The most common defenses are suppression and repression.
The first is the conscious choice to conceal thoughts or feelings. Say you hurt me, I decide you’re an insensitive jerk, and I get angry. But I’m also scared that if you know this you’ll get mad and hurt me again. So I hide both my opinion and my anger from you.
Then again, say you’re an important person to me – say my parent, my spouse or my boss — and the idea of your hurting or rejecting me is seriously scary. I fear my thoughts and feelings may leak out accidentally. So I defend against that possibility by hiding them even from myself. I bury them in my unconscious, essentially forgetting what I think and feel.
For socialized humans, suppression and repression are the cost of doing business. There’s no other way to coexist with other humans than by interrupting our own feelings. (Imagine a world in which everyone expressed all their feelings all the time.)
So these are necessary, largely functional defenses. Carefully taught in both schools (No talking, people) and families (Be seen and not heard), they’re also valued and encouraged by society at large. Notice how many movie heroes and heroines are emotionally unexpressive – strong, silent, stoic, cool.
Which leads most of us to overlook how dangerous these defenses can be as well.
I’ve already described how chronically stuffing feelings damages us emotionally, causing anxiety, depression and addiction. But overdependence on suppression and repression also damages
~ Relationships. A healthy relationship is one which addresses and meets the emotional needs of both partners. That’s impossible the partners regularly hide how they really feel.
~ Communication. Couples unable to share feelings usually argue about the wrong things. Emotional messages get disguised as fights about money or relatives or parenting, when what the partners really need to ask are questions like Do you really love me? Do you accept me as I am? Can I trust you? Will you be here tomorrow?
~ Intimacy. Intimacy means being myself with you and allowing you to do the same with me. But being myself means being my feelings at least some of the time. I once knew a pair of bright, traumatized people so frightened of feelings they tried to achieve a purely intellectual intimacy, talking endlessly of theories and ideas. It sounded sad, like two computers trying to converse. We are more than our minds.
~ Parenting. One of the most important things kids learn from their parents is how to identify and express feelings. But parents who pretend they don’t have feelings produce kids who are essentially unprepared to handle adult life. Expecting such kids to succeed is like sending them out to travel the expressway without first teaching them how to drive.
~ Physical health. Feelings live in the body, so expressing them fully means expressing them physically. We’re wired to strike out when angry, flee when frightened, cry when sad. (Kids do all this naturally, which is why, until we start training them out of it, most kids are healthier than adults.) To interrupt these natural methods of purging our feelings requires that we tense the muscles we would use to express them. We do this unconsciously and chronically. Then we wonder why we’re always tired, or suffer chronic pain or tension in our neck, back, head or stomach. One of my clients was chief of family medicine at a local hospital, and I asked him what being a doctor had taught him about people. “That there’s no such thing as a purely physical illness,” he said. We suppress and repress our way into ill health.
~ Self-awareness. A surprising number of clients can’t answer simple questions about themselves. What do you like? What do you love? What do you want? Then again, not so surprising, given all of the above.
“No man can come to know himself,” Sidney Jourard writes, “except as an outcome of disclosing himself to another person.”*
*The Transparent Self (D. Van Nostrand, 1971).
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.