A man out walking one night finds his neighbor on hands and knees under a street lamp. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “I lost my house key,” moans the neighbor. So he gets down beside the neighbor and together they search the street, without success. Finally the man asks, “Where were you when you lost the key?” “In the house,” the neighbor replies. “In the house? Then why are we searching for it out here?” “Oh, it’s light out here,” replies the neighbor. “It’s dark in the house.”
The defense called denial is about avoiding dark places. It means refusing to acknowledge an unpleasant reality we’re afraid could overwhelm us.
Denial is the most common defense mechanism because it underlies so many of the others. Suppression and repression deny the existence of troublesome feelings; intellectualization tries to bypass feelings altogether; projection denies our inability to know the unknowable, and so on.
Like other defenses, denial can be adaptive or maladaptive. Some of it — like denying the inevitability of our own death, or the risks of driving highways or eating in restaurants — is essential to daily functioning.
I think of this as small-d denial, as opposed to large-D denial, which is pathological.
Large-D denial is familiar to anyone who’s ever known an active alcoholic or drug addict, or grown up in a family with an addict at its emotional center.
Once I refused to get into the car, telling my Dad he was drunk and I wasn’t going anywhere with him. He hit me and shoved me in the car. My mother cried and told me never to criticize my father’s drinking again. How could I spoil such a nice family outing?
This is the famous elephant-in-the-living-room syndrome, where everyone in the family ignores something that’s painfully obvious to outsiders.
Another form is what AA calls stinking thinking, the denial-ridden thought process of alcoholics:
I’m a social drinker. I can stop whenever I like. It’s only one beer. I deserve to relax. If you were different I wouldn’t need to drink. Everyone’s against me. Life’s just too hard for me. Who cares? You have to die someday.
Control addiction, too, could not exist without denial, since it allows us to forget the mountain of prior experience reminding us how limited our ability to control reality is.
Control addicts, too, employ stinking thinking. It takes various forms, but behind them all is one dangerous (and often unconscious) assumption:
If I just try again, or harder, or longer, or differently, I can finally make things turn out the way I want them to.
Two other forms of denial that crop up in therapy are blaming and victimization.
Clients blame when they don’t want to take responsibility for problems. It’s the path of least resistance and greatest comfort. And given the normal vicissitudes of life and relationships there’s never a shortage of people, places or things to blame.
Dad was a drunk. Mom was depressed. My parents fought all the time. My brother was a bully. My sister never stopped complaining. Mom and Dad loved X best. We never had enough money. I was sick a lot. I grew up in a shitty neighborhood. My teachers didn’t like me. What chance did I have?
Victimization is a more unconscious and complicated form of blaming. It’s what happens when a person becomes defined by prior painful experiences.
Victims often start out denying that they’re victims. Sometimes their memories are too painful to bear, and sometimes they’ve been trained (e.g., by someone who abused them) to see themselves as responsible for whatever bad thing happened. The work with such victims is to help them enter the dark house and face the pain hidden there.
Other victims can’t get out of the house. They live in a kind of waking nightmare: the bad thing that happened to them doesn’t feel like it’s over and done with. They carry it around with them in their bodies and their mind, and it reshapes them the way the artist’s wire reshapes a bonsai tree. It colors their view of themselves, other people, life itself. For them there is no present or future, only a past that recurs endlessly.
The goal of therapy with these people to help them escape the dark house, redefine themselves as adults responsible for their lives, and develop the power to love, protect and take care of themselves.
No, I can’t read your mind.
No, I can’t predict the future.
No, that doesn’t stop me from trying.
Welcome to the wonderful world of projection.
The classic definition of projection is the unconscious misattribution of unwanted parts of the self onto others. This can apply to qualities, thoughts or feelings.
Say I think I’m fat. You and I meet for the first time. My first thought as we shake hands is I bet she thinks I’m fat. Projection.
Or say I really dislike you. It’s a short step from there to imagining that you dislike me. Projection.
I think of projection as amateur mindreading, because that’s how it tends to appear in therapy.
A group member who’s habitually late comes in fifteen minutes after group has started. She sits down, looks around at the other members and finds a woman who’s frowning. “Go ahead, say it” she blurts. “I’m late again. I’m selfish, I’m disruptive, you all hate me, and I should drop out of group. Say it.” “Actually,” the frowner replies, “I just realized I have to pee.”
Another common form of projection is fortunetelling. That’s where we project our thoughts – our fears, mainly – onto the future, and end up convinced that we know what’s going to happen. We know we’ll fail that test, blow the audition, lose the argument. We just know.
A young man with low self-esteem goes to ask his girlfriend’s father for permission to marry his daughter. Driving over he is tortured by fears that Dad will find him unsuitable and his request will be denied. By the time he reaches the house he’s begun resent this imagined rejection. He walks up to older man and said “Go to hell. I wouldn’t marry her if you paid me.” Projection.
The two examples above illustrate the sorts of problems projection can cause. Projection blurs our boundaries, to where we confuse an internal problem (anxiety) with an external one (actual judgment or rejection by others). Then we act as if they were one and the same. We end up reacting to something that hasn’t happened yet.
People who rely too heavily on their superpowers tend to live lives beset by imaginary enemies and crises, fighting unnecessary battles both in their heads and out in the world.
I’m six years old, and my father is a tall red-headed man with a deep voice who beats me with a belt every day.
Flash forward thirty years. Dad’s dead and gone, I’m fully grown, and I have a job interview. The interviewer is a tall red-headed man with a deep voice.
Guess how I feel when I first shake his hand?
Transference is what happens when one relationship feels like another. Freud, who discovered transference in his patients’ emotional responses to him, never called it a defense, though clearly its main function is defensive. It kicks in when the mind finds a danger signal in its vicinity, some red flag (like the interviewer’s red hair) that reminds it of some prior danger or trauma. In that moment the person reacts emotionally as if the old danger has returned.
Transference can be puzzling (Why do I hate this man I just met?), but it’s not inherently pathological. It becomes a problem only when it leads us into maladaptive thoughts, feeling or behavior (like punching redheaded interviewers in the mouth).
Transference comes up all the time in therapy, where clients commonly mistake therapists for their parents. Some analytic therapists define the goal of therapy as working through this transference, getting a patient to where he or she feels like an adult in the presence of this authority figure. In my work this means helping clients get to where they no longer feel the need to control my reactions, where they feel safe enough to relax and be fully themselves.
Another popular form of defensive mistaken identity is summarized in a old joke:
Dad’s boss yells at him. Dad comes home and yells at Mom. Mom yells at Big Sister. Big Sister yells at Little Brother. Little Brother kicks the dog. Dog pees on the rug.
This is displacement: the transfer of aggressive feelings from the person who hurt you to a safer target.
As a grad student I once interned at a day treatment program for patients who were severely mentally ill. On my first day my supervisor showed me around. When we walked into the cafeteria a young man stood up, overturned his table and tried to punch me. Later my supervisor explained that I resembled the father who’d raped the young man when he was five. How much of his reaction was transference, how much displacement? I don’t know. But it was clearly mistaken identity. I’m not who the young man really wanted to punch.
Finally, there’s a kind of displacement that occurs when the safer target we choose in ourselves.
In this case Dad doesn’t yell at Mom; instead he turns his anger against himself. He feels guilty, inadequate, depressed, even suicidal. Gestaltists call this mistaken identity retroflection – when you do to yourself what you want to do to someone else.
Retroflection is common among depressed clients, as well as those plagued by chronic anxiety or guilt. They often don’t believe me when I suggest it’s not really themselves they’re angry at. But once I get them to redirect some of their anger outward, the depression, anxiety and guilt begin to lift.