Doing Therapy With Defense Mechanisms

 It is a common myth that therapy is mostly about listening to someones feelings and validating them (thus helping them to feel “better”).  The real purpose of listening carefully in psychotherapy is primarily  1) to learn about someones individual patterns, coping tendencies and repetitive “emotional games” (both conscious and unconscious), ie. playing the martyr/victim, having pity parties, needing inordinate attention and sympathy from others, always being right or having to be the “big winner”, etc. and 2) developing a positive relationship “rapport” with them so that you (the therapist) can then have both the knowledge and power to influence them to change in the various ways they need to to solve their problems. Here are some key points to remember…or at least to keep in mind.

1) Almost everybody’s “story” about their own problems and psychological issues is missing something rather important.  Mostly it is missing what they DONT want others to see about themselves (their shadow self) or are too embarrassed or ashamed to admit to. Of course its often essential for the therapist to figure out what is missing or hidden from view to help their clients succeed). Sometimes it is missing something they have experienced and forgotten or repressed because it was too traumatic, too mentally confusing to deal with at the time, or just something so overwhelming that it never really got “sorted out” emotionally, cognitively, etc.  We tend to call these “life traumas” or “traumatic events” but they can be lots of other more subtle things as well, like critical times in which an individual had no friends, felt socially isolated and their parents were separated/divorced/or fighting alot or really just anything that the ego-mind prefers to “sweep under the rug” and/or “forget” about.

2)  Defense mechanisms (DMs) and the coping methods each individual uses to deny, minimize or even forget the significant life events and experiences that go into #1 above are IMPORTANT to identify as they tell you alot about the person….and very possibly their current problems.  Marital couples and families can inadvertently model and reinforce  unhealthy defense mechanisms, like two parents who both “deny” their child was sexually or physically abused and refuse to consciously consider the possibility. That parental denial makes the abuse trauma even worse for the child, no matter what kind of abuse  occurred. One way to make a human being “crazy”, neurotic and psychologically unhinged is to respond inconsistently or act unaware toward someone’s overt suffering, negative emotions and their various attempts (overt and covert) to communicate their repressed feelings and trauma, ie through acting out, art, letters/notes, negative behavior, anxiety, anger or self-abuse.

3) The goal of the therapist is to first listen carefully, to gather information, to figure out the “type” of defenses, coping behavior, emotional games and defense mechanisms a person uses to avoid acknowledging their inner pain, conflict and problems, and then play a kind of psychological CHESS match with and against those defenses, while simultaneously remaining supportive of the actual person.

4) Using pills, substances, addictions, alchohol, and obsessive-compulsive behavior are often various forms of defense used to avoid, not face, not confront, and not deal with deeper problems. People can go their whole lifetime avoiding their real issues. It’s not uncommon.

5) Low self-esteem, fear of failure, insecurity, lack of self-confidence, and excessive shame-guilt are NOT always the deeper problem…..altho they never help and usually make it (the real problem) more difficult to “own” and face up to. This is often because the person doesnt feel they truly deserve the happier solution. Since people almost always avoid “pain”, both physical and emotional, facing problems and owning ones part in the problem versus blaming God, ones parents, or others is harder because it means feeling more pain temporarily.  Insecure people and those who with low self esteem tend even more then others to avoid emotional pain…..partly because they think they cant handle any more “bad news” about themselves.  Good therapists know how to assess a persons self esteem and basic sense of security-insecurity and spend their time quietly and consistently “building up” their client’s inner strength and self-perceptions about what they believe they can “handle”.  Other therapists move their chess pieces QUICKLY and ask just the right questions that lovingly force the client to recognize their part in the problem and their typical patterns that keep them “stuck”. Checkmate. They do this while continuing to be supportive of the whole person so the client is less likely to use their negative mind and ego to dismiss the therapist as just”a know-it-all jerk” or a “rude person who doesn’t really know me”, etc,

Now apply the 5 ideas above to someone you know with a defined problem.  First ask yourself and clarify what YOUR goal (objective) and game plan is, based on the kind of person they are and the way they typically use their defense mechanisms.  Example:  Is your goal to get someone to see and acknowledge (overcome denial) that #$@% is unhealthy for them and is “toxic” to their life?  Would so and so need to see and accept such a truth to ever change their own behavior?  What is your “theory” about her problem(s) to begin with, ie. she is an alcoholic and being with #@$% supports and reinforces her binge drinking because it creates a romantic-dramatic-“flamenco” dance relationship of passion, crazy love and then repeated rejection-abuse? Or is it the other way around?? Who is the bigger “tool” in that relationship,  ie. who really has more power and emotional control versus less overall control and power?  Young love, first love, first sex, etc.  is often a factor but is NEVER the complete answer to what the real problem is.  Always consider the BIG PICTURE and factor into your psychology equation what they (the person with the problem) saw or was modeled for them by their parents, whether they loved or hated their mother and/or father. How might that fact effect so and so and her “view” of #$@, the abusive bf?  Now re-read this and write down the main concepts (or type them out) as a way of showing you actually internalized the important concepts and didn’t rationalize away or repress its relevance .  P.S.  The most hated (but unfortunately common) phrase in therapy from a client is “I dont know”.   Not KNOWING and not thinking about or even considering answers or reasons for behavior is another form of a defense mechanism. Nicely helping people to “take a guess”, “come up with a personal theory” or “make up somthing that makes sense but could be changed later” is one type of “chess move” to aid people to increase their understanding and consider possible reasons behind something maladaptive.

Finally, the best working assumption in therapy, just like in the TV show Law and Order,  jigsaw puzzles, and even quantum physics is “there is a reason for everything…and therefore a solution for most every problem”, even tho it might be hidden, complicated, or difficult to comprehend at first. The difference is that there usually isn’t a tricky little invisible gnome trying to erase our crossword puzzle answers when we aren’t looking.

15 Defense Mechanisms People Use:  http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/15-common-defense-mechanisms/all/1/

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About captaincliff

Psychologist by day, insomniac Pirate blogger by night, this Child of God likes to share sarcastic social commentary as well as topsy-turvy observations about life, love and the pursuit of zaniness, a functional form of insanity in an increasingly insane world
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