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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Feeling Defensive

Some recent clinical work at my day job has me thinking about defensiveness. Specifically, I've been considering the defenses of the ego, the cataloging of which began with the early Freudians... and the interpretation and categorizing of which continues today. Pop culture includes a fairly intuitive definition of defense mechanisms: self-protective thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that people exhibit when they are threatened by internal or external stimuli. Most people have heard of some of these and have an idea how they work. Some examples you've probably run across include projection, denial, and passive-aggression. Here's an illustrated example of another common defense: when Mary's boss tries to confront her about a chronic tardiness problem, Mary starts to indulge a vivid daydream about a guillotine decapitating that boss. The image allows Mary to avoid the brunt of the criticism, preoccupying her conscious mind with playful mayhem instead. After the supervision meeting is over, Mary has successfully avoided being challenged by her boss's feedback. Her ego (or self image) has been protected by virtue of the defense mechanism.

According to George Vaillant's classification of ego defenses, Mary is exhibiting the "fantasy" defense. It's classified in his second tier of defenses labeled "Immature". His other tiers are "Pathological", "Neurotic" and "Mature". Immature defenses like fantasy escape are considered developmentally typical of children. If Mary was a 4th grader, this behavior would be normal and expected. But if she's a 28 year old professional file clerk... this behavior signals an unhealthy defense tactic. It's unhealthy because it succeeded in protecting Mary, but at too high a cost. The cost was that she was unable to actually engage with the criticism or consider a change to her long-term behavior.

So, since most of us strive to improve our mental health, what are the healthy defenses? Vaillant's list of the "Mature" defenses includes:

Altruism - Achieving satisfaction by doing for others.
Anticipation - Wisely planning for future distress with self-care.
Humor - Laughing while confronting the absurdity and frustrating truths of life.
Identification and Introjection - Allying your self-image with that of another person or object.
Sublimation - Transforming negative thoughts/feelings into some positive activity or expression.
Thought Suppression - Consciously pushing a difficult thought "back down" so that it can be dealt with later.

How might Mary utilize these defenses instead of her violent escape fantasy? She might accept the tardiness criticism as valid but balance the blow to her ego with bolstering thoughts that she's a good person and will continue to do good works for others. She might have anticipated and prepared for the meeting with her boss, bracing herself for the impact of the criticism. She might try to find aspects of her shortcomings that she can laugh at, accepting the feedback as something she struggles with even if it seems ridiculous. She might soften the criticism by identifying with a respected coworker who is also often late, but admirable in other ways. She might deal with the feelings of shame at being called out by her boss by creating art, exercising, or putting extra energy into preparing a lavish dinner party for friends later that night. And instead of melting down in her boss's office, she might decide to suppress her emotional reactions until she's alone in her own office and it feels like a safe place to cry or vent.

These are all preferable, or more "mature" reactions, from a mental health therapist perspective... though they aren't terribly fun to talk about or laugh at. If I'm to look at myself, I think I have issues with a couple of Neurotic-tier defense mechanisms: Intellectualization and Rationalization. I think much of my own self-work involves trying to get over these old habits and to embrace some healthier options.

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