Defense mechanisms

In the classic boomer movie “The Big Chill” Jeff Goldblum’s character asserts that rationalizations are more popular than sex. When his friends look at him questioningly, he asks, “When was the last time you’ve gone a week without a rationalization?”

Many of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic notions have been discarded as the art and science of psychotherapy has evolved, but one of his contributions has, I think, proven valuable over time: defense mechanisms. Dr. Freud and his daughter Anna described specific ways that people defend themselves from frightening or unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or memories. A thought may be unacceptable because it threatens our cherished self image, or because it might open a door we’d rather remained closed. Freud said that to the unconscious mind, a wish is identical to an act. As a therapist I’ve seen many people who had terrible guilt for having had unacceptable thoughts or feelings, although they’d never acted on them, and didn’t want to.

I don’t intend to cover all of the defense mechanisms in this post, but here are some of the things people do to defend themselves against the unacceptable: denial is an extreme form of avoidance. “If it’s not true I don’t have to deal with it.” Confronted with mounting evidence that she’s lost control of her drinking behavior, denial will allow an alcoholic to continue drinking, because the thought of getting and staying sober is terrifying. Denial that a loved one is dead allows you to avoid the pain of mourning.

In therapy I’ve described avoidance  as being a surefire drug that always works to eliminate here-and-now anxiety, and therefore can become an addictive habit. Take the case of someone who’s been unfaithful to his lover on one occasion, and knows he has to admit it, because it will eventually come out anyway. So he promises himself he’ll tell his lover about the one night stand by the end of the weekend. He puts it off until Sunday, and as the day goes on his anxiety mounts. Will his confession wreck the relationship? As midnight approaches, he decides to postpone his confession (a kind of avoidance), and immediately experiences a reduction in here-and-now anxiety – as if he’d taken an anti-anxiety medication that works instantly. That immediate relief from anxiety is “reinforcing” and increases the likelihood that he’ll resort to avoidance again. In this manner, defense mechanisms can become habitual.

Habitual avoidance can perpetuate dysfunctional or irrational behaviors. If your response to a deep-seated fear of flying is to never fly, your avoidance reinforces your irrational fear. You may want to travel to Europe and may understand intellectually that air travel is statistically safer than driving, but the prospect of giving up all control and entrusting your life to the pilot may seem intolerable. Fear of a real threat is a reasonable response, but phobias (irrational fears) only serve to limit our options in life.

The only effective way to overcome phobia-based avoidant behaviors is what cognitive behavioral therapists call “exposure.” To get over your fear of drowning, you have to (eventually) swim in the deep end of the pool. Only by facing the thing feared can you grasp that the fear was irrational. This principle also pertains to regaining confidence in something you were good at, but now avoid because of a bad experience. We all know what you’re supposed to do if you’re afraid to mount any horse because another horse threw you; but that doesn’t make it easy. You either get back in the saddle, or you avoid horseback riding.

Having started with rationalizations, I’ll conclude this post with some thoughts on that defense mechanism, also known as intellectualization. I’ve found that highly intelligent people who have risen above the “more primitive” defenses of denial and avoidance have found rationalization as their anti-anxiety drug of choice. The essence of rationalization is,  “I don’t have to deal with it if I can explain (rationalize) why I don’t have to deal with it.” Or “I’m not responsible because I have an explanation.” Or “I didn’t want that, anyway.” The fox in the Aesop fable about the fox and the grapes is a classic representation of an intellectualizer in popular literature. When he couldn’t reach the grapes, he concluded that they were probably sour.

Like denial and avoidance, intellectualization gives a temporary respite from unwelcome thoughts and feelings, but like the other defense mechanisms it can perpetuate dysfunctional behaviors. Defense mechanisms are often barriers to insight and personal growth. I’ll write more about them later.


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