In therapy, those using immature defense mechanism feel, well, immature at times. Individuals using them can act like children, and make a therapist want to tell them to grow up. Once a therapist is able to move past her/his own frustration with these individuals the real work can begin.
A person who is using acting out as a defense mechanism may present differently than we would expect given the colloquial term of acting out. This isn’t when people throw a tantrum or pout in a corner because they didn’t get their way. Acting out as an immature defense mechanism frequently manifests in impulsive behavior, such as sexual acting out or aggressive acting out. An individual demonstrating this defense either represses her/his own Id impulses or responds as an act of rebellion against an outside other. The individual may act out against the Super Ego voice (remember, this is frequently the voice of parents) as a counter response to her/his moral instinct. As discussed in the Id blog, the goal is to help the person identify these impulses and manage them before it results in acting out behavior.
Individuals using fantasy as a defense walk the fine line between immature and pathological defenses. The individual using fantasy does not disassociate, but likes to entertain thoughts about the world that are not grounded in reality. This then fuels wishful thinking. An individual who is using the defense of wishful thinking makes decisions based on what is pleasing to imagine is true instead of what is real. This is a person who buys expensive things s/he can’t afford; the wishful thinking is that s/he will pay them off, where the reality is, that there is no chance that the person will ever be able to afford the purchases and it will probably have other deleterious effects. These defenses are hard to overcome, because the therapist is trying to ground the person in a reality that the individual refuses to acknowledge.
Idealization as a defense mechanism is probably one most people who have been in a failed relationship are familiar with. A person using idealization as a defense mechanism attributes more positive traits to a person than s/he may actually have. Most people do this at the beginning of a relationship, but as time goes on they are more able to see a person realistically. A person using idealization refuses to acknowledge negative traits and presents the person better than they are. This defense is particularly devastating in abusive relationships, both family oriented (putting parents up on a pedestal) and intimate relationships, because a person will maintain a relationship with the abuser despite the abuse. It can also set individuals up to have a faulty Super Ego; a person who idealizes a parent who s/he views as flawless, may try to live up to this idealized version of the person, which is ultimately unattainable or unrealistic, because the person has flaws and faced challenges that the person using the defense cannot acknowledge. In therapy, the clinician would most likely avoid trying to confront tearing down the idealized individual head on (e.g., pointing out why they should not be idealized to the client), and instead try to help the client strengthen her/his sense of self, so that they could either identify what about themselves is worth valuing (that the idealized person does not) or what they are actually capable of/reality of striving for achievement (that they are blind to in the experience of the idealized other).
The passive aggression defense mechanism is exactly what it sounds like. This is the individual who cannot confront another person directly so manifests the aggression indirectly, through things like procrastination or attempting to sabotage the other through means such as rumors. In therapy, the counselor may focus on either conflict resolution skills or assertiveness.
Projection was covered in a previous blog post here.
Projective identification as a defense mechanism is, like idealization, an over identification with an other. The individual thinks that the other thinks, feels, behaves exactly as the person imagines them to. This can be seen in hero or idol worship, where an individual over identifies with the target person and believes that the person is exactly like how the person imagined. More locally, a person can do this with a parent or significant other. The individual using this defense projects thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that s/he believes the person should have, and when the person violates that fantasy the individual may actually get mad at the other for not “acting like they should.” In a therapeutic setting an individual using this defense would work on the recognition of the self of others, meaning the appreciation that others have their own thoughts and feelings that the individual may not be privy.
The last immature defense mechanism is somatization. Another defense mechanism we discussed briefly. Somatization is the manifestation of inward turned negative feelings that then manifest in physical pain or illness. In therapy a counselor would work with the person on alleviating or dealing with the negative feelings in order to resolve the physical symptomology.