What is a psychological defence and what do we mean by the term defence? Well, a defence is something we do to avoid pain. For example, when you ride a bike you wear a helmet, or when you skate board you put on knee pads, and other protective equipment. This is to avoid injury, and thus pain. Psychological defences are exactly that, except they are avoiding internal, not external injuries. They are protective, and in a way deeply loving to us, as they develop as a way to avoid emotional injury. For example, if we grow up in an abusive home, facing the emotional turmoil this causes is too painful. And so we develop defences against emotion, that will help us survive the situation and hold onto whatever attachment relationship is on offer. These defences usually work in the beginning, but in later life cause serious problems in interpersonal relationships, and then cause symptoms, which then cause other symptoms, which are then diagnosed as a disorder. Often the disorder becomes the focus, but actually the true focus of therapy needs to be on these defences.
Different therapeutic modalities have different ways of dealing with defences. Some see them as maladaptive coping mechanisms. Some believe, they should be shown limited compassion and be moved aside so the individual can experience a relationship where the feelings underneath are witnessed, validated and accepted. Others, believe that these defences should be seen as saviours who came in to help the individual survive. That they are far from maladaptive, and instead were perfectly adaptive and worked really hard to spare the individual their emotional pain. I suppose, either way, in order for a therapist to help an individual heal it is necessary to remove or at least lessen harmful defences so the a person can finally be the person they actually are, rather than the person they became to avoid emotional injury and be accepted within their family unit. One mentor of mine, referred to all of us, as a tree covered in vines. The vines are our defences, and beneath the vines lies a beautiful tree waiting to be uncovered.
In order to give example of defences and how they impact on us, please see the below 3 examples:
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Tactical defences are unconscious things we do to ward off emotion. All of us do this, and many of you use them without even noticing. A day hardly goes by, when I do not point out to clients that they are smiling over their sadness, or laughing over their anger. Why do such a thing? It is obvious they are sad, or angry and yet unbeknownst to them an unconscious reaction occurs to lessen the impact of their sadness or anger by covering with a smile or a laugh. This also has the effect of making the person witnessing this buy into the fact what they are saying or feeling is not so emotionally impactful for them. In other words, the tactic of this defence is to keep me emotionally distant from them and thus away from their true feelings underneath. Why? Because we have all, from the moment we were born learned what emotions are acceptable and what are not. This has been so embedded in our society that we even have terms such as positive and negative emotion. In reality there is no such thing as a positive or negative emotion, emotions are just emotions and they don’t ask our permission when they bubble up, and they are our only compass to our internal world. The result of our societal and thus familial classification of emotion is that we smile or laugh over our sadness and anger, and the long term impact personally is a repression of our pain, and a proliferation of our suffering and the impact societally is a diffuse lack of empathy and a denial of what is beautiful in all of us — our humanity.
We all project. It is amazing when you realise this. We all place our thoughts in to other people’s heads and then treat those people as if they are the ones that own those thoughts. We often walk around the world relating to our projections rather than the people in front of us. I remember when I was just starting out as a therapist. I would go into every session, convinced that my clients knew how green and unskilled I was, and because of this I looked out for their every reaction that would confirm this. Sadly, this meant for a large part of my early years as a therapist, I was not relating to the person in front of me, but rather the critical person I projected on to them. In terms of more common examples, you don’t have to look further than social anxiety. In fact, it would probably be more apt to call social anxiety, projectionitis or something. When you are socially anxious, you place the thought you are bad, inferior, unlikeable into everyone’s else’s head and then treat the world around you as if they really believe this, which then leads to crippling anxiety and of course, avoidance. People who are socially anxious project their own beliefs onto others and are completely convinced people believe what they believe.
But why would we project, and why is it a defence? Well, one of our greatest skills as humans, is predicting our environment, but when we grow up in a hypercritical or unsafe environment, we learn this is how people treat us, and consequently it is not surprising people go on to believe that other people will treat them as they were treated. So, in effect projection is pre-emptive. They do the criticism for other people, so they do not suffer the pain of receipt unawares.
But it is not just thoughts and beliefs that are projected, also feelings can be projected. People who grew up in an environment where feelings were dangerous, often grow up to project their feelings onto others. Often this happens most commonly with anger or guilt. For example, having someone scream at you, you have an anger problem, whilst they are throwing things at you is not uncommon. Perhaps the most common projective feeling is guilt. Guilt could mean punishment, so it is often projected out into the victim. We do this on a mass scale to victims of sexual harassment, or assault, and we do this on a small scale when we say things like, well you shouldn’t have left it there, when we eat someone else’s chocolate! In therapy, we try and help people see what they are doing so they can live in reality and not fantasy and so they can feel safe owning their own feelings.
Psychodynamic therapists understand depression as turning anger inwards. When I first heard this, I thought it was fanciful. But then I began sitting with people who were depressed, and had to instantly reassess my doubts. These clients were so self-loathing, and so incredibly cruel to themselves. What could account for it? Why did they have these defences of self-attack and self-punishment? What use could it be? Patterns began to emerge when seeing these clients. Their self-attack or self-punishment would increase when someone had invalidated, disrespected, neglected or abused them. This did not make sense, someone treated them poorly and they then treated themselves even more poorly. Their ability to get righteously angry on their own behalf was non-existent unless it was self-directed. This is when it began to make sense. Often, these individuals would come from difficult upbringings, and in order to be safe or indeed secure the attachment relationship, they had to cover up that which could not be loved. In this case, it was their anger outward, and so they became adept at turning anger inwards. In essence it was their gift of love to their caregiver. They spared them their anger (and thus their guilt), and turned it on themselves. And then they learned to treat themselves as they were treated, and continued to do the same in every relationship in their life. Their anger was silent, and thus they never got their needs met, and turned all that rage inwards via self-attack thus protecting those they loved from their righteous anger. As a therapist, this is one of the hardest things to shift in a client, as it truly takes the individual to see what they are doing and chose to turn against this defence, so their righteous anger can be heard.
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There are so many defences and above I have only listed three. They give evidence to how complex people are, and also how these defences emerged adaptively from childhood, and thus are often enacted unconsciously, or procedurally, just like breathing, or walking. This comparison demonstrates how difficult they would be to shift. After all imagine having to learn to breath or walk differently! The real focus of therapy should not just be on symptoms but rather, the things that cause the symptoms and these are defences. By doing this, we have the best chance of uncovering the vines, and allowing the beautiful tree, that we always were, and still are, to be finally liberated.