Psychology in Writing: Neurotic Defense Mechanisms – Therapeutic Presentation

Therapeutic Presentation

The clear wings make this South-American butte...

The clear wings make this South-American butterfly hard to see in flight, a succesfull defense mechanism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The neurotic defense mechanisms are what a therapist would see when working with a mostly healthy population.  As noted in the introduction, most adults use neurotic defense mechanisms during their lives; these individuals tend to end up in the counselor’s office when they over use them or lack other means of coping with reality.

Displacement is a commonly used defense wherein individuals place their anger onto a safe object. A typical demonstration of this is a person who is angry or frustrated at work who cannot take the frustration directly out on her/his supervisor, who instead comes home and yells at a spouse, kid, or animal.  This allows the anger to be released on a “safe” object.  When it occurs occasionally, it is not too disruptive, e.g., having a bad day at work that results in a fight at home; but when it is consistent or persistent, it begins to cause deeper issues.  The therapist would work with this person on either removing her/his self from the situation (i.e., is the situation so bad and uncorrectable that only by leaving can the issue be resolved), finding ways to manage the conflict in the situation (e.g., assertiveness skills to talk to the supervisor about issues), or sublimation (e.g., finding an alternative healthy outlet, to improve coping in the situation).

Dissociation can be more pathological, but low-level dissociation can be functional.  In using this defense, the person modifies her/his identity to avoid distress.  This can be appearing cheerful/social to avoid isolation or to prevent individuals from asking about a particular emotion (e.g., acting happy to avoid people asking why a person is sad).  It can also be manifested in engaging in an alternative activity or behavior to postpone emotions that would typically accompany a situation or thought.  An example would be someone who is out at a carnival and sees an ex, then proceeds to act silly and foolish to distract her/his self from the feelings of grief that accompany thoughts of the ex.  In therapy, the counselor would work on getting at the underlying thoughts and feelings to help the person process and deal with them in a safe setting.

Hypochondriasis is excessive worry about being ill or having a major medical condition.  There are many reasons for the manifestation of this behavior, but in my experience, it is typically a help seeking/attention seeking behavior.  The person presents the worry about illness so that others can “prove” that they care about her/him by asking about the illness and worrying about her/him.  In working with this person, a therapist would help the individual identify positive and proactive ways to get attention and care from others, which would both lower her/his anxiety about illness and build positive social relationships.

In the post on love styles, I talked briefly about a person who intellectualizes relationships.  This defense mechanism is an extension of that; a person employing this defense focuses on logical aspects of a situation to distance her/himself from it.  By avoiding the emotional experience of situations, the person avoids both the pains and joys of experiencing things in the moments.  It can also lock a person into a thought loop where s/he never engages in desirable behavior because s/he thinks her/his self out of it.  The therapist would work on helping the individual recognize her/his emotions and to experience and trust them.  The goal in therapy would also be helping the individual understand that failure and pain are part of life, and that it is okay, paired with ways on how to cope when they are experienced.

The defense of isolation involves a person separating emotion from events.  This is a person who is not able to wed the subjective with the objective (e.g., “That is a sun rise” versus “”I think that is a beautiful sunrise).  This defense mechanism preserves the self by walling the self off from the experiences of others and life.  As with the intellectualizing individual, the therapist would work to help the individual integrate emotions with observations, with the goal of recognizing that full participation in life and contact with others is dependent on some level of emotional vulnerability.

The individual who uses rationalization as a defense uses logical arguments to convince her/himself that a behavior has had no negative consequences.  This person can come up with a hundred different reasons on why a behavior was justified and have no perspective on how the behavior may have been harmful to others.  An example would be a problem gambler, this person would state that it’s okay to spend a whole paycheck gambling, because they’re going to win any way; or going back the next week using the explanation of needing to play in order to win back what was lost.  In a therapeutic setting, the counselor would work on this person on taking responsibility for her/his behavior, and help the person develop some empathy on how her/his behavior affects others around them.

I covered reaction formation in its own blog post here.

When individuals use regression as a defense, they tend to demonstrate behaviors associated with an earlier stage of development as opposed to as an adult when confronted with a distressful situation.  This may be a person who uses baby talk, whines, or pouts to try and get her/his way, instead of talking as an adult, with the hope that acting younger will defuse a conflict or have the person react to her/him like a parent instead of a peer.  In therapy, this person’s goal would be to learn how to engage in conflict appropriately, and to gain some insight into how s/he appears to others when demonstrating regressive behavior.

Repression is the suppression of desirable ends due to fear that attainment of those desires will not end well.  This is a defense mechanism rooted in the super ego.  The fear is that by acknowledging and engaging in the pleasurable activity will result in disapproval by the moral voice or social reality and damage the ego.  The challenge for the person is that s/he experiences the emotions behind the repressed the idea, but are unable to access what the need is.  An example would be feeling frustrated and angry with a sexual desirable peer, but not able to recognize that the frustration is due to the sexual desire; the person has repressed the idea of desiring her/his peer, but still feels the frustration linked to the idea.  The person’s goal in therapy would be to identify the repressed ideas and find a socially appropriate way to get the needs met or to find an alternative outlet for the need.

Undoing is, as it sounds, reversing course of a negative behavior through a symbolic atonement.  This would be a person who is an alcoholic and goes into a rage, then attempts to apologize by swearing off drink and/or pouring out any leftover liquor.  This method would be appropriate the first time the behavior was manifested, but individuals using this defense mechanism tend to repeat the ritual every time they mess up, with the expectation that the symbolic atonement will be enough and that s/he does not need to change the behavior.  This individual’s work in therapy would be actually to correct the unhealthy, destructive, or inappropriate behavior through strategies to avoid engaging in the behavior requiring atonement in the first place.

An individual who withdrawals as a defense mechanism will isolates her/his self to avoid chance exposure to negative situations, emotions, ideas, etc.  As with intellectualization and isolation, the goal in therapy is to help the person work through the negative events and to develop the coping skills to deal with them when they do occur.

In the upward and downward social comparison defense mechanism, a person makes her/himself feel better by drawing a comparison between her/himself and someone s/he believes is worse off.  This serves a two-fold function, it rationalizes behavior because the person can say, at least I’m not them, and it helps her/him disassociate from similarities of the worse off person (e.g., we both may be drug users, but at least I only do cocaine and not heroine like that junky).  In therapy, this person would identify behaviors that are keeping her/him stuck by examining rationalizations and then setting growth goals instead of staying rooted in the mindset of “I don’t need to change, because I’m not like him.”



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