In Defense of our Defenses

Merely Me Health Guide
  • If you have ever taken a basic psychology class then you probably know something about what is known as our "psychological defense mechanisms." These are considered to be unconscious adaptations to psychological trouble.  We use them when we feel threatened emotionally.  Some of our defenses are evident to everyone else but our selves.  It seems we have a psychological blind spot which prevents us from seeing our defenses in action.  It is a way of protecting us 


    In therapy sometimes these defenses come to light as we squirm like bugs on a windshield waiting for the inevitable swipe of the wiper to deliver our demise.  It is seldom pleasant to have our defenses pointed out to us and in retreat we use more defenses to cover up the ones highlighted.  

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    Some defenses are labeled as psychotic such as paranoia, hallucinations, or megalomania (delusions of grandeur).   "Immature" adaptations may include passive aggression (aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively), or projection (the attribution of one's undesired impulses onto another), and fantasy (the channeling of unacceptable or unattainable desires into imagination).


    Then there are the defenses which are merely considered neurotic including:  Intellectualization (concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions), dissociation (intense removal or distancing of oneself from feelings), and repression (preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition).


    The highest level defenses are considered "mature" and healthy.  Some of these defenses include:  Altruism (constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction), humor (exploring the inherent absurdity of any event even painful ones), sublimation (transformation of negative feelings into positive action such as putting one's aggression into sports), and suppression (the conscious decision to delay paying attention to a negative emotion so that one can deal with present matters).


    This is not a full list of all the defenses.  There are certainly many more.  Our human psyche is creative to come up with so many different ways to protect ourselves from psychological harm.  Sometimes our defenses do us in with regard to our functioning, our mental stability, and our ability to relate to others.  Yet sometimes even some of the least healthy defenses serve the purpose of keeping us alive and surviving.  I am about to give you an example from my own life to illustrate my point.


    When I was a little girl I lived alone with my mother who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.  My father died when I was four, leaving my mother to raise me by herself with no money and no job.  She had been in and out of institutions her whole life.  When I became a teenager my mother and I lived in a basement apartment and I began to work jobs starting at thirteen.  I had paper routes, worked under the table at some places, and finally got a job at a bakery when I was fifteen.  My paycheck, however small, was enough to pay for some of our food and essentials. 


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    One day I cashed my check and brought home the money.  I remember all these years later, it was forty dollars.  I laid the money on our coffee table and went out for some hours.  When I returned my money was gone.  Of course I asked my mother if she had seen the money.  She told me she had not.  I became obsessed with finding the money, thinking that I had remembered wrong where I had last put it.  My mother even helped me to look for it.  But she seemed uneasy so I pressed her, "Are you sure you didn't see my money?"  After tearing the house apart to search for the missing money, my mother confessed, "I took the money."  Thinking that she spent it on smokes or some other vice I asked what she did with it.


    When she explained that she used the money to buy and mail a birthday present to her "boyfriend" I became instantly enraged.  My mother and I had lived alone for years and she had no boyfriend.  My mother was primarily a recluse.  Yet she kept this delusion that one of her prior doctors was her boyfriend.  I had spent years as a little girl dealing with my mother's delusions and fantasies.  She once dragged me around the airport before Christmas telling me that we were going on a trip as she owned all the planes.  There was no vacation, only a trip to the mental hospital as police were called to drag my mother away as I was farmed off to a shelter.  At alternate times my mother was a queen, an owner of a fleet of Cadillac's, and even George Washington.


    The day that my mother took my forty dollars, something snapped inside of me.  I simply could not take her fantasies any more.  I was going to rid her of these delusions once and for all.  I got into her face and yelled, "You do not have a boyfriend!  This is a fantasy and I will prove it right now!"  The "boyfriend" that she kept talking about was in fact a real person, a psychiatrist.  But the relationship my mother talked about was not real.  I went to the phone book and looked up his number.  I took the phone in hand and got ready to dial.  I wanted this person to tell her that she was crazy.


    It was at this moment that my mother looked at me in desperation and began to cry. She pulled the receiver from my hand.  And then she said something I will never forget.  She said, "I know I don't have a boyfriend.  I know it's crazy.  But it's all I have." 


    The anger I had felt minutes ago was replaced by a terrible remorse.  I sat there for some time in silence.  I looked at our apartment with the pipes on the ceiling, the yellowed curtains, and my mother sitting and rocking, a lit cigarette dangling from her lips. And then my own tears came.


    I learned that day that what some consider "crazy" is sometimes just a way to survive. 

    Who was I to rip away my mother's defenses? 


    We have all these clinical terms to categorize our thoughts and feelings and to put them into little boxes to be measured and analyzed.  But maybe the truth of the matter is that we are just all trying really hard to find a way to live in sometimes unlivable circumstances.  Perhaps we all could do well to be a little more crazy.

Published On: September 21, 2009