and coping strategies
An occasional lie to support our egos might not be so bad. But lies breed lies: "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!" your grandmother may have told you. And as you continue lying, before you know it, you have gone so far from reality that you are faced with nothing but problems.
Freud talked about this at great length: The poor
("I") is surrounded by the often-conflicting demands of three powerful
entities: reality (the great undeniable), the
id (representing our
drives), and the superego (representing parental - i.e.
society's - demands). When all those pressures get to be too
much, the ego
like it's about to be washed away. We all too often feel like
about to lose control, go out of our minds, go crazy, die... This
The best way of dealing with anxiety is to solve the problems that
cause it. But if this is beyond you, you may have to block some
of the demands: Shut out reality, or pretend you don't have
needs, or ignore those feelings of shame or guilt.
One of the nicest ways of understand defenses is from the Swiss
existential psychologist Medard Boss: He considers defensiveness
as a matter of not illuminating some aspect of life, and
psychopathology analogous to living in darkness. Therapy, in
turn, involves re-lighting one's life - a process we might well call
The ego deals with the demands of reality, the id, and the superego
as best as it can. But when the anxiety becomes overwhelming, the ego
defend itself. It does so by unconsciously blocking the impulses or
them into a more acceptable, less threatening form. Freud called
techniques the ego defense mechanisms, and he, his daughter
Anna Freud (right),
and other disciples have discovered quite a few.
Denial involves blocking external events from awareness. If some situation is just too much to handle, the person just refuses to experience it. As you might imagine, this is a primitive and dangerous defense - no one disregards reality and gets away with it for long! It can operate by itself or, more commonly, in combination with other, more subtle mechanisms that support it.
I was once reading while my five year old daughter was watching a cartoon (The Smurfs, I think). She was, as was her habit, quite close to the television, when a commercial came on. Apparently, no-one at the television station was paying much attention, because this was a commercial for a horror movie, complete with bloody knife, hockey mask, and screams of terror. Now I wasn't able to save my child from this horror, so I did what any good psychologist father would do: I talked about it. I said to her "Boy, that was a scary commercial, wasn't it?" She said "Huh?" I said "That commercial...it sure was scary wasn't it?" She said "What commercial?" I said "The commercial that was just on, with the blood and the mask and the screaming...!" She had apparently shut out the whole thing.
Since then, I've noticed little kids sort of glazing over when
by things they'd rather not be confronted by. I've also seen people
at autopsies, people deny the reality of the death of a loved one, and
students fail to pick up their test results. That's denial.
Anna Freud also mentions denial in fantasy: This is
when children, in their imaginations, transform an "evil" father into a
loving teddy bear, or a helpless child into a powerful superhero.
Repression, which Anna Freud also called "motivated forgetting," is just that: not being able to recall a threatening situation, person, or event. This, too, is dangerous, and is a part of most other defenses.
As an adolescent, I developed a rather strong fear of spiders, especially long-legged ones. I didn't know where it came from, but it was starting to get rather embarrassing by the time I entered college. At college, a counselor helped me to get over it (with a technique called systematic desensitization), but I still had no idea where it came from. Years later, I had a dream, a particularly clear one, that involved getting locked up by my cousin in a shed behind my grandparents' house when I was very young. The shed was small, dark, and had a dirt floor covered with - you guessed it! - long-legged spiders.
The Freudian understanding of this phobia is pretty simple: I repressed a traumatic event - the shed incident - but seeing spiders aroused the anxiety of the event without arousing the memory.
Other examples abound. Anna Freud provides one that now strikes us as quaint: A young girl, guilty about her rather strong sexual desires, tends to forget her boy-friend's name, even when trying to introduce him to her relations! Or an alcoholic can't remember his suicide attempt, claiming he must have "blacked out." Or when someone almost drowns as a child, but can't remember the event even when people try to remind him - but he does have this fear of open water!
Note that, to be a true example of a defense, it should function unconsciously. My brother had a fear of dogs as a child, but there was no defense involved: He had been bitten by one, and wanted very badly never to repeat the experience! Usually, it is the irrational fears we call phobias that derive from repression of traumas.
Asceticism, or the renunciation of needs, is one most people haven't heard of, but it has become relevant again today with the emergence of the disorder called anorexia. Preadolescents, when they feel threatened by their emerging sexual desires, may unconsciously try to protect themselves by denying, not only their sexual desires, but all desires. They get involved in some kind of ascetic (monk-like) lifestyle wherein they renounce their interest in what other people enjoy.
In boys nowadays, there is a great deal of interest in the
of the martial arts. Fortunately, the martial arts not only don't hurt
you (much), they may actually help you. Unfortunately, girls in our
often develop a great deal of interest in attaining an excessively and
artificially thin standard of beauty. In Freudian theory, their denial
of their need for food is actually a cover for their denial of their
development. Our society conspires with them: After all, what most
consider a normal figure for a mature woman is in ours considered 20
Anna Freud also discusses a milder version of this called
of ego. Here, a person loses interest in some aspect of
and focuses it elsewhere, in order to avoid facing reality. A
young girl who has been rejected by the object of her affections may
turn away from feminine things and become a "sex-less
intellectual," or a boy who is afraid that he may be humiliated
on the football team may unaccountably become deeply interested in
Isolation (sometimes called intellectualization) involves stripping the emotion from a difficult memory or threatening impulse. A person may, in a very cavalier manner, acknowledge that they had been abused as a child, or may show a purely intellectual curiosity in their newly discovered sexual orientation. Something that should be a big deal is treated as if it were not.
In emergency situations, many people find themselves completely calm and collected until the emergency is over, at which point they fall to pieces. Something tells you that, during the emergency, you can't afford to fall apart. It is common to find someone totally immersed in the social obligations surrounding the death of a loved one. Doctors and nurses must learn to separate their natural reactions to blood, wounds, needles, and scalpels, and treat the patient, temporarily, as something less than a warm, wonderful human being with friends and family. Adolescents often go through a stage where they are obsessed with horror movies, perhaps to come to grips with their own fears. Nothing demonstrates isolation more clearly than a theater full of people laughing hysterically while someone is shown being dismembered.
Displacement is the redirection of an impulse onto a substitute target. If the impulse, the desire, is okay with you, but the person you direct that desire towards is too threatening, you can displace to someone or something that can serve as a symbolic substitute.
Someone who hates his or her mother may repress that hatred, but direct it instead towards, say, women in general. Someone who has not had the chance to love someone may substitute cats or dogs for human beings. Someone who feels uncomfortable with their sexual desire for a real person may substitute a fetish. Someone who is frustrated by his or her superiors may go home and kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage in cross-burnings.
Turning against the self is a very special form of displacement, where the person becomes their own substitute target. It is normally used in reference to hatred, anger, and aggression, rather than more positive impulses, and it is the Freudian explanation for many of our feelings of inferiority, guilt, and depression. The idea that depression is often the result of the anger we refuse to acknowledge is accepted by many people, Freudians and non-Freudians alike.
Once upon a time, at a time when I was not feeling my best, my daughter, five years old, spilled an entire glass of chocolate milk in the living room. I lashed out at her verbally, telling her she was clumsy and had to learn to be more careful and how often hadn't I told her and...well, you know. She stood there stiffly with a sort of smoldering look in her eyes, and, of all things, pounded herself on her own head several times! Obviously, she would rather have pounded my head, but, well, you just don't do that, do you? Needless to say, I've felt guilty ever since.
Projection, which Anna Freud also called displacement outward, is almost the complete opposite of turning against the self. It involves the tendency to see your own unacceptable desires in other people. In other words, the desires are still there, but they're not your desires anymore. I confess that whenever I hear someone going on and on about how aggressive everybody is, or how perverted they all are, I tend to wonder if this person doesn't have an aggressive or sexual streak in themselves that they'd rather not acknowledge.
Let me give you a couple of examples: A husband, a good and faithful one, finds himself terribly attracted to the charming and flirtatious lady next door. But rather than acknowledge his own, hardly abnormal, lusts, he becomes increasingly jealous of his wife, constantly worried about her faithfulness, and so on. Or a woman finds herself having vaguely sexual feelings about her girlfriends. Instead of acknowledging those feelings as quite normal, she becomes increasingly concerned with the presence of lesbians in her community.
Altruistic surrender is a form of projection that at first glance looks like its opposite: Here, the person attempts to fulfill his or her own needs vicariously, through other people.
A common example of this is the friend (we've all had one) who, while not seeking any relationship himself, is constantly pushing other people into them, and is particularly curious as to "what happened last night" and "how are things going?" The extreme example of altruistic surrender is the person who lives their whole life for and through another.
Reaction formation, which Anna Freud called "believing the opposite," is changing an unacceptable impulse into its opposite. So a child, angry at his or her mother, may become overly concerned with her and rather dramatically shower her with affection. An abused child may run to the abusing parent. Or someone who can't accept a homosexual impulse may claim to despise homosexuals.
Perhaps the most common and clearest example of reaction formation is found in children between seven and eleven or so: Most boys will tell you in no uncertain terms how disgusting girls are, and girls will tell you with equal vigor how gross boys are. Adults watching their interactions, however, can tell quite easily what their true feelings are!
Undoing involves "magical" gestures or rituals that are meant to cancel out unpleasant thoughts or feelings after they've already occurred. Anna Freud mentions, for example, a boy who would recite the alphabet backwards whenever he had a sexual thought, or turn around and spit whenever meeting another boy who shared his passion for masturbation.
In "normal" people, the undoing is, of course, more conscious, and we might engage in an act of atonement for some behavior, or formally ask for forgiveness. But in some people, the act of atonement isn't conscious at all. Consider the alcoholic father who, after a year of verbal and perhaps physical abuse, puts on the best and biggest Christmas ever for his kids. When the season is over, and the kids haven't quite been fooled by his magical gesture, he returns to his bartender with complaints about how ungrateful his family is, and how they drive him to drink.
One of the classic examples of undoing concerns personal hygiene following sex: It is perfectly reasonable to wash up after sex. After all, it can get messy! But if you feel the need to take three or four complete showers using gritty soap - perhaps sex doesn't quite agree with you.
Introjection, sometimes called identification, involves taking into your own personality characteristics of someone else, because doing so solves some emotional difficulty. For example, a child who is left alone frequently, may in some way try to become "mom" in order to lessen his or her fears. You can sometimes catch them telling their dolls or animals not to be afraid. And we find the older child or teenager imitating his or her favorite star, musician, or sports hero in an effort to establish an identity.
A more unusual example is a woman who lived next to my grandparents. Her husband had died and she began to dress in his clothes, albeit neatly tailored to her figure. She began to take up various of his habits, such as smoking a pipe. Although the neighbors found it strange and referred to her as "the man-woman," she was not suffering from any confusion about her sexual identity. In fact, she later remarried, retaining to the end her men's suits and pipe!
I must add here that identification is very important to Freudian theory as the mechanism by which we develop our superegos.
Identification with the aggressor is a version of introjection that focuses on the adoption, not of general or positive traits, but of negative or feared traits. If you are afraid of someone, you can partially conquer that fear by becoming more like them. Two of my daughters, growing up with a particularly moody cat, could often be seen meowing, hissing, spitting, and arching their backs in an effort to keep that cat from springing out of a closet or dark corner and trying to eat their ankles.
A more dramatic example is one called the Stockholm syndrome. After a hostage crisis in Stockholm, psychologists were surprised to find that the hostages were not only not terribly angry at their captors, but often downright sympathetic. A more recent case involved a young woman named Patty Hearst, of the wealthy and influential Hearst family. She was captured by a very small group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries called the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was kept in closets, raped, and otherwise mistreated. Yet she apparently decided to join them, making little propaganda videos for them and even waving a machine gun around during a bank robbery. When she was later tried, psychologists strongly suggested she was a victim, not a criminal. She was nevertheless convicted of bank robbery and sentenced to 7 years in prison. Her sentence was commuted by President Carter after 2 years.
Regression is a movement back in psychological time when one is faced with stress. When we are troubled or frightened, our behaviors often become more childish or primitive. A child may begin to suck their thumb again or wet the bed when they need to spend some time in the hospital. Teenagers may giggle uncontrollably when introduced into a social situation involving the opposite sex. A freshman college student may need to bring an old toy from home. A gathering of civilized people may become a violent mob when they are led to believe their livelihoods are at stake. Or an older man, after spending twenty years at a company and now finding himself laid off, may retire to his recliner and become childishly dependent on his wife.
Where do we retreat when faced with stress? To the last time in life when we felt safe and secure, according to Freudian theory.
Rationalization is the cognitive distortion of "the facts" to make an event or an impulse less threatening. We do it often enough on a fairly conscious level when we provide ourselves with excuses. But for many people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy that they never are truly aware of it. In other words, many of us are quite prepared to believe our lies.
A useful way of understanding the defenses is to see them as a combination of denial or repression with various kinds of rationalizations.
All defenses are, of course, lies, even if we are not conscious of making them. But that doesn't make them less dangerous - in fact it makes them more so. As your grandma may have told you, "Oh what a tangled web we weave..." Lies breed lies, and take us further and further from the truth, from reality. After a while, the ego can no longer take care of the id's demands, or pay attention to the superego's. The anxieties come rushing back, and you break down.
And yet Freud saw defenses as necessary. You can hardly expect a person, especially a child, to take the pain and sorrow of life full on! While some of his followers suggested that all of the defenses could be used positively, Freud himself suggested that there was one positive defense, which he called sublimation.
Sublimation is the transforming of an unacceptable impulse, whether it be sex, anger, fear, or whatever, into a socially acceptable, even productive form. So someone with a great deal of hostility may become a hunter, a butcher, a football player, or a mercenary. Someone suffering from a great deal of anxiety in a confusing world may become an organizer, a businessperson, or a scientist. Someone with powerful sexual desires may become an artist, a photographer, or a novelist, and so on. For Freud, in fact, all positive, creative activities were sublimations, and predominantly of the sex drive.Alfred Adler
Adler felt that there were three basic childhood situations that most contribute to a faulty lifestyle. The first is one we've spoken of several times: organ inferiorities, as well as early childhood diseases. They are what he called "overburdened," and if someone doesn't come along to draw their attention to others, they will remain focussed on themselves. Most will go through life with a strong sense of inferiority; A few will overcompensate with a superiority complex. Only with the encouragement of loved ones will some truly compensate.
The second is pampering. Many children are taught, by the actions of others, that they can take without giving. Their wishes are everyone else's commands. This may sound like a wonderful situation, until you realize that the pampered child fails in two ways: First, he doesn't learn to do for himself, and discovers later that he is truly inferior; And secondly, he doesn't learn any other way to deal with others than the giving of commands. And society responds to pampered people in only one way: hatred.The third is neglect. A child who is neglected or abused learns what the pampered child learns, but learns it in a far more direct manner: They learn inferiority because they are told and shown every day that they are of no value; They learn selfishness because they are taught to trust no one. If you haven't known love, you don't develop a capacity for it later. We should note that the neglected child includes not only orphans and the victims of abuse, but the children whose parents are never there, and the ones raised in a rigid, authoritarian manner.
It is true that some people who are abused or neglected as children suffer from neuroses as adults. What we often forget is that most do not. If you have a violent father, or a schizophrenic mother, or are sexually molested by a strange uncle, you may nevertheless have other family members that love you, take care of you, and work to protect you from further injury, and you will grow up to be a healthy, happy adult. It is even more true that the great majority of adult neurotics did not in fact suffer from childhood neglect or abuse! So the question becomes, if it is not neglect or abuse that causes neurosis, what does?
Horney's answer, which she called the "basic evil," is parental indifference, a lack of warmth and affection in childhood. Even occasional beatings or an early sexual experience can be overcome, if the child feels wanted and loved.
The key to understanding parental indifference is that it is a matter of the child's perception, and not the parents' intentions. "The road to hell," it might pay to remember, "is paved with good intentions." A well-intentioned parent may easily communicate indifference to children with such things as showing a preference for one child over another, blaming a child for what they may not have done, overindulging one moment and rejecting another, neglecting to fulfill promises, disturbing a child's friendships, making fun of a child's thinking, and so on. Please notice that many parents - even good ones - find themselves doing these things because of the many pressures they may be under. Other parents do these things because they themselves are neurotic, and place their own needs ahead of their children's
Horney noticed that, in contrast to our stereotypes of children as weak and passive, their first reaction to parental indifference is anger, a response she calls basic hostility. To be frustrated first leads to an effort at protesting the injustice!
Some children find this hostility effective, and over time it becomes a habitual response to life's difficulties. In other words, they develop an aggressive coping strategy. They say to themselves, "If I have power, no one can hurt me."
Most children, however, find themselves overwhelmed by basic anxiety, which in children is mostly a matter of fear of helplessness and abandonment. For survival's sake, basic hostility must be suppressed and the parents won over. If this seems to work better for the child, it may become the preferred coping strategy - compliance. They say to themselves, "If I can make you love me, you will not hurt me."
Some children find that neither aggression nor compliance eliminate the perceived parental indifference. They "solve" the problem by withdrawing from family involvement into themselves, eventually becoming sufficient unto themselves - the third coping strategy. They say, "If I withdraw, nothing can hurt me."
has created an approach that
combines aspects of
existentialism with sociology. First, he talks about how,
although we are endowed with the ability to make our own choices, the
responsibility that comes with that ability can be hard to bear.
He then describes three ways in which many of us attempt to "escape
Authoritarians seek to avoid freedom by fusing ourselves with others, by becoming a part of an authoritarian system like the society of the Middle Ages. There are two ways to approach this. One is to submit to the power of others, becoming passive and compliant. The other is to become an authority yourself, a person who applies structure to others. Either way, you escape your separate identity.
Fromm referred to the extreme versions of authoritarianism as
and points out that both feel compelled to play their separate roles,
that even the sadist, with all his apparent power over the masochist,
not free to choose his actions. But milder versions of authoritarianism
are everywhere. In many classes, for example, there is an implicit
between students and professors: Students demand structure, and the
sticks to his notes. It seems innocuous and even natural, but this way
the students avoid taking any responsibility for their learning, and
professor can avoid taking on the real issues of his field.
Fromm elaborates the two aspects of authoritarianism with two
Receptive orientation people are those who expect to get what they need. if they don't get it immediately, they wait for it. They believe that all goods and satisfactions come from outside themselves. This type is most common among peasant populations. It is also found in cultures that have particularly abundant natural resources, so that one need not work hard for one's sustenance (although nature may also suddenly withdraw its bounty!). it is also found at the very bottom of any society: Slaves, serfs, welfare families, migrant workers... all are at the mercy of others.
This orientation is clearly the same as Adler's leaning-getting, and Horney's compliant personality. In its extreme form, it can be characterized by adjectives such as submissive and wishful. In a more moderate form, adjectives such as accepting and optimistic are more descriptive.
Exploitative orientation people expect to have to take what they need. In fact, things increase in value to the extent that they are taken from others: Wealth is preferably stolen, ideas plagiarized, love achieved by coercion. This type is prevalent among history's aristocracies, and in the upper classes of colonial empires. Think of the English in India for example: Their position was based entirely on their power to take from the indigenous population. Among their characteristic qualities is the ability to be comfortable ordering others around! We can also see it in pastoral barbarians and populations who rely on raiding (such as the Vikings).
The exploitative orientation is the same as Adler's ruling-dominant,
aggressive types. In extremes, they are aggressive, conceited, and
Mixed with healthier qualities, they are assertive, proud, captivating.
Then he introduces a couple more orientations: Hoarding orientation people expect to keep. They see the world as possessions and potential possessions. Even loved ones are things to possess, to keep, or to buy. Fromm, drawing on Karl Marx, relates this type to the bourgeoisie, the merchant middle class, as well as richer peasants and crafts people. He associates it particularly with the Protestant work ethic and such groups as our own Puritans.
Hoarding is associated with the kind of families we first see in the bourgeoisie or middle class. Selling and buying emphasizes the need for close accounting and strong self-discipline, which becomes a personality passed on from generation to generation. I might add that there is a clear connection with perfectionism as well. Freud would call it the anal retentive type, Adler (to some extent) the avoiding type, and Horney (a little more clearly) the withdrawing type. In its pure form, it means you are stubborn, stingy, and unimaginative. If you are a milder version of hoarding, you might be steadfast, economical, and practical.
While authoritarians respond to a painful
by, in a sense, eliminating themselves in an authoritarian social
structure: If there is no me, how can
hurt me? But others respond to pain by striking out against the world:
If I destroy the world, how can it hurt me? It is this escape from
that accounts for much of the indiscriminate nastiness of life -
vandalism, humiliation, vandalism, crime, terrorism.... Fromm
believed that it was the hoarding personality that was most susceptible
to the impulse to destructiveness.
One historical example might be the situation of many young men in
Germany after the first world war: born into middle class families with
strong discipline, they found themselves unemployed and in desperate
straits. When organized and encouraged to direct their pent-up
anger at traditional targets (the Jews), they became destructive in
ways that are still hard to wrap one's head around.
Fromm adds that, if a person's desire to destroy is blocked by
he or she may redirect it inward. The most obvious kind of
is, of course, suicide. But we can also include many illnesses, drug
alcoholism, even the joys of passive entertainment. This is the
same as Anna Freud's "turning against the self" defense.
The last response to painful freedom and responsibility he called automaton conformity. Authoritarians escape by hiding within an authoritarian hierarchy. But our society emphasizes equality! There is less hierarchy to hide in (though plenty remains for anyone who wants it, and some who don't). When we need to hide, we hide in our mass culture instead. When I get dressed in the morning, there are so many decisions! But I only need to look at what you are wearing, and my frustrations disappear. Or I can look at the television, which, like a horoscope, will tell me quickly and effectively what to do. If I look like, talk like, think like, feel like... everyone else in my society, then I disappear into the crowd, and I don't need to acknowledge my freedom or take responsibility. It is the horizontal counterpart to authoritarianism.
The person who uses automaton conformity is like a social chameleon:
He takes on the coloring of his surroundings. Since he looks like a
other people, he no longer feels alone. He isn't alone, perhaps, but
not himself either. The automaton conformist experiences a split
his genuine feelings and the colors he shows the world, very much along
the lines of Horney's and Roger's theories.
Automaton conformity is the escape used by people of the marketing orientation. They expect to sell. Success is a matter of how well I can sell myself, package myself, advertise myself. My family, my schooling, my jobs, my clothes - all are an advertisement, and must be "right." Even love is thought of as a transaction. Only the marketing orientation thinks up the marriage contract, wherein we agree that I shall provide such and such, and you in return shall provide this and that. If one of us fails to hold up our end of the arrangement, the marriage is null and void - no hard feelings (perhaps we can still be best of friends!) This, according to Fromm, is the orientation of the modern industrial society. This is our orientation!
This modern type comes out of modern families, where children are allowed to make adult choices, and adults try to stay kids all their life. There are few rules and their is little disciple. They think of themselves as democratic, but in fact parents have simply abdicated their responsibilites. Adler and Horney don't have an equivalent, but Freud might: This is at least half of the vague phallic personality, the type that lives life as flirtation. In extreme, the marketing person is opportunistic, childish, tactless. Less extreme, and he or she is purposeful, youthful, social. Notice today's values as expressed to us by our mass media: Fashion, fitness, eternal youth, adventure, daring, novelty, sexuality... these are the concerns of the celebrity and his or her less-wealthy admirers. The surface is everything! Let's go bungee-jumping!
In fact, since humanity's "true nature" is freedom, any of these escapes from freedom alienates us from ourselves. Here's what Fromm had to say:
There is a healthy personality as well - the productive orientation - which Fromm occasionally refers to as the person without a mask. This is the person who, without disavowing his or her biological and social nature, nevertheless does not shirk away from freedom and responsibility. This person comes out of a family that loves without overwhelming the individual, that prefers reason to rules, and freedom to conformity.
The society that gives rise to the productive type (on more than a chance basis) doesn't exist yet, according to Fromm. He does, of course, have some ideas about what it will be like. He calls it humanistic communitarian socialism. That's quite a mouthful, and made up of words that aren't exactly popular in the USA, but let me explain: Humanistic means oriented towards human beings, and not towards some higher entity - not the all-powerful State nor someone's conception of God. Communitarian means composed of small communities (Gemeinschaften, in German), as opposed to big government or corporations. Socialism means everyone is responsible for the welfare of everyone else. Thus understood, it's hard to argue with Fromm's idealism!
Fromm says that the first four orientations (which others might call neurotic) are living in the having mode. They focus on consuming, obtaining, possessing.... They are defined by what they have. Fromm says that "I have it" tends to become "it has me," and we become driven by our possessions!
The productive orientation, on the other hand, lives in the being mode. What you are is defined by your actions in this world. You live without a mask, experiencing life, relating to people, being yourself.He says that most people, being so used to the having mode, use the word have to describe their problems: "Doctor, I have a problem: I have insomnia. Although I have a beautiful home, wonderful children, and a happy marriage, I have many worries." He is looking to the therapist to remove the bad things, and let him keep the good ones, a little like asking a surgeon to take out your gall bladder. What you should be saying is more like "I am troubled. I am happily married, yet I cannot sleep...." If I have children - well, that's a fact. If I am a father - then I can be a good one or a bad one.By saying you have a problem, you are avoiding facing the fact that you are the problem - i.e. you avoid, once again, taking responsibility for your life.
Social psychologists have also been interested in the phenomenon of defensiveness. Fritz Heider, a social psychologist with a Gestalt background, developed a theory called balance theory or "P-O-X" theory.
Let's say you are the parent of a small child. Your baby comes home from kindergarten one afternoon bearing a gift. You tear into the crude wrapping and find -surprise! - a clay ashtray. It is easily the ugliest entity in the universe, and you don't smoke. But your little artist stands there before you with a smile as broad as all outdoors and eyes sparkling with unbounded pride.
You say to your child "oh thank you so much; it's so very beautiful; you sure are good at art; I love it; we'll put it right here in the display case with the antique crystal collection!" What folks who haven't gone through this don't understand is that you meant every word.
Fritz Heider looks at it like this: You are the person (P); your child is the other (O); the clay ashtray is the third element in the triangle (X). And there are several relations among them:
Heider says that our minds tend to seek out a balanced state when dealing with such situations, wherein the relations among person, other, and thing are "harmonious." Three positive relations are harmonious. So are two negative relations with one positive relation:
"I don't like John.
John has a dog.
I don't like the dog either."
This kind of triangle is less happy, but no less balanced.
On the other hand, we tend to avoid unbalanced states. Two positive relations with one negative one is unbalanced:
"I love my child.
She made this ashtray.
I hate the ashtray."
In these triangles, the relations are stressed to change. We will tend to adapt by convincing ourselves that one of the relations is other than it is. You might convince yourself that your child didn't really make the ashtray; you might decide you don't really like your child as much as you thought; or you might decide you like the ashtray. In the broader picture, we do see parents balancing the triangle by "losing" the ashtray or, more sinister, communicating their disappointment, using threats or guilt, and otherwise pushing the child to be the child they would have liked to have had.
Cognitive dissonance theory
A theory that is similar to Heider's but focuses on somewhat different concerns is Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory. It has a very simple central principle: "An individual strives to produce consonance and to avoid dissonance." We experience dissonance when we become aware that our actions contradict certain beliefs about ourselves. Consonance, as you might imagine, is the peaceful absence of dissonance, synonymous with Heider's "harmony."
If I consider myself an honest person, that belief implies that I don't lie. Yet I catch myself in the middle of a lie. This is dissonant. Or I know that I love my parents. This implies that I write them more than once per year. Yet once a year is exactly how often I write. This, too, is dissonant. Or I don't do things to harm myself. Cigarettes are bad for me. And I am at this moment dragging on a cigarette.
Dissonance, like imbalance, is "stressed to change." I might change my behavior, quit smoking, for example. I might change my belief that I don't do things to harm myself, which is at least honest. But the weakest link in this example is the connection between the two: the idea that cigarettes are bad for me. I have personally told myself such things as "it keeps the weight off," "the anxiety would kill me sooner," "the research had flaws," "cigarettes are just a scapegoat for industrial pollution," "they'll discover a cure soon," "I only smoke a few packs a day," and "it won't happen to me." One way or another, we tend to change our beliefs - "fix" them - in an effort to reduce the dissonance: We lie to ourselves.
Most of the research done on dissonance involves a matter of inadequate justification, that is, the reasons for doing something just weren't good enough: I lied to my friend. This is normally dissonant with my belief that I, as a good friend, do not lie - unless I have "a real good reason" (i.e. an adequate justification), like saving his life, or maybe saving his feelings. Without such a "real good reason," there is inadequate justification.
It is Carl Rogers who has the most
elegant theory on defensiveness:
When you are in a situation where there is an incongruity between your image of yourself and your immediate experience of yourself (i.e. between the ideal and the real self), you are in a threatening situation. For example, if you have been taught to feel unworthy if you do not get A's on all your tests, and yet you aren't really all that great a student, then situations such as tests are going to bring that incongruity to light - tests will be very threatening.
When you are expecting a threatening situation, you will feel anxiety. Anxiety is a signal indicating that there is trouble ahead, that you should avoid the situation! One way to avoid the situation, of course, is to pick yourself up and run for the hills. Since that is not usually an option in life, instead of running physically, we run psychologically, by using defenses.
Rogers' idea of defenses is very similar to Freud's, except that Rogers considers everything from a perceptual point-of-view, so that even memories and impulses are thought of as perceptions. Fortunately for us, he has only two defenses: denial and perceptual distortion.
Denial means very much what it does in Freud's system:
You block out the threatening situation altogether. An example
be the person who never picks up his test or asks about test results,
he doesn't have to face poor grades (at least for now!). Denial
Rogers does also include what Freud called repression: If keeping
a memory or an impulse out of your awareness - refuse to perceive it -
you may be able to avoid (again, for now!) a threatening situation.
Perceptual distortion is a matter of reinterpreting the
so that it appears less threatening. It is very similar to
rationalization. A student that is threatened by tests and grades
may, for example, blame the professor for poor teaching, trick
bad attitude, or whatever - anything other than reasons which threaten
(stupidity, laziness, alcoholism...). The fact that sometimes
poor teachers, write trick questions, and have bad attitudes only makes
the distortion work better: If it could be true, then maybe it
It can also be much more obviously perceptual, such as when the person misreads his grade as better than it is. Sometimes we create the reason, in the manner of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, a student may get drunk the night before the exam. When he fails, he can say to himself that it was the hangover, not his stupidity.
Unfortunately for the poor neurotic (and, in fact, most of us), every time he or she uses a defense, they put a greater distance between the real and the ideal. They become ever more incongruous, and find themselves in more and more threatening situations, develop greater and greater levels of anxiety, and use more and more defenses.... It becomes a vicious cycle that the person eventually is unable to get out of, at least on their own.
Therapists have a hard time with people who distort heavily, such as paranoids and histrionic personalities. Sometimes, the web of lies becomes so complex that it can easily include the therapist!
Taken to the extreme, distortion becomes what the existentialists
"busy-ness." We don't notice problems
we are so caught up in our own conventional little lives.
Starvation? Pollution? Injustice? Inhumanity?
a minute... right now, it's time for Wheel of
Conventionality can be drawn so:
With conventionality, no-one has to anxiously block experiences or invent rationalizations. The problems remain unconscious (ignored) because they have become a part of the social background. Whenever we feel that something must be the way it is, or that it is only natural or rational, when we say that of course we must have war, or of course there have to be rich and poor, or of course this must be forbidden and that absolutely required, we may be facing a society-wide defense!