Susan Krauss Whitbourne is a professor of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She writes the Fulfilment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.
Everyone uses defence mechanisms, and if you believe Freud, everyone has to, in order to avoid staring in the face of our worst anxieties. Even if you don’t believe Freud, it’s hard to argue with the position that we all occasionally rely on such common forms of managing our most difficult feelings as pushing them out of awareness. In close relationships, where your deepest emotions are often aroused, it’s even more likely that you’ll rely on your defences to help you manage those emotions. As it turns out, some of the most common defence mechanisms may make you even more anxious by getting in the way of your relationship happiness. A new paper by Wei Zhang and Ben-yu Guo (2017) of Nanjing China’s Normal University, suggests which defence mechanisms are worst and, by extension, how to turn them from maladaptive to adaptive.
According to Zhang and Guo, researchers have moved well past Freud’s original position on defence mechanisms, and the concept is now an integral feature of such areas within psychology as cognition, emotion, personality, and development. A well-known categorization of defence mechanisms by George Vaillant in 1994 differentiated between immature defence mechanisms, such as projection (blaming others) and denial, and mature defences, like humour and sublimation (turning your unconscious motives into productive activity). Other models building on Vaillant have similarly attempted to categorize defence mechanisms along a continuum from unhealthy to healthy.
These characterizations of defence mechanisms are useful, but Zhang and Guo note that they lack a coordinated theoretical framework that incorporates current psychological thinking. The Nanjing authors propose, instead, a new model based on concepts derived from systems theory. The basic premise is that we relate to ourselves, and other people, in a continuous exchange of psychological energy. Their model, called “dissipative structure theory,” regards defence mechanisms as serving to “maintain the stability and order of cognitive-affective schema and to decrease the accompanying emotion.”
The cognitive-affective schema, simply put, are the thoughts and emotions you hold toward yourself. They are composed of positive and negative representations, and are in part unconscious. Most people prefer to view themselves positively, and prefer sameness to change. Defence mechanisms play an important role in this self-preservation strategy. In the short run, defence mechanisms may make you feel better, because you don’t have to change your view of yourself. Over time, though, they can erode your own adaptation and, more important, your relationships. In other words, you use defence mechanisms to help you feel better about yourself, but do so at your peril, because they can lead you into problematic relationships with the people you care about the most.
There are three main categories of defence mechanisms according to this model:
- Isolation allows you to protect your own self-representation by keeping yourself clueless about your flaws and missteps. You might use projection blaming, for example, in which you accuse others of the flaws you secretly fear you possess. You might also use denial, in which you push your negative emotions out of awareness, in which case “the unconscious functions as a trash bin in which the individual stores its ‘rubbish’” (p. 465).
- The second category of defence mechanisms involves compensation, in which you turn to ways of alleviating negative emotions by, for example, abusing substances rather than confronting your negative self-views ("compensation" refers to your attempt to find an external outlet to feel better).
- The third category is self-dissipation, in which you turn all of your anxieties onto some idealized version of yourself in what can become a form of grandiosity.
The criterion for evaluating the effectiveness of a defence mechanism, in the Nanjing authors' model, include whether it (a) distorts the individual’s self-representation and (b) causes poorer relations with others. In this view, defence mechanisms can provide the short-term solution of helping you feel better, but cause problems in the long-term as your self-representation becomes increasingly divorced from reality. Further, when you push people away, defence mechanisms will only create more anxiety, not to mention the loss of important relationships.
We can make practical use of this new and more nuanced view of defence mechanisms by considering the downside to each of these major five types outlined in the model. Try to think about which of these might apply to you by answering the questions below:
- Projection: Do you blame your partner for the flaws you experience in yourself? Perhaps you’re a bit forgetful and messy. Rather than admit it, do you accuse your partner of failing to be thoughtful and neat?
- Denial: Do you try to protect your self-representation by pretending that negative experiences haven’t occurred? Do you close your eyes and think that everything is going to be just fine, even when your partner seems upset with you?
- Compensation: Do you turn to alcohol or drugs instead of confronting your own negative emotions? Is it easier to have an extra glass of wine or beer rather than talk to your partner about what's bothering you?
- Daydreaming: How much do you fantasize that all of your problems and challenges will simply disappear? Would you rather escape into your own world where everything is perfect rather than step into the real and flawed life that you and your partner share?
- Grandiosity: Do you see yourself as more important than your partner? Do you constantly expect to be admired, while at the same time not acknowledging your partner's accomplishments? Is it hard for you to give credit when your partner is right?
As the Nanking authors point out, it can be difficult to abandon defence mechanisms that you’ve become accustomed to using, as they allow you to protect a stable view of yourself, even if it's an inaccurate one. If your self-representation has maintained itself for years by protecting yourself inordinately from reality, it’s going to be a challenge to move away from that status quo.
Even though change is difficult to initiate, particularly if you've built up some very solid defences, it is possible to move to a new and more adaptive relationship to the reality you inhabit with your partner. Your partner can even help you in this change process. Using the person who knows and loves you the best, you can begin to achieve fulfillment both in your own self-understanding and, ultimately, in the quality of an improved close relationship.
Written by Susan Krauss Whitbourne. First appeared on Psychology Today.