We all possess psychological defenses, even the most enlightened among us. Additionally, many of us are unfortunately run by them.
Designed to safeguard our vulnerabilities, defenses help us defend against threats, illusory or not. And what’s most fascinating about how they operate is that they do so unconsciously. That’s why the single best way to overcome their drawbacks is deliberately to make them conscious—or have someone with great tact, diplomacy, and patience facilitate this challenging process. Otherwise, the growth and change all of us desire can’t happen.
We may wonder why so often we have to struggle to reach reachable goals. And that’s because we fail to recognize that our defenses, having become habitual, are what create these difficulties. Yet in the moment—that is, immediately—these defenses can help us avoid feelings of shame, anxiety, or depression.
Consider that such mechanisms spring to the surface not arbitrarily but only when we experience some imminent danger to how we need to see ourselves and the world. Looked at more personally, we all need to feel virtuous, strong, competent, resourceful, loveable, and so on. So when a person, group or, indeed, ourselves appear to question whether we actually possess these coveted qualities, one or more of our defenses automatically emerge to combat this threat.
In short, our defenses define the way we protect ourselves against anything we feel may be attacking us. Or, more precisely, anything that reminds us of someone or something that made us feel attacked in the past.
So, what else might our different defenses have in common? Essentially, they all prompt us to distrust ourselves. Why? Because we lacked the capability at an earlier time to decisively resolve a particular challenge experienced as threatening. As a result, in multiple ways these defenses helped divert our attention away from our emotionally painful doubts.
Most commonly (though not always), when we were children we were afflicted with a variety of insecurities. There was so much we couldn’t yet understand, hadn’t yet learned, or physically weren’t strong or coordinated enough to overcome. Therefore, thinking simplistically, we couldn’t but question whether we were good enough—or, at its extreme, could ever be good enough to triumph over these challenges.
As adults, however, most of us have developed the resources to demonstrate—both to ourselves and others—that these childhood doubts were age-related, now necessitating revision to reflect our having moved past them. In other words, we’ve needed to do a reality check. But too often, because these doubts weren’t revisited and reevaluated, when a here-and-now situation unconsciously hearkens us back to them, these no-longer-required defense mechanisms automatically reappear to offer us instant stress relief.
What’s crucial to recognize about defenses is that by themselves they never grow up. If they first emerged at age 5, 10, 15, or 20, that’s how old they are now—no more mature than we ourselves were back then. To Richard Schwartz, the originator of Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), these defenses are all identifiable as “sub-personalities” existing deep within us. And as our intrinsic, survivalist parts, their sole purpose is to protect us from any and all forces perceived as potentially damaging or destructive. Or to put it somewhat differently, they function to safeguard our ego, which unfortunately we usually (mis)identify as Self—the indispensable, non-reactive, innermost “whole” of us.
If our defenses are to back off and let go of their protracted, dysfunctional dominance over us, we need to pinpoint them and develop the courage to meet them head-on. But despite how much they may have sabotaged us with all their false alarms, this endeavor must be undertaken with compassion.
Because the motive of these protective mechanisms is, and has always been, to empower us against external threats to our safety—mental, physical, and, especially, emotional—we certainly don’t want to attack them (as common sense might dictate). Indeed, the IFS model of therapy is based on explicitly welcoming and dialoguing with these till-now inveterate parts, benignly educating them that despite their clearly positive intentions—which we appreciate, honor and respect—they’re currently doing us more harm than good.
Next, we need to persuade them to ease up on their exaggerated solicitude and allow Self to take over for them. For only the transcendent Self can at once protect, nurture, and heal that still wounded child inside us. This is the child they’ve worked so hard to keep hidden—or, as Schwartz portrays it, placed in exile so that it wouldn’t (through its once-adaptive “freeze” response) undermine our day-to-day functioning.
Ironically, our defenses, or subpersonalities, would love to see our injured child parts made healthy again but, as they’ll reluctantly confess, that’s beyond their capacity to effect. So, sooner or later, and despite their skepticism, they can be convinced to create the space for Self to gain the opportunity to accomplish what they can’t.
Inasmuch as we no longer need to depend on these defenses to distract us from the worrisome thoughts and fantasies we had previously, we’re now in a position to mitigate them. And one of the best ways to alter these outdated beliefs and the self-defeating angry or avoidant emotions linked to them is to provide these subpersonalities with concrete examples of how, over time and in many different areas, we’ve exhibited the competence that they so much doubted.
In a sense, all therapeutic modalities (e.g., Gestalt therapy, person-centered therapy, and EMDR) aim to change inaccurate and outdated beliefs about ourselves. Although they attempt to do so in different ways, they all seek to neutralize a client’s defense-related resistance to change. Even the most popular of treatment methods today, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), strive to restructure irrational beliefs that unnecessarily limit us. And regardless of CBT’s present-day focus, it investigates past experience as it now needs to be reassessed and amended. CBT is also considered a shorter-term approach to change.
Yet there’s more and more a consensus among therapists that changing counter-productive, firmly-established patterns takes time—and a great deal of repetition. For the behaviors that need to be revisited and reformed have, because of having been repeated countless times over the years, become deeply embedded inside us.
If you’re able to identify your defense mechanisms and engage in an ongoing dialogue with them, at some point—as relates to your continuing attempts to override their automaticity—your beliefs will be updated and become automatic. Which means unconscious. And that’s what real change typically entails.
The original version of this article was first published on Psychology Today.
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