Defenses (or defense mechanisms, or ego defenses) are psychological processes meant to reduce anxiety.
Originally conceived by Freud as strategies employed by the mind to manage unacceptable impulses, defenses are automatic, unconscious, universal, and essentially inevitable.
To be human is to be defensive.
Our defenses get triggered when we face something painful or frightening, and they rely heavily on denial and distortion to make emotional life manageable.
What have defenses to do with control?
The idea of control itself – the idea that we can edit reality to our personal specifications and so avoid all emotional pain — is the mother of all defenses.
Real control is possible and appropriate sometimes. But we attempt it in so many situations where it’s clearly impossible or inappropriate that it’s hard not to see our controlling as rooted in denial, distortion and self-delusion.
Any defense can be functional or dysfunctional. It’s functional when it helps us to get our needs met, and dysfunctional when it distorts reality in ways that impair effective functioning. That’s why so many therapies try to help clients become more aware of the defenses they employ, and make better choices about which ones to utilize and which ones to minimize.
I do the same with my clients.
Hence the next five chapters, which describe the defenses that come up most often in therapy.
When I first opened my private practice I needed clients, so I went into local high schools to give talks about parenting.
Everyone’s favorite talk was titled “How to Parent Your Child Through Adolescence Without Committing Murder.” Each delivery generated new clients.
But most of them weren’t parents. They were teenagers, nervous and sullen, dropped off in my waiting room by Mom or Dad with a tag tied to their toe:
Fix my kid.
I jest. Well, partly.
Adolescence brings out the worst in many parents, for a reason which by now should be obvious: it challenges their sense of control.
Before this they could convince themselves they were in charge. Eat your broccoli, they’d say, and Junior complied. It’s late, come in now, and here comes Junior.
Or they could kiss the booboo and give Junior a hug and Junior would stop crying and hug them back. Problem solved.
Then Junior hits puberty and everything changes.
The kid starts acting strangely. Refuses your broccoli; won’t even touch your dinner. Comes home late, or not at all. Stops giggling at your jokes. Acts like you’re a moron. Rude, defiant, loud, silent, stubborn, irresponsible, self-centered and incredibly sloppy.
Mom’s baby has morphed into an Orc.
This predictable family crisis is called separation and individuation. It’s a psychological threshold kids need to cross. Once they do they start detaching from their parents, develop their own identity, express their own views and values, and start feeling and functioning like grownups.
All this is essential to healthy adult functioning. Without it, no matter how old or how big someone gets, inside they feel incomplete and childish.
But many parents misunderstand separation and individuation. Even those that do understand usually find it uncomfortable.
And to parents with control issues, it can feel like an earthquake.
Some misread this normal developmental stage as disrespect, disloyalty, rejection, parental incompetence, or a sign their kid no longer loves them.
Some misinterpret it as psychopathology. They start hunting for signs of substance abuse, or Googling bipolar disorder.
Some panic. Often these are people for whom parenting was the one part of life where they felt somewhat in command, could expect to be respected and admired, listened to and obeyed. To such parents a child’s defiant No can feel like being tossed into deep water without a life preserver.
Some react with hurt, anger, judgment or withdrawal.
Some try to regain control by imposing new rules, demands or punishments.
Some become emotionally or verbally abusive.
Some become violent.
Some fight with their spouses about it. Some get divorced.
Some get depressed, or develop anxiety disorders.
Some drink, drug or overeat.
And some enter therapy.
Where, if they’re lucky, they start to learn alternatives to monkeyparenting.