acceptance that they experience. They are exquisitely sensitive to messages, spoken and - perhaps even more powerfully - unspoken, that they receive from their caregivers and others in their environment regarding which of their behaviors and personality traits are desirable and which are not. They may instinctively accentuate parts of themselves that bring reward or praise and repress parts that, when expressed, are met with fear, shame, guilt or devaluation by those on whom they depend. Or, in an attempt to develop autonomy, they may rebel, or, as Schema Therapy calls it, “counterattack” against these forces.
In either case, the child’s psychological configuration may become imbalanced in ways that mirror or rigidly oppose the particular, often dysfunctional, configurations of their caregivers and environment. Furthermore, since the child has very limited freedom to change his or her caregivers or environment, the same process may repeat for many years as the child’s innate temperament and developing defenses continuously mutually interact with and trigger the longstanding trauma and defenses of those closest to them. The resulting chemistry, if allowed to continue without intervention, may consistently generate conditions or events that fail to meet the child’s needs in a balance, constantly reinforce fundamental traumas and crystallize defense mechanisms. It is through this process that defenses become deeply ingrained and are passed on in families and societies generationally. The specific dynamics of these reinforcing defensive interactions are discussed in great detail throughout the various books by Harville Hendrix based on his Imago model.
Two General Defensive PatternsHendrix’s work, especially Keeping the Love You Find, also explains in detail the process by which particular responses to unmet needs that wound us at specific developmental stages lead to one of two general archetypal defensive personality styles depending on which types of parts or subselves come to dominate.
- Minimizers – Some respond to trauma and the resulting inability to meet particular needs through repression or suppression of those parts that embody the awareness of those needs. As controlling parts that IFS calls “managers” come to dominate the system, they exile vulnerable parts, condemning them to carry the burden of the unmet needs, while enabling the individual to consciously deny and block out awareness of the existence of those needs. This is an adaptation that allows the person to cope with the pain of an unmet need – for instance, trust, autonomy or intimacy – by unconsciously convincing oneself and acting as if one never had that need at all. Hendrix calls those that develop this extremely rigid mode of coping “Minimizers” as their psyche attempts to draw inward and minimize the amount of energy that would otherwise be expended in awareness of and external attempts to meet their unmet needs.
- Maximizers – Others respond to trauma and the resulting inability to meet needs by becoming increasingly obsessive and desperate in their zealous attempts to get those needs met. This may occur as the particular exiled part burdened by that unmet need takes control of the system, lashing out in its extreme immature, childish state. Alternatively, it can occur as parts that IFS calls “firefighters” drive one to impulsive actions in what may seem to be an attempt to meet crucial needs, but may actually be an addictive attempt to repress awareness of the true exiled needs while focusing the system on other, currently less important needs. Hendrix calls those that develop this mode of coping “Maximizers” as their psyche maximizes the amount of energy exploded outward in response to the unmet needs.
Some people experience aspects of both main defensive styles depending on the situation or relationship in which they find themselves. Regardless the combination of styles displayed by a particular person in the wake of trauma, the short-term survival benefits come at the price of personality fragmentation and the emergence of a “false self,” held together by a toxic mesh of conscious and unconscious fear, shame and guilt, that may ultimately damage the individual’s ability to sustainably achieve authenticity and health.
Types of Individual Psychological Defense Mechanisms
They include, but are not limited to:
- Denial – The refusal to accept or acknowledge an uncomfortable aspect of reality. Denial may be a surface result of deeper defense mechanisms such as suppression, repression or dissociation.
- Projection – Attributing to others traits, qualities and motivations that actually belong to oneself, but which one cannot accept as part of him or herself (in other words the lost self or Shadow). Projection plays an enormous role in relationships of all types, in disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as well as in the demonization of various groups or nations by others. It is discussed brilliantly and in great depth in The Projection Principle by George Weinberg.
- Repression – The unconscious banishment of uncomfortable facts, impulses or memories from conscious awareness. Repression can occur whenever a part of our psyche is exiled by other parts without our knowledge.
- Suppression – The conscious banishment of uncomfortable facts, impulses or memories from conscious awareness. Suppression occurs when we make a decision to avoid thinking about aspects of reality we find distressing, often by choosing to focus elsewhere. Thus, though we do not lose the ability to consciously reconnect with it, we temporarily choose to ignore the voice of a part (or parts) of us.
- Fantasy – Focus on or belief in a more comfortable, though currently inaccurate, view of reality in order to cope with distress. Fantasy may result from the dominance of imbalanced, extreme parts that have hijacked a fragmented psyche and strongly thrust their desired ideas into the forefront of consciousness, blocking out the more realistic, but undesirable views of other parts.
- Regression – Psychologically reverting to an earlier, more immature state of functioning. Regression may occur when troubling circumstances trigger extreme parts, whose development has been stunted, to take control of the psychological system. It is especially likely when exiles or inner child parts are triggered.
- Displacement – The redirection of emotions unconsciously associated with a particular person, object or situation onto another person, object or situation. This may occur when it is felt to be unacceptable or dangerous to direct the feelings at their true, initial target. Displacement may play a role in important defensive phenomena such as scapegoating.
- Intellectualization – Dealing with a challenging situation by focusing only on its intellectual or cognitive components, while avoiding experiencing its emotional components. This is common in systems dominated by highly controlling manager parts that fear the unknown situations that may arise if emotions, with their sometimes unpredictable nature, are allowed into awareness.
- Rationalization – Belief in or promotion of a particular, sometimes specious, logical justification for the purpose of avoiding direct confrontation with a distressing reality. This mechanism is crucial in the process of convincing ourselves and others of the wisdom of allowing control by our extreme parts or extreme parts in the dysfunctional hierarchical systems in which we live.
- Reaction Formation – The replacement of unacceptable thoughts or feelings with their opposites. This can occur when, in response to particular psychological parts, other parts, which are polarized with them, assert themselves in an attempt to wrest power from their opponents. This defense occurs commonly within unhealthy human systems as certain parts demonize the very values that, under the sway of other less visible parts, are actually strongly pursued.
- Sublimation – The channeling of energy away from unacceptable and toward more acceptable activities. This process may serve as a compromise, whereby the energy of a particular part is allowed to be experienced, but is not used to fulfill the specific need that the part values.
- Compensation – Channeling energies into particular areas in order to avoid awareness or exhibition of perceived deficiencies in other areas. This defense can develop in a vicious cycle as certain psychological parts dominate, come to view other parts as comparatively deficient, wish to avoid association with them, and thus assert themselves all the more strongly, further increasing the system’s level of imbalance.
- Dissociation – Disconnection of conscious awareness from reality in order to remain unconscious of disturbing events, circumstances or memories. This is especially common in the face of trauma, as psychological parts often move to protect the Self by compartmentalizing and exiling experiences and memories deemed likely to overwhelm its coping abilities.
Classifications of Individual Psychological Defense Mechanisms
Individual Presentations and Disorders Emerging from Underlying Defense Mechanisms
If the defenses become solid and pervasive enough, they can come to constitute a fundamental structural dysfunction of the personality that we know as a personality disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, hinges so tightly on a set of rigid, immature defense mechanisms that Otto Kernberg identified a set of defenses he called “borderline defense mechanisms” that are central to this particular type of personality organization.
Many other behavioral patterns such as codependence or other relationship dysfunctions and addictions also tie into and stem from various defensive personality arrangements.
Whether situational or more constant, Schema Therapy identifies defensive patterns that play out repetitively and surround key wounds as “Lifetraps”. These Lifetraps may occur as a result of the repetition compulsion, in which we seek to revisit past traumas in our current lives, possibly in an attempt to master them in a way that eluded us in earlier life.
Different psychological and psychiatric schools of thought offer widely ranging approaches to treating this diverse array of dysfunctional behavioral patterns, and they vary in the extent to which they address the deeper root traumas that underlie them. Some schools focus on reducing the superficial symptoms of the disorders, while others seek to resolve their traumatic leverage point wounds and unmet needs, which often remain unconscious and buried behind layers of fear, shame and guilt.
Defense Mechanisms and Relationships
Defense Mechanisms in Interpersonal RelationshipsDefense mechanisms play an enormous role in determining the participants in and the nature of interpersonal relationships. To a great extent, they dictate both who we relate with and how we relate to them. In a healthy relationship, people connect true self to true self, with an interplay between reasonably flexible protective boundaries and with a high degree of consciousness about their past development and wounds. However, when people maintain a high level of defensiveness and remain relatively unconscious of these defenses, various combinations of polarized power struggles, enmeshment, codependence and push-pull dynamics, such as those typical of the relationship between the Borderline and the Non or the addictive relationship, can ensue.
Defense Mechanisms in Intimate RelationshipsWhile defense mechanisms can exert these effects in relationships of all types, they play an especially powerful role in our intimate relationships. As we engage with our caregivers, lovers or children, the repetition compulsion may drive us to project our lost selves onto each other and engage in ways that resurface the wounds and defensive patterns of our upbringing and socialization. The clash between our minimizing and maximizing defensive styles can escalate into power struggles, as we defend against each others’ defenses, without conscious awareness of how our underlying traumas, unmet needs and misguided strategies are fueling the illusion of present threat.
These dynamics are the focus of Imago Relationship Therapy. Their impact on singles as they seek a long-term partner is explained in Keeping the Love You Find. Their impact within committed couples is explored in Getting the Love You Want. And their impact in the parent-child relationship is described in Giving the Love That Heals. From these dynamics on the most fundamental human system levels emerge the relationship patterns that hold in our higher level human systems.
Defense Mechanisms in Higher Level Human Systems
IFS explains well how defenses on these higher level human systems develop, as well as how they affect those systems embedded within them. If the system is healthy, it provides a sustaining environment in which its subsystems can develop into maturity. However, if the system is unhealthy, it constrains the development of its subsystems, leading to the emergence of imbalances, polarizations, poor leadership and various defense mechanisms that may parallel, mirror or complement those of the higher level system. At all of these levels, one may observe analogs of the various defense mechanisms seen on the individual level.
Defense Mechanisms on the Family LevelA family system, in response to trauma within the family or dysfunction in the community, culture or nation in which it is embedded, may respond in ways similar to a traumatized individual. Particular family members may come to dominate in extreme ways, while others are exiled. Members may become polarized and take on various burdens in the system. Those in the best position to compassionately lead the family may renege on their responsibilities or lose the trust of the rest of the family.
As a result, the family may exhibit defense mechanisms ranging from denial of dysfunctional patterns to projection in which they blame and scapegoat others in the community for shortcomings that are actually their own. As the chemistry plays out between the defenses of various members of the family, as well as between the family and others in the community, these patterns may be reinforced and passed down through the generations.
Defense Mechanisms on the Community LevelA community may experience similar dysfunctional relationships between the various families and interest groups that comprise it. Particular families may take on an extreme amount of influence while others are exiled. A community, just like a family, can display denial, projection and other defense mechanisms. And communities, also like families, can pass these defenses down through generations as they take on a particular consistent defensive style.
Defense Mechanisms on the National LevelAn entire nation can similarly develop dysfunctional relationships between the ethnic groups, interest groups or regional populations that comprise it. We have seen many times how particular members of a nation – often literally called extremists – can take on extreme roles characterized by undue power within the country, while other members are exiled or oppressed. This pattern has been evident in many countries throughout history, for example in the United States during the Native American genocide or slavery and in dictatorships such as Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.
In these situations, many defense mechanisms were used to dehumanize the victimized groups as the horrors originally took place. Furthermore, in many cases, even decades or centuries later, denial and other mechanisms are still evident in how these nations and others view these events. Often the groups burdened by these traumas continue to be exiled, their stories minimized or drowned out as they are relegated to a national version of a lost self or Shadow. Just as with an individual, nations are especially vulnerable to such patterns when needs go unmet. For instance, the unmet need for respect in Germany preceding Hitler’s rise is often cited as priming the environment for what followed. Similarly, we often see populations with basic needs unmet in areas that breed what we call terrorists.
Like individuals or families, nations can take on particular general defensive “personality” styles. Some nations are known for a more impulsive Maximizer-like character, while others, in the vein of the Minimizer, tend to be more rigid and tightly controlled. Families and communities embedded in these nations may be affected by these defensive styles.
Defense Mechanisms on the Cultural LevelDefenses may also take shape within a culture that transcends national boundaries, whether that culture be based on an ethnic background, a religion or a way of life. For instance, in Ishmael and his other work, Daniel Quinn distinguishes between two main cultures that make up humanity in our era. One culture, which he calls the “Takers”, includes nearly all of modern industrial society, spanning many nations. In contrast with the “Leavers” which include those living in more traditional ways that most of us would consider primitive, “Takers” attempt to impose a high level of control over the natural world. While this style of the “Takers” has, in the short run, allowed them to survive and dominate the rest of the community of life, including the relatively exiled “Leavers,” it has also generated unhealthy and unsustainable systemic arrangements similar to those discussed at the other levels of human systems.
As Quinn and others such as Derrick Jensen have documented, this “Taker” way of life is characterized by widespread defenses and pervaded by fear, shame and guilt regarding many of the most natural aspects of human life. Quinn describes how “Mother Culture,” a pervasive mixture of institutional and media-embedded sources, conveys the values and priorities of the culture to its members. Children, especially, are susceptible to mirroring or rebelling against these larger cultural traditions and taboos, just as they do in response to the praising or devaluing messages originating within their families. Thus, their personality structure may be shaped not only by the immediate family, but by the larger process of socialization. Through these interconnected influences, defense mechanisms may be passed down through entire cultures and countercultures.
Defense Mechanisms on the International LevelDefense mechanisms may arise within the global community as various nations, which comprise its parts, relate to each other. In today’s world, clear imbalances exist as nations are explicitly divided into First World nations that dominate the impoverished, and often exploited, Third World nations. We also see fear-based polarizations between various nations, often lasting decades or even centuries. In the wake of this arrangement, we commonly observe defense mechanisms ranging from denial to suppression to rationalization to projection on the part of entire nations or groups of nations.
How the Normalization of Defense Mechanism Generates Epidemics of Dysfunction
Given a system full of people acting out of a false self, unconscious of the underlying trauma in themselves, others and their institutions, and with such misguided individuals often taking up influential leadership positions, the impact of defense mechanisms can grow exponentially. Ultimately, the entire system can take on a minimizing or maximizing style or, at times, alternate between these extremes. And, until it reintegrates its lost self, exiles or Shadow, it cannot become whole.
This is the process by which human systems develop epidemics of dysfunctional emotional states and behaviors. It is the source of widespread Borderline and Narcissistic Personality Disorder in our culture. It is the reason that codependence and other unhealthy relationship patterns are so common as to often be confused with healthy love. It is how we are able to rationalize imbalances that relegate some to Third World conditions while others live in luxury. It is how we have lost sight of the balance between humanity and the rest of the community of life. It is how we have become a culture of fear, shame and guilt.
Indeed, many of our culture’s most destructive aspects result from people behaving out of defense mechanisms, meeting falsely perceived needs, meeting needs out of balance, pursuing misguided strategies to meet needs, and lashing out or withdrawing in lieu of recognizing and healing core traumatic wounds. While it may not seem obvious on the surface that larger social and global issues relate to these basic traumas and defenses, if you look deeply, you will find that denial, projection, rationalization and other common defense mechanisms are involved in the formation, discussion and commonly held view of most of the great issues of our day. These inaccurate methods of processing information keep our culture as a whole from accurately perceiving needs in balance and generate a variety of disorders and conditions that culminate in an unhealthy, unsustainable way of life.
How Defense Mechanisms Help Explain Irrational or Self-Destructive Behavior
This deeper understanding of many otherwise senseless behaviors rests on the internalization of several concepts.
- Various subselves in the multiplicity of mind value and prioritize different needs.
- These different values and priorities may throw needs into conflict, polarizing various parts, and driving the individual to act in internally inconsistent or confused ways. This explains why a person may exhibit contradictory behaviors at different times or freeze entirely, unable to make a decision.
- While a particular goal may seem like a wise resolution from the viewpoint of one of our psychic parts, this same goal may appear equally undesirable and unwise to another part. This explains, for instance, why the fragmented Borderline Personality Disorder individual will desperately seek the intimacy certain parts of them desire, and then, as soon as their partner shares that intimacy, run from the relationship, driven by the desperate need for autonomy prioritized by others of their parts.
- Wounded individuals experience, sometimes accurately, the necessity to remain unconscious of certain traumas and of their Shadow in order to preserve a level of stability. In order to maintain the illusion of self-respect and the integrity of the false self they have come to depend on, they may similarly need to remain unaware of their responsibility for the impact of past hurtful or destructive actions or non-actions that their defenses have driven them to commit or omit, about which they would otherwise feel deeply ashamed or guilty. While ultimate resolution will eventually require consciousness and healing of such wounds, reintegration of exiled parts, and acceptance of responsibility, some may, either temporarily or indefinitely, lack the strength and support to undergo this process.
Many irrational behaviors are carried out, often unbeknownst to the individual, for no other reason than to distract from these otherwise threatening awarenesses. In such a situation, attempting to make logical sense of the content of what is, in reality, simply a distractive measure will prove fruitless. It purpose is not in its content but in its role, sometimes played all the better due to its inexplicable, even random, nature.
- When parts of the psyche have been frozen in development at some point in the past or have taken on extreme roles due to trauma or other constraints, an individual may, when such a part is triggered by current events, regress and act out of the maturity level of that particular stunted or extreme part. This explains why a person may react to a particular event in ways that seem out of proportion or even unrelated to present reality. Indeed, as the frozen or extreme part is triggered, the person truly is perceiving the world through the lens of past threats and traumas and is not fully responding to the reality of present events. They are instead projecting that immature part’s experience onto the current event or person with whom they are engaged, while selectively filtering everything that might contradict that association.
This process is a crucial part of the mechanism of prejudice of all sorts. It is also why, for example, a previous abuse victim may lash out violently or cower in terror at the slightest perceived sign of threat, such as a raised voice or a simple disagreement. In doing so, they may take on a distinctly different character, whimpering in the voice of a child or attacking in a fierce manner highly unrepresentative of their usual personality.
- The repetition compulsion dictates that people may, at times, not only have to meet needs, but meet them in specific situations or with particular people that exhibit characteristics similar to those present during the original depriving trauma. This mechanism alone explains a great deal of counterintuitive, seemingly self-destructive behavior. It plays an especially powerful role in the formation of intimate relationships.
While there is no doubt that some potentially self-destructive behavior is indeed simply misguided, aimed at meeting the falsely perceived needs of extreme parts, there may be occasions in which that risk is necessary in the service of full resolution of past wounds. Despite the poetic quality of the repetition compulsion, we may wish to have evolved a simpler, more straightforward method of undoing trauma and untangling defenses. However, in some cases, it seems that we have not.
- The fear, shame and guilt that underlie defense mechanisms produce many paradoxes and vicious cycles. Among the most powerful are those related to the fact that as we begin to break through our defenses, an ultimately healthy step in most cases, we may begin to resurface these deeply unpleasant emotions that can generate a strong resistance to continuing the process. In other words, while some might expect steps toward wholeness to be rewarded by pleasure, this is not necessarily the case in the short run. After all, if regaining wholeness was a completely pleasant undertaking, most of us would have already consistently pursued it in earnest.
Just as mothers experience great pain in the joyous process of giving birth, and children may experience the pain of falling down as they learn to walk, we may experience great pains and withdrawal periods in the process of rebirthing and reintegrating our wounded, exiled Shadow. Yet, just as in the case of the mother and the child, these unpleasant emotions do not necessarily mean that we should halt our journey. Overcoming the resistance that they generate is simply a necessary part of what is, in the long run, a deeply worthwhile process. For some, however, the conflict between the drive to reconnect with buried parts of the self and the drive to avoid the unpleasant experiences that almost inevitably accompany that process, can continue for a lifetime, leading to seemingly inexplicable alternations and swings of behavior over time.
Al’s reason for promoting the concept is that approaching situations with this nonjudgmental, radically-accepting mindset provides the best opportunity to genuinely connect with ourselves and others in order to ultimately heal the trauma and defenses that we would most likely only paradoxically trigger and reinforce by taking a more judgmental approach.
Recognizing, Responding to and Healing Defense Mechanisms
Thus, few tasks are more important than addressing and diminishing the unhealthy defense mechanisms in ourselves, others and our institutions. Doing so calls on us to promote trauma recovery and healing through accessing underlying wounds, recovering the lost Self or Shadow, retrieving and unburdening exiled parts of human systems, and restoring a healthy structure that allows a balanced meeting of needs. This, in turn, requires us to improve our ability to recognize when we are acting out of defenses and respond appropriately, to recognize when others are doing so and communicate effectively while protecting ourselves as necessary, and to put in place policies, structures and leaders that can do the same at higher human systems levels.
As we gain insight into and understanding of our own defense mechanisms and those of the systems of which we are part, we gain a measure of compassion for the superficially different, but operationally similar, defense mechanisms of others. We come to see that, at times, almost all of us act in irrational or destructive ways because we have almost all developed in severely constraining, wounding environments by evolutionary standards. With that understanding, we can develop and apply more effective methods of healing and communication to address the epidemic of trauma and defense mechanisms that plagues our way of life.
The Catch-22’s and Paradoxes of Healing Defense MechanismsHealing the defense mechanisms of human systems is as challenging as it is important. For it is a process rife with catch-22’s and paradoxes. To understand why, we must look to our evolutionary history. Humans evolved in a well-tested tribal social structure and environment very different from the one we live in today. In this Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA), for which we remain fundamentally designed despite our very different current surroundings, traumas certainly occurred. But the traumas may have been, in some ways, different from those faced today, as was the support system on which we could rely as we processed them.
Apparently, during this long history in this tribal setting, in response to the traumas prevalent in that age, humans evolved coping mechanisms in which various elements are rendered unconscious in order to survive. But, whereas these mechanisms seem to have evolved to take place automatically, no such automatic mechanism seems to have evolved to reverse the process when the defenses later become unnecessary. It may be that, given the extremely tight-knit support, attachment-based parenting style, and fully adaptive overall setting, people in the EEA did not experience the same initial level of deep psychic wounding that takes place in our current environment. It may be that, in tribal society, cultural rites played a now mostly defunct role in reintegrating previously exiled aspects of the personality. For whatever reasons, likely at least partially due to the maladaptation - as with so many aspects of our design - of our trauma and defense systems to our current way of life, this once effective response pattern has engendered an often destructive cycle.
At the heart of the catch-22’s involved in healing defense mechanisms is the existence and nature of the unconscious, which, by at times protecting us from awareness, both helps us survive immediately and threatens our long-term health and sustainability. The role of the unconscious, while crucial in preserving any hope for lasting wholeness in the face of clear and present danger, ultimately and paradoxically thwarts our aspirations for regaining wholeness in a number of ways.
First, the very purpose of many of our defense mechanisms, such as denial and projection, involves rendering us unconscious of the wounds that originally necessitated them, especially when circumstances threaten to open a window to those wounds. Thus, they keep us in the dark as to where the leverage points for their own healing lie and often kick in, sapping our strength to face them, just when our greatest opportunities to address them arise.
Second, these defenses also render us unconscious of their own existence. Thus, not only may we be unable to recognize the wounds that underlie our defenses, but, even as we act under their control, we may nonetheless remain unaware that even the defenses themselves exist.
Third, our defenses can render us unconscious to the existence of defenses in others with whom we share our human systems. Instead, as someone else acts out of a defense mechanism, it may trigger our own defenses all the more, keeping us from realizing the presence of defenses on other levels of our environment. Our defenses, such as projection, may also lead us to confuse which defenses belong to others and which are truly emanating from within ourselves.
In short, defenses, through exiling aspects of us to unconsciousness, can markedly skew our perceptions about nearly everything, and most of all about the wounds and defenses of ourselves and others.
To make matters even more confusing, our defenses, even as they so drastically skew our perceptions can, in their desperation and rigidity, cause us to erroneously feel more confident of their accuracy. As Paul Graham explains in "Lies We Tell Kids", his article about the consequences of a culture in which we commonly lie to children – a source of potential emotional trauma affecting their needs for trust and clarity – one of our biggest problems is that:
“...one of the symptoms of bad judgment is believing you have good judgment.”William Butler Yeats similarly lamented in “The Second Coming”:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”Or, to put it in the more aggressive words of Bertrand Russell:
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”However we say it, the fact is that, due to the unconscious and the role of defense mechanisms, we may end up pursuing poorly prioritized needs using misguided strategies, all the while believing strongly that we are on a wise and healthy course.
Moreover, it is not only those acting overtly destructive or negligent whose defenses can mislead them. The epistemological labyrinth created by the unconscious is so winding that even those most actively involved in attempting to heal the resulting epidemics are not immune to getting lost. In a perfect example of the type of counter-intuitiveness and unintended consequences studied by Systems Thinking, often those activists working most diligently to address our culture’s symptoms of trauma may act ineffectively or even worsen the situation due to their own blind spots. They may unwittingly act out of rebellion, rather than authenticity, going beyond just relating to social issues to projecting their own personal wounds and defenses onto social issues, unconsciously attempting to meet their own needs through an illusory focus on the needs of others, and adopting misguided strategies (or failing to address strategy at all). While their consciously stated goals may be healthy, their defense-driven approach is likely to generate polarization and quite unhealthy outcomes. It is in part because of such scenarios that altruism itself is sometimes listed as a defense mechanism.
In addition, mental health professionals – those expected to be best trained to effectively intervene in the web of defense mechanisms – may also fall victim to the dangers of the unconscious. Despite even the highest degree of intellectual knowledge, a therapist, coach or other guide who has not significantly resolved their own traumas and defenses may be unconsciously triggered by a client’s defense mechanisms (a dynamic known as counter-transference) and seek to meet their own needs by projecting them onto the client relationship. In fact, the unconscious desire to play out such a scenario drives many wounded people into the field of mental health in the first place. While those who can relate and empathize from firsthand experience with the wounded often make the best healers, it is crucial that they first work through their own unconscious traumas in order to avoid inappropriately and ineffectively hijacking the process and failing to responsibly manage their counter-transference.
In order to address and heal defense mechanisms amidst this tangle of unconscious catch-22’s and paradoxes, we must aim to become extremely conscious. Perhaps future species will evolve an automatic mechanism by which to undo deeply entrenched defense mechanisms once they are no longer necessary and are doing more harm than good. But, for now, since there appears to be no such inherent mechanism, save for our instinctive response to an unforeseeable and unexpected crisis, it usually falls upon us to do it by conscious choice.
Recognizing and Gaining Insight Into Your Own Defense MechanismsSo what can we do once we’ve made this conscious choice to begin unraveling our defenses? There are several suggestions that may help us take the next steps, all of them revolving around the theme of becoming extremely and wisely attentive to the sometimes subtle and often deceptive signs of an otherwise unconscious trauma and defense complex.
- Temporarily Detach from Strong Emotional Experiences – One of the main goals of Buddhist meditation is to practice detaching from our transitory thoughts and feelings and experiencing that aspect of ourselves, separate from any of these fleeting mental states, that is able to simply observe them. This subtle maneuver does not involve suppressing or blocking out the experiences, but rather simply noticing and watching them occur without becoming attached to them. As we do so, we become more and more aware that these temporary states are not who we are, that our identity is something deeper and more fundamental than any of them. This principle, and the skill of detachment, are central to recognizing, understanding and working with defense mechanisms in ourselves and others.
In Internal Family Systems, the analogous skill requires what Schwartz calls separating our Self from our parts. This can be challenging when our parts are involved in a strong emotional experience and wish to dominate our psychological system. However, with practice – and, when necessary, with the help of a trained professional - we can learn to detach from these parts and identify more and more often with our Self. From this position in our Self, we can more accurately view and interpret the messages of our psychological parts and the emotional experiences that they generate. This skill, along with techniques for improving it, is described in more detail in Internal Family Systems Therapy.
- Define and Name the Feelings and Needs Involved in Strong Emotional Experiences – Strong feelings are indicators that ask for our attention, requesting us to focus on them and begin to untangle their sometimes hidden message for us regarding needs that are going met or unmet. When I coach a client on personal issues, we always start by simply discussing and defining whatever strong feelings and energies they are experiencing. We focus on and clearly state, in specific words, their emotional experience and attempt to locate the need or needs to which that experience is tied.
When you feel a strong emotion, take the time to stop, detach, and look closely at it. Name it. Is it an unpleasant emotion like anxiety or frustration? Is it a very pleasant feeling like excitement or joy? What need state is it expressing? Is it telling you that your need for security is met or that your need for intimacy is unmet? Use the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s list of feelings and needs to help you determine the exact feeling that you’re experiencing and the need or needs that it is related to.
- Identify and Investigate the Inner Images, Sounds and Sensations Underlying Your Emotional Experience – Often our emotional experiences are accompanied by vivid mental images or scenes, sounds that may include a voice saying things to us in our minds or bodily sensations such as butterflies in our stomach or a burning sensation in our veins. Stop, detach and focus on what is actually occurring inside you as you experience this strong emotional state. Do you see a scene from your past or an imaginary vision of a future experience? Is a voice saying something in your mind? Whose voice is it? Is it yours or someone else’s? How does your body feel? Have you experienced this image, sound or sensation before? If so when? Asking questions of these sorts can serve as a bridge to connect you to the deeper psychological layers and meaning of your current experience.
- Identify and Contact the Psychological Part(s) from Which the Experience Originates – The various parts of our psyche identified by the Internal Family Systems model “speak” to us through a variety of means. A part may thrust an image into our minds. It may “make” our stomach churn. It may speak more literally, saying something in our voice or another person’s voice. Some of these messages come from healthy parts aiming to direct us toward wise strategies to get our needs met. Others come from wounded extreme parts whose messages must be acknowledged, but responded to wisely within the context of their role in our larger psychological system and their currently defensive nature.
As you experience a strong emotional state, look inward and see if you can identify a part or parts of you from which the experience is originating. Can you see the part? What type of person does it look like? Is it you today or at some other age? Is it someone you know? Is it more of a symbolic character rather than a particular real person? Some experiences stem from moderate, relatively healthy parts of us. Rigid, angry experiences often stem from a stern, businesslike “manager” part. Hurt, wounded experiences often originate from a vulnerable childlike part. Impulsive driven experiences often originate from a manic “firefighter” part. If you cannot visually see the part, even after practicing and several attempts, then see if you can at least imagine what type of part it may be or just sense its presence.
Once you can, in some form, identify a part, step back from it a bit in your mind and speak to it. Literally ask the part why it is making you experience these feelings. What needs is it trying to focus your attention on? What does it fear would happen if it did not do this? Listen for its response. Try to identify whether this part is connected with or responding to any other parts. Is this part an extreme part or a healthy part?
This process of identifying, speaking with and beginning to work with the messages from and arrangements of various types of parts is the heart of the methodology of Internal Family Systems Therapy. I strongly recommend you become familiar with that field’s techniques or find a therapist trained in them that can help you learn to better undertake these valuable steps in the process of becoming familiar with the fundamental sources of your defense mechanisms.
- Refrain From Judging Emotional Experiences Based on Their Pleasant or Unpleasant Quality – It is important, as we first begin to identify our feelings and needs, that we avoid the temptation to quickly judge and respond to our experiences based solely on pleasure or pain. Just because a feeling is pleasant or a need met doesn’t necessarily indicate a healthy situation that we would be wise to pursue more of. Addicts may feel wonderful at the peak of their high, for example. The need of one of their parts for stimulation may be met. But that part may be an extreme firefighter part whose need is being met at the expense of the other, more important, unmet needs of parts that are being blocked out. Similarly, unpleasant emotions are not necessarily signs of dysfunctional conditions to be avoided. For instance, a very healthy exercise routine may involve some temporary pain during the process, as comforts are momentarily set aside in the service of building capacities to better meet needs in the future.
Until we understand clearly the state of specific needs being communicated to us by our feelings, which of our parts the message is originating from, and how its state relates to the overall state of our needs, we cannot assess the messages of our feelings, regardless of their pleasant or unpleasant natures. Many of us have developed in environments that twist and exploit our feelings and needs for various ends, often suppressing or shaming authentic pleasure, rewarding dysfunction and praising the value of sometimes unhealthy suffering. Thus, deciphering the messages of our present feelings and needs can be quite tricky and we would be wise to reserve judgment about their meanings. Initially, practice observing both pleasant and unpleasant feelings with an understanding that neither is necessarily better or worse than the other and that either one, at times, can direct us toward health or toward dysfunction.
- Maintain a Constructive, Non-Judgmental Mindset Regarding Your Emotional Experiences - It is important that we radically accept, in a pragmatic, non-judgmental fashion, our current state of needs and feelings – both pleasant and unpleasant - as our required starting point toward future development. While some parts of us may feel shame as we begin to face wounded, imperfect parts of ourselves and their legacy in our lives and relationships, it is important that we not be ashamed of our shame. While we may feel hopeful about the potentially healthier future toward which we are about to embark, it is important that we not become deluded by our hope. Healing is a long journey. Identifying the current state of our feelings and needs is done not in the service of praising or condemning ourselves, but simply as the first step of a constructive, gradual process of moving toward optimal health in the future. As we improve at detaching from our parts and identifying with our wise compassionate Self, maintaining this constructive mindset becomes more and more habitual.
- Especially and Carefully Consider the Roles of Fear, Shame, Guilt and Anger – It is especially important to look at the emotions of fear, shame, guilt and anger, which often play a fundamental role in our deepest defense mechanisms. Because these emotions may be deeply unpleasant and intimately linked to unconscious traumas, they may be difficult to access, lurking beneath layers of other feelings. Furthermore, these feelings, even more than some others, may superficially send messages that seek to mislead us, rather than wisely inform us.
Often, for instance, we are ashamed of aspects of ourselves based on faulty perceptions developed due to our upbringing or socialization. We may perceive a threat that angers us where none actually exists or unknowingly project our anger from one situation onto another one. Abuse of all sorts can lead to fear and guilt that is ultimately unwarranted and does not serve our best interests. Be on the lookout for these feelings, which play a powerful role in defense mechanisms, and can reconnect us with important healthy and extreme parts of ourselves, but reserve judgment as to their true meaning until further investigation from a healthier position in your Self.
- Consider That Imbalanced or Out of Proportion Feelings May Represent the Past More than the Present - When we are able to notice that our emotional reaction is out of balance with our other emotions or out of proportion to the real situation taking place, we can recognize that there is a good chance that an extreme part of us is viewing the present through the lens of a past trauma. As is said in the field of Inner Child Healing, “When it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” In these situations, we may at first only realize that something deeper must be at play without yet knowing exactly what it is. We may require tools like those discussed later to unravel the various layers of wounds and trauma that underlie these surface overreactions and find the root leverage points for change. In the meantime, consider that the present target of your feelings may be the victim of an illusion that you will later come to see more clearly.
- Investigate Your Hot Buttons – Look for patterns in the situations and people that trigger you. Are there particular people that always get under your skin? Are there places that you become overly excited to visit? Do you get scared in a very similar way in certain situations? What is the common theme in these situations? What do the people, places or situations have in common that consistently lead to a strong feeling? When have you experienced similar triggers in the past, perhaps even as a child? What needs are going met or unmet in those situations? Which parts of you are responding to these triggers?
It is often said that self-awareness and insight can begin by looking closely at what you love, what you hate and what you fear. Study the situations that push your buttons from a detached position and follow your responses to their deeper causes and origins. At the very least, remain aware that there may be an unconscious underlying cause for your strong reaction that may become more conscious over time.
While in some cases it is wisest to listen to our feelings directly, avoiding unpleasant situations and seeking out pleasant ones, we must also realize that sometimes it is not the present situation, but our own internal button, linked to past traumas, that is generating our energy. In such cases, it may be optimal to surface and address the feelings linked to that button, rather than hastily leave or indulge in the current triggering situation, so that we become less vulnerable to emotional hijacking in those situations in the future. A prototypical example of this is treating a phobia. Rather than continuing to avoid the thing we fear, it may be advisable to gradually expose ourselves to the feared situation and begin to work on our underlying mechanisms so that the situation loses its ability to scare us. This process of exposing ourselves to the situations that access our defense mechanisms in order to open a window for healing is central to the purpose of the repetition compulsion.
- Pay Special Attention to Your Responses in Relationships – Relationships offer us a unique opportunity to access and observe our defense mechanisms. As we’ve discussed, relationships play a powerful role in every facet of the creation and display of defense mechanisms. Triggers and patterns are constantly surfaced as people push each other’s pleasant and unpleasant buttons and awaken various parallel or polarizing parts of each other. Some needs, such as intimacy, are relational in nature, and thus certain feelings connected to them may come up almost exclusively within relationships.
Notice carefully who attracts you and who repels you, who inspires you and who drives you up the wall. What qualities do these individuals embody to you? What needs do they have met that you do not? What needs do they have unmet that you have met? Look for patterns in these responses and begin to investigate their deeper roots in your upbringing, past relationships and current circumstances.
- Notice Conspicuously Missing Energies and Emotional States – If there are particular emotions you rarely or never feel, or only feel very weakly, this may point to a defense mechanism involving the exiling of certain psychological parts. For instance, some people are very submissive and rarely feel or express anger. They may even have come to believe anger is unacceptable. This would make us question where their anger went and how their angry parts came to be buried. Others rarely feel joy or pleasure, perhaps because they grew up in a situation where pleasure was shamed. Others find themselves uncomfortable with tender or intimate feelings, perhaps due to wounds suffered in past intimate situations.
Wholeness involves access to all parts of us and, usually, to all of our feeling states. Consistently underrepresented feelings can be an indicator of underlying defense mechanisms or trauma. Look at the CNVC list of feelings. Are there any that you rarely ever experience? Why might that be?
- Look for Unmet and Conflicting Needs – While it may seem more natural to follow our feelings to their sources in order to identify the state of our needs, it is also possible to directly consider which of our needs are met, unmet or in conflict with each other by using inventories like the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s Needs List. Unmet and conflicting needs lie at the heart of trauma and defense mechanisms, so it is possible, if we can directly identify such needs and begin to address them, to begin to heal our defense mechanisms even if we have not fully unraveled their many layers yet. As we further meet our needs, those layers will become apparent to us in the process. We will start to notice how our perceptions and reactions to people and situations change in the wake of meeting our needs and reducing our inner conflicts. Once you have a healthy relationship, you may experience less envy of someone else that does. When your need for recognition is met, you may feel more compassion and understanding toward others that seek recognition who you used to despise out of projection when you yourself desperately sought it.
Go over the various categories of needs, considering each specific need. How well is each met in your life? Which do you find yourself meeting at the expense of others? Are there any from which you are so cut off that you have lost sight of even having that need? Which parts of you care strongly about particular needs? What can you do to meet all of these needs more fully in your life?
Because it is very challenging to question our own assumptions in this way, a number of fields exist which help us take a proactive, systematic approach to examining our feelings and needs and gaining consciousness of their roots. Such guided processes can help us learn to separate from our parts, identify with our Self, gain access to our exiled parts and identify our extreme parts by asking questions of us that we might otherwise not think to ask or might shy away from asking. Some of these fields, which can help us unravel the underlying messages of our emotional experiences, find windows through which to heal our defense mechanisms, and recover aspects of ourselves, are examined later in this article.
Wisely Considering Others’ Feedback Regarding Our Defense MechanismsAs humans, we are both made up of parts and parts of a bigger whole. As mentioned, some of our needs, and the feelings related to them, can only be surfaced within relationships. In fact, as Imago Relationship Therapy informs us, some may only surface in certain relationships with very particular types of people. We should watch carefully for signs of our own defense mechanisms within our relationships.
However, it is the nature of the unconscious that we may often remain blind to certain of our patterns until they are brought to our attention by others. A friend, family member, colleague or lover may awaken us to a pattern that they find bothersome or unhealthy in how we behave in their presence. Or they may bring to our attention some aspect of reality that they believe we are misperceiving and to which we are inappropriately responding.
This is not to say that we should take their view of us as unquestionable truth. People may misperceive us or project their own defense mechanisms onto us. They may be unconscious of their own buttons, identified with their own extreme parts and blame us for feelings that actually stem from their own unresolved issues. We can’t take their views at face value even when the person speaks from a position of power or authority. In a dysfunctional culture, those with strong defenses compatible with the culture’s own defenses may rise to positions of status, while those who understand and speak the undesired truth that threatens those defenses may be socially exiled and scapegoated. Moreover, even if multiple people notice a pattern that troubles them in a particular person, given the consistency with which certain defense mechanisms spread through the culture, it is still possible that the majority are incorrect, as we have seen many times throughout history.
Therefore, it can be very difficult to know when others are seeing us more accurately than we are seeing ourselves. Learning when to believe others and when to trust ourselves is one of our greatest challenges in life. It lies at the heart of many issues of epistemology: How do we know what is true when people have different perceptions? How do we know whether one person’s view is more accurate while another is more blinded by their defense mechanisms? How do we know if both people are misperceiving?
Despite such potential confusion, we should at least give serious consideration to the fact that the other person may be accurately perceiving one of our blind spots. They may be seeing a pattern in us that we ourselves have misperceived or failed to notice. Their insight may help us take an immediate step toward greater health. It also may guide us to recognize a lens within us that is skewing our perception in general, a structural configuration that, when optimized, can improve our ability to more accurately understand reality.
Recognizing and Responding to Others’ Defense MechanismsJust as our defense mechanisms may impact and be recognized by others, so may we be impacted by and recognize theirs. Using many of the same principles discussed above, we may begin to notice defensive patterns in our friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers and colleagues. In doing so, we can become more effective in relating with them, can serve as catalysts in their own processes of increasing awareness and regaining wholeness, and can protect ourselves, when necessary, from those extreme aspects of them that may threaten our health.
When interacting with another person, especially when strong or unique emotional states arise between you, try applying the same mindset that you may apply when such states arise within you, among your own personality parts. Temporarily detach from any parts of you that are being triggered. Consider the specific feeling that the person may be currently experiencing. Think about what need that feeling may be linked to. Ask yourself from what type of part of them – their Self, a healthy part, an extreme manager, firefighter or exile – is this energy originating?
Try to remain non-judgmental, simply observing and attempting to understand their responses from a compassionate position in your Self. If the person is reacting in a way that seems out of proportion to the current circumstance, consider that something in their life or in this relationship may be triggering parts of them linked to past trauma. Is their current reaction or the current energy in the relationship typical of a repeating pattern? Are there particular issues or situations that continuously usher in such experiences and energies between you?
Whereas in the past, this person’s defense mechanisms may have triggered your own, leading to a vicious cycle of extreme parts clashing, once you start take this more mindful approach to understanding their experience – just as you remain mindful of your own - you are then presented with several more effective choices in responding to this person.
- Compassionately and Effectively Bring Your Concerns to Their Attention - Just as we may sometimes require the input of others to become conscious of our own potential defense mechanisms, others may, at times, benefit from our input. If you feel that it is appropriate or worthwhile to do so, you may inform this person of the concerning dynamics that you are observing in the relationship. While this may not always seem comfortable, using some of the communication techniques described later in this article may help you convey this information in a non-threatening, compassionate manner.
Ideally, the person will prove open to our observations and show a desire to discuss or heal the patterns that we have brought to their attention. Perhaps they have noticed such a pattern themselves or have heard it mentioned before by others. Perhaps, after having it made conscious, it rings true to their own experience, though they hadn’t clearly noticed it before. Or perhaps they trust in us and, therefore, our opinion alone is enough to encourage them to more deeply study the pattern.
- Play an Active Role in Their Healing Process - In any of these cases, we can then, if we choose, additionally help them heal their defenses and improve authentic connection to self and others, in a variety of ways. These range from simply offering more ongoing feedback to referring them to resources regarding various tools and techniques designed to heal defense mechanisms to actively engaging in various communication and relationship processes with them.
- Use Our Newfound Awareness to Better Cope With the Relationship As It Is - We may choose to simply stay in the relationship and cope with the situation as it is, however now with the benefit of a clearer recognition of its dynamics, of its possible link to the other person’s past traumas and with a more realistic assessment of its likelihood of changing. In this case, our own greater understanding of defense mechanisms may help us manage any feelings of hurt or guilt that we experience, stemming from what may actually be projections of the other person’s past traumas and relationships onto us, rather than responses based on realistic perceptions of our behavior. In this case, we also may still be able to use the relationship as a constructive catalyst in our own healing, practicing detachment and addressing extreme parts of ourselves surfaced by the relationship’s triggers, even if the other person refuses to join us in doing so.
- End Contact With the Person - When it is necessary for our safety or health and possible to do so, we may, given our newfound awareness, choose to end our direct active involvement in the relationship. In doing so, we can optimally protect ourselves and instead invest our energy in seeking and engaging in healthier, more nurturing relationships with those who are either less defensive or more willing to consider and work through their defenses with us. In addition, our leaving the relationship can sometimes spur the other person’s awareness of the severity of their defenses in a way that no other communication or act on our part could. While we shouldn’t leave a relationship expecting that to happen, it does sometimes occur as a byproduct of our setting an example by choosing to treat ourselves compassionately, removing ourselves from what may be an abusive situation and redirecting our energies toward mutually supportive relationships.
Challenging relationships can offer some of our most powerful growth opportunities. We shouldn’t end relationships lightly, even when they prove difficult, especially because, as we shall see, we must ultimately, at some level, engage with the defense mechanisms most prevalent in our environment. But when we have strongly considered all of our options, applied optimally effective strategies, and still determined that the relationship is highly unlikely to become a healthier one, it is then reasonable to remove ourselves from the situation.
Finally, while a great deal of healing can be achieved through employing effective techniques within our personal relationships, there are many cases where the more objective mediation and guidance of a healthy third-party can prove invaluable. Therefore, when others in our lives prove open to the process of addressing possible defense mechanisms, we may refer them to – or join them in enlisting – the services of a therapist, coach or other guide who can help untangle the defensive patterns surfaced within the relationship.
The Inescapable Need for Recognizing and Addressing Defense Mechanisms in Higher Level Human SystemsEach of the principles, discussed above, that apply to recognizing individual defense mechanisms also applies to recognizing defense mechanisms in our families, communities, cultures, societies and nations. We can notice hot buttons in our systems, like race and class issues in many societies. We can notice emotions that seem out of balance, like the extreme materialism or paranoia in some nations. We can notice emotions that seem underrepresented, such as a near total lack of anger or excitement expressed within some cultures. We can notice triggers surfaced within relationships, such as the fears escalated among nations involved in the Cold War or the “War on Terror”. We can examine the unmet needs of a society, such as the poverty rampant in many systems that breed what we call terrorists. We can often do all of these things more easily when we have a chance to detach and step outside our familiar system, whether through travel or through discussion with someone from another culture or country. On all levels of human systems, we can find analogies to the suggestions for recognizing personal defense mechanisms and, when we apply them, they can lead us to a greater awareness of the defensive structures in which we live.
It is worth noting that while often we may be able to simply end our direct involvement in dysfunctional personal or family relationships, and in some cases can leave particular communities or even countries whose structures we find detrimental, at the highest levels of human systems, we cannot escape from facing the impact of defense mechanisms. Many of us cannot, for a variety of reasons, choose to leave our families. Many of the nations that are most repressive of balanced human systems severely restrict emigration. And, ultimately, we all share the planet and are impacted by each other in countless direct and indirect ways – environmentally, financially, culturally - regardless of where on it we live.
Thus, as humans, all of us are, on some or all human systems levels, impacted inescapably by defense mechanisms. Despite the common desire to structure our personal lives in a fashion that allows us to avoid the challenge of healing defensive relationships, globalization, among other forces, is making clearer than ever that any such attempts to insulate ourselves will likely come at our, or our children or grandchildrens’, peril.
Thoughts on The Journey of Healing Defense MechanismsComing to recognize the possible existence of a defense mechanism is only the beginning of a long journey. When we find an out-of-proportion feeling or a hot button or a severely unmet need, it is like finding the opening of a rabbit hole, the tip of an iceberg or the single exposed strand of a complex hidden spider-web. As we consider the feelings and needs more deeply, and begin to make changes on the basis of our newfound knowledge, we are likely to come upon other related defense mechanisms, perhaps forming a complex, and, eventually, a trauma that has cut off parts of us.
Our goal, then, is to travel down the rabbit hole, discover the bulk of the iceberg or unravel the spider web. Becoming more whole again is a process of working through layers of defense mechanisms to access and heal our traumas, reintegrate the exiled and denied parts of ourselves, and restore our ability to meet needs in the service of sustainable health. This may require a long, consistent process of open-minded, increasingly honed inquiry. For an individual, it may take many years or even a lifetime. For a culture or a nation, it may take centuries.
Taking this journey requires courage. On one hand, we have a drive for wholeness, known as centroversion, which motivates us, despite the challenges, to look beyond the perceived safety of our defense mechanisms, heal our traumas and reintegrate our personalities. Yet, on the other hand, our mistrustful extreme parts are just as driven to maintain the status quo and deeply fear change.
This is why Abraham Maslow said:
"One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again."Choosing growth over fear requires us to simultaneously build confidence in ourselves while increasing our openness to questioning our perceptions and judgment. This can be a delicate balance. We must paradoxically face fear, shame and guilt despite any fear, shame and guilt about doing so. We must believe in ourselves without arrogance. We must take a pragmatic, constructive approach, accepting where we are at as we begin working for a healthier future.
Luckily, there are a number of resources available that can help us on this challenging, but deeply rewarding, journey.
Fields Offering Knowledge and Specific Tools for Addressing and Healing Defense Mechanisms
These fields – or at least the relevant aspects of them - are, for the most part, remarkably compatible and display a tremendous amount of overlap. Some offer a more comprehensive approach to trauma and defenses, while others shed light on particular aspects of these dynamics in particular settings. While they may use different terminology or frame their exercises in different styles, the aspects of these fields that I discuss here address very similar underlying goals. A gradual, integrative internalization of these fields provides a deep understanding of defense mechanisms and an intuitive grasp of how to address them.
Internal Family Systems (IFS) – The Internal Family Systems model, created by Richard C. Schwartz, explicitly applies Systems Thinking to human systems. It offers the most comprehensive and precise explanation of how defense mechanisms arise, configure themselves, and can be healed within human systems on all levels. It details and provides terminology for understanding specifically how trauma and constraining environments force parts of the psyche or system into extreme roles, generating polarization, imbalances and misguided or absent leadership of the system. It provides specific approaches for working directly with human systems on multiple levels to retrieve and unburden exiled parts cut off from the system or frozen in the past, return parts to healthier roles, and restore wise compassionate leadership by an individual’s Self (the crucial state it calls Self-Leadership) or by the optimal parts of the system. Furthermore, it explains, with its concept of parallelism, how defense mechanisms, as well as harmony and balance, are transmitted in interactions between human systems at various levels and between people in their relationships.
- Imago Relationship Therapy – As discussed, relationships are central in causing traumas and defense mechanisms, surfacing them and in optimally healing them. While these facts are true of all relationships, internal and external, they are especially true of intimate relationships with our caregivers, lovers, spouses and children. Harville Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Therapy details the mechanisms by which such relationships perpetuate the development of defense mechanisms and how we can use these relationships instead to heal those structures.
Hendrix’s work explains precisely how unhealthy interactions with our caregivers leave us with archetypal wounds, encoded in the primitive emotional regions of our brains, that disconnect us from aspects of our life energy. In Keeping the Love You Find, he provides an especially detailed map of how wounds and coping responses at specific developmental stages generate particular components of our defensive structures. In both Keeping the Love You Find and Getting the Love You Want, he explains how these defenses then greatly influence our repeated attraction to romantic partners characterized by an intoxicating mix of the attributes and shortcomings of our caregivers. It is these partners, he explains, on whom we can most easily project our unmet needs and who, despite their current inability to do so, seem to hold out the promise of meeting them. Hendrix also describes the developmental phases of these relationships and how, as we become increasingly disappointed in our partner’s inability to fulfill the promise of meeting our deep unmet needs, a power struggle ensues, surfacing otherwise inaccessible unresolved unconscious aspects of us and offering the opportunity for them to be addressed.
Especially in Giving the Love that Heals, Hendrix explains how we repeat these patterns yet again in our interactions with our own children as we project our unmet needs onto them and our defense mechanisms are often triggered as we experience them undergoing developmental stages corresponding to those in which we ourselves were wounded.
In addition to explaining the formative process and triggering of defense mechanisms, Imago promotes a rather beautiful symmetry in which the very purpose of intimate relationships is to offer, through the resolution of the repetition compulsion, the opportunity to dissolve our extreme defense mechanisms and prevent our partners and children from having to continue these vicious cycles. A very constructive field, it provides methods and principles relevant to all relationships with which we can harness the power struggles in these relationships in the service of mutually healing, and regaining our wholeness and full aliveness. These specific exercises, tools and techniques blend insight-based and behavioral approaches that help us create a conscious relationship, in which we are aware of the defense mechanisms and past traumas underlying present triggering responses, and begin to re-access exiled parts of ourselves as we respond non-defensively to these situations. In doing so, we provide leverage for each other as we help heal our partners’ wounds and defenses and, in keeping with the principle of parallelism described by IFS, reconfigure our own defensive structures simultaneously beyond what we could achieve on our own.
Throughout his work, Hendrix communicates an understanding of the role of higher level human systems in creating and benefiting from the resolution of defense mechanisms. He discusses the impact of our cultural environment in the creation of our wounds during socialization and writes about the emergent benefits to communities and the world as a whole of such healing, focused at the family level, which prevents the vicious cycle of generational perpetuation of defense mechanisms.
Inner Child Healing – This field offers systematic methods by which to identify the original sources, in each stage of development, of our current defense mechanisms, and exercises for resolving those dynamics. Using techniques including visualization and letter writing, we are aided in recalling and revisiting the scenes symbolic of our past traumas and, in imagination, meeting the previously unmet needs of the child we were at those times. In doing so, we strengthen the connection between our adult and child selves, build greater trust in the leadership of our adult self, and gain compassion for the vulnerable child parts in others. Inner Child Healing is a process focused on working with what Internal Family Systems identifies as our exiles. It is, in comparison with IFS, a simpler, but far less comprehensive, approach to reconnecting with our most vulnerable parts.
Transactional Analysis (TA) – Whereas Inner Child Healing identifies a variety of child parts and an adult self, and IFS specifies a multitude of various types of parts in conjunction with a Self designed for optimally leading our psyche, TA falls somewhere in between. Its P-A-C framework claims that each of our psyches is comprised of three main areas, a parent, adult and child part. Defense mechanisms, in TA’s model, stem from an imbalance in which the parent or child parts dominate the system, overriding the wise and mature leadership of the adult part. This is analogous to IFS’ concept of abdicated leadership by the Self. TA teaches how to communicate with these various parts in order to restore leadership to the adult, leading to healthier, more constructive behavior.
Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) – How are defense mechanisms actually experienced at the most fundamental level? When our buttons are pressed, most of us either feel a bodily sensation, hear a voice in our heads or see particular images. We may, at times, also have a taste or smell sensation triggered, though these are less common for most. NLP helps us work with defense mechanisms in ourselves, and communicate with others who may be triggered, at this most basic level of experience. Using its tools, we can directly speak to and work with the images, sounds and sensations that comprise the very anatomy of our defense mechanisms and the language of inner human experience. Such principles, though not always recognized in those fields as tenets of NLP, are fundamental to other techniques listed here including IFS, Inner Child Healing and Transactional Analysis.
Jungian Psychology – The psychological knowledge and methods based on the work of Carl Jung relate in various ways to the issue of defense mechanisms. Jung’s identification of various psychic archetypes was one of the models of multiplicity of mind that presaged Schwartz’s model put forth in IFS. In examining the balance and interactions between these various archetypes, Jungian psychologists may address extremes within the personality makeup that underlie defense mechanisms. In its focus on personality types, which allows comparison between a person’s true and expressed personality, a Jungian mindset can help us uncover inauthenticities that may relate to defense mechanisms. And, perhaps most importantly, Jungian psychology revolves around Shadow Work – the practice of reintegrating the disowned, unconscious, or buried aspects of the self. Such work is analogous to the reintegration of parts sought in IFS and the recapturing of the lost self that takes place in an Imago relationship.
In Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, Erich Neumann, a protégé of Carl Jung (who provides the book’s foreword), describes the serious implications of reintegrating the Shadow for human systems and the world at large.
- Buddhism – While a religion, some of the less mystical aspects of certain branches of Buddhism may qualify as personal development technologies. And many of these Buddhist technologies, especially certain modes of meditation and mindfulness practice, focus on practicing detached observation and what may be seen as gradually dissolving defense mechanisms. Buddhists see our attachment to the illusion of the ego as the source of many, if not all, of our defense mechanisms. Therefore, they work to peel away layers of delusion, toward the end of shattering this central illusion of identity and resolving the defensive structures that skew our perception of the true nature of ourselves and others. Through this work, Buddhism aims to help one develop inner peace and compassion and respect for other living beings.
Emotional Intelligence (EI) – Emotional Intelligence is a field popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman. It helps explain how many of our most difficult personal, interpersonal and social challenges originate in the conflict between the more primitive emotional regions (limbic system, amygdala) and the more recently evolved, rational area (cortex) of our brains. It goes on to offer methods for assessing and improving our skills in handling emotional states as they arise in ourselves and others, as well as insight on how to help our children grow up with a greater capacity for these abilities. The management of the rational/emotional conflict, which lies at the center of EI’s focus, directly contributes to an understanding of and proficiency in responding to defense mechanisms in our lives.
- Personality Disorder or Pervasive Personality Configuration Treatments – There are a number of approaches – some more effective than others - used in the mental health field to treat those with personality disorders or other personality structures that, while dysfunctional, may not quite meet the criteria for a full blown personality disorder. These approaches may range from cognitive to behavioral to biologically-based. What they all have in common is that, at some level, they must resolve deeply entrenched defense mechanisms if they are to be successful. Two of the most interesting and effective such therapies are Schema Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy.
- Schema Therapy identifies a series of archetypal defensive structures, which it calls Lifetraps, each representing submission to or rebellion against certain developmental wounds. It then offers a blend of cognitive and behavioral strategies, incorporating elements of Inner Child Healing, to begin to loosen the grip of the defenses.
- Dialectical Behavioral Therapy focuses on reducing the tendency for polarization and dichotomizing in certain defensive personalities and takes a practical approach to improving relationship abilities and developing greater emotional awareness, insight, and management skills.
- Schema Therapy identifies a series of archetypal defensive structures, which it calls Lifetraps, each representing submission to or rebellion against certain developmental wounds. It then offers a blend of cognitive and behavioral strategies, incorporating elements of Inner Child Healing, to begin to loosen the grip of the defenses.
- Conflict Resolution Techniques – As mentioned, defense mechanisms on all levels of human systems often stem from conflict between the needs of different parts of the systems. Luckily, scholars and practitioners from a variety of disciplines have contributed to our body of knowledge regarding successful methods for mediating between and resolving polarization among such conflicting systemic parts. The resulting tools and techniques are designed specifically for purposes relevant to the dissolution of defense mechanisms and are applicable in settings ranging from interpersonal relationships to international diplomacy. Many of these methods involve particular communication techniques, such as those discussed below, and rest on principles centered around the discovery of third hand solutions or win-win solutions that transcend the dichotomous thinking of the conflicting parties and attempt to meet as many of their needs as possible while addressing and easing their fears.
- Communication Techniques – If relationships lie at the heart of defense mechanisms and communication is the flow of information within a relationship, it follows that communication skills are among the most important in resolving defense mechanisms. There are a number of related fields and models of communication that provide specific methods of communicating that can help defuse conflicts and fears and build connection, the crucial activities required to heal defenses within ourselves, with others or within human systems. These techniques help us apply principles central to all successful negotiation and diplomacy. They teach us how to avoid unnecessary triggering of defenses, how to optimally convey sensitive messages when defense-laden issues must be addressed, how to respond as non-defensively as possible when our own buttons are pressed and how to proactively meet needs and reach solutions that transcend conflicts.
Among these techniques are:
Nonviolent Communication (NVC) – This field, created by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, was developed specifically out of Rosenberg’s desire to understand how communication contributes to conflict, and how it can be used to defuse that conflict. Rosenberg sees defense mechanisms as misguided strategies - developed in response to our surrounding dysfunctional, power-based culture - for meeting our human needs. NVC’s focus on our fundamental human feelings and needs helps us put into words our most profound experiences, find common ground on which to build win-win solutions and discover healthier strategies to meet our needs. More than just a communication technique, NVC is both a “language of connection” and a paradigm of human motivation and relationships.
- Intentional Dialogue – One of the centerpieces of Imago Relationship Therapy, Intentional Dialogue combines open, emotional communication with a three-step active listening process designed to reduce defensiveness and build connection. Originally developed for use between couples in intimate relationships, it is applicable in a wide range of settings.
- SET – The SET model – Support, Empathy and Truth – is a simple, three-step method designed by Jerold J. Kreisman, author of I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me, for more effective communication with those with Borderline Personality Disorder, an archetypal disorder of defense mechanisms in our culture. The model’s principles, however, are relevant to communications of all types in which defense mechanisms are involved and help us recognize the importance of creating safety and appreciation before launching into challenging content.
- Nonviolent Communication (NVC) – This field, created by psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, was developed specifically out of Rosenberg’s desire to understand how communication contributes to conflict, and how it can be used to defuse that conflict. Rosenberg sees defense mechanisms as misguided strategies - developed in response to our surrounding dysfunctional, power-based culture - for meeting our human needs. NVC’s focus on our fundamental human feelings and needs helps us put into words our most profound experiences, find common ground on which to build win-win solutions and discover healthier strategies to meet our needs. More than just a communication technique, NVC is both a “language of connection” and a paradigm of human motivation and relationships.
Finally, while the tools and techniques specified above may seem more clearly applicable to the individual or family levels, nearly all of them have implications for the community, social, cultural, national and global levels, as well. Furthermore, many of them can be applied directly on those higher human systems levels through our public communications, social institutions and political apparatus.
Supportive Relationships and Environments for Healing Defense Mechanisms
A tight-knit, lifelong family support system – the tribe – was once the birthright of all humans. This relatively small, egalitarian structure, along with the rites and customs of many traditional cultures, offered unique opportunities for harnessing mirroring and parallelism to prevent, process and heal certain traumas and defense mechanisms. Unfortunately, in too many settings today, we lack such a support system. We can, to some extent, heal our defense mechanisms alone, through the use of tools like those discussed above. However, since the development of healthy relationships on various levels is key to reducing the destructive impact of defense mechanisms, we can often benefit from seeking out support in our healing process.
This support can, to some extent, come from close friends and family. Imago Relationship Therapy, after all, specifically involves mutually healing with intimate loved ones. However, whatever our defensive condition, whether we are using the tools of Imago or another approach, we may benefit from enlisting the services of a trained therapist, coach or guide or participating in relevant support groups to gain valuable insight and build healthy connections that can assist us in the process.
Much of our defensive structure and the trauma that underlies it may remain unconscious to us. Working with others can provide a more objective outside view, help us identify otherwise elusive patterns and provide support and safety as we courageously face down our fears, experience long-repressed challenging emotions, and follow our defenses to their core. Professionals familiar with effective techniques like those discussed above can help guide us in their application until we become more and more expert at leading from our own Self. Support groups can provide, to a certain extent, a modern analogy to the tribal framework in which to gain and offer insight, practice relationship skills and give to and receive validation from those with shared experiences. Being hardwired by evolution for life in a tribal arrangement, it is fascinating to notice how many, in our current hierarchical culture, continue to seek out support groups and other such organizations in an attempt to regain some of the intimacy and security of that most basic of human social structures.
Many therapists, coaches and other guides enter the mental health field as a way of avoiding doing their own inner work. Thus, in selecting such a professional, it is important to choose one who has greatly resolved his or her own defense mechanisms and is deeply conscious of any remaining unresolved defense mechanisms or unmet needs within themselves. This will diminish the impact of counter-transference, making it more likely that the person can stay in Self, practice healthy boundaries, adequately mirror you and model healthy relationship, rather than projecting their own defenses onto you and inappropriately attempting to meet their own needs through the work.
In choosing a support group, while obviously many members will be attending precisely because their defense mechanisms still remain intact, it is important to seek an organization whose rules and meeting structure ensure healthy boundaries and safety.
Of course, while we can choose to surround ourselves with healthy guides and support groups, we are often also embedded in human systems not fully of our choice. Our families of origin, our co-workers, our neighbors, even our media outlets, for instance, provide a constant stream of interaction that may, through mirroring and parallelism, impact our personality structure, either fostering healing or re-traumatizing us and triggering our defense mechanisms. As we heal, we become more able to remain in Self, despite any unhealthy external triggers. However, if the environment and people around us are polarized and imbalanced too extremely, it can be challenging for any of us to remain in harmony and balance ourselves. While we cannot all choose to leave all of the unhealthily impacting systems of which we are a part, and while there may be few bastions of fully healthy functioning under the canopy of our highly imbalanced dysfunctional modern culture, we can, at least, seek out a more optimal environment that will prove more sustaining, rather than constraining, of our journey to heal our defense mechanisms.
All of these benefits of supportive environments apply at the higher levels of human systems, as well. A family may heal defense mechanisms more easily with support from other families in community groups or through family therapy. A community may heal more easily by becoming politically active and working to improve its physical and cultural environment. Nations may heal more effectively by working on global issues as part of an international community, through organizations such as the United Nations, rather than in isolation.
The Impact of a Healed Individual or Human System
Similarly, a family, community, culture, society or nation that has healed its defense mechanisms can enormously impact the people within it and the human systems around it.
It takes a great deal of courage, as well as understanding and know-how, to start down the road to facing and healing our defense mechanisms. But the potential rewards for risking the journey are enormous for ourselves, our loved ones, others around us and for future generations. In the end, we stand to gain our authentic selves and a life with our most important needs met. And we, our families, communities, and nations stand to become an example and a beacon of genuine hope for others.
OTHER RESOURCES RELATED TO DEFENSE MECHANISMS
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