Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust II

September 8, 2017

Psychological Defenses:  Often Our Salvation

Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own.  The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.

With an ambivalent mother as the barometer of mood and well-being (often it’s opposite), our home was a threatening place. She knew all and saw all, and though there’s still a part of me that wants to refute it, her responses were violent. But the young Joan didn’t know that; in fact, this is the first time in my life that I’ve described my mother as violent. I can feel the trembling in my chest as I write this. My impulse is to soften that word—to insist that I’m overstating. Certainly, violent is not the way I want/wanted to see her. Nor the way I was taught to view her. Because she had presented such a positive persona to us, Dad, and the world (My kids are my life), I didn’t see her treatment as abuse. Nor was I angry with her: it wasn’t her fault.  It was a flaw (more likely several) in me that caused her to erupt or refuse to speak. Clinically speaking, I had introjected her. Simply put, I saw myself as she saw me (as I believed she saw me).  Her behavior told me that something was wrong with me—I didn’t love her enough or I was inherently bad. And I swallowed that whole. This introjection of the parent, particularly the mother, is the cornerstone on which the child’s sense of herself is constructed and the bedrock of what we come to know as the superego or conscience.

Hence the damage occurs very early in a child’s life. He/she has learned to dislike, disapprove of, even hate him/herself.  It became my quest to monitor what seemed to please and displease my mother and to tailor myself according to that template—what would make her love me? Though there were times when her love was apparent, the opposite was also true, so I could never be sure (and according to Skinner’s theory of reinforcement, it is intermittent reward that is the most effective. The subject continues to behave at the highest level when the pattern of reward is irregular. The outcome cannot be predicted so the effort must be constant). Thus began my unrelenting effort to discover what she wanted and to become that person. Anything to end the silences or quiet the rage.

And Mom’s anger was lethal. Initially, my three siblings got regular beatings with the belt. I was spared for several years because I was ‘nervous’ and diagnosed as such by our doctor when Mom took me to see him to explain the belly pains I was getting regularly. These started with a ‘spastic colon’ and accelerated into colitis as I got older (I also developed other physical problems which will be explored in a later chapter of this series). The other reason I escaped the strap, (besides the fact that I was as close to a perfect kid as she could have imagined) was that I responded to her rages with uncontrollable trembling—until one day she turned on me yelling, Maybe this will stop the shaking! and flung the strap at me as well. After that, I got beat just like everyone else (though not as often because I was obsessive in my attempts to be good). Mom was convinced that I’d been faking, and there was no way she’d let me ‘pull the wool over her eyes’! The attack succeeded—even I believed I was pretending.  To this day, I’m not sure what the truth is.

One wonders how these children and the multitudes of abused children (many under the guise of spare the rod, spoil the child brand of parenting) cope with the dissonant messages from parents. They’re loved, not loved; they’re good, bad; they belong; they’re outsiders. They can do little or nothing to combat the physical abuse (other than, as discussed in an earlier chapter, to enlist the more loving parent or grandparent, uncle or aunt, perhaps teacher or clergy person who might potentially intervene. But that seldom happens; the child has to have a sense of his/her own rights to complain about his/her parent’s treatment. Most do not. To do that would be a betrayal. [Yes, despite all of the abuse, the child still remains faithful to the parent]. Instead, they keep trying to escape the wrath and appease the angry parent. The fault is with them; it’s their badness that keeps the parent enraged).

On the other hand, there are psychological tools or defenses that the child naturally (unconsciously) reverts to to make sense of their world. In fact, these defenses are essential in protecting (“defending”) against the loss of sanity. One cannot maintain sanity believing two opposite realities. Our brains demand stasis, logic, order. As is the case with the child mentioned above, he/she cannot live with the truth that the parent is cruel; rather, it’s less traumatic to identify with the aggressor and see the self as flawed. In my own case, though my home was, in reality, a dangerous place, I’d never have admitted it was anything but idyllic. That’s the power of psychological defenses. Profound in their facility to rewrite history, they assist the child/adult in avoiding truths too painful to know/admit consciously: i.e. the awareness that one’s family is troubled and unsafe, that a parent is mean or evil, that they hate their cruel brother or envy their sister. Denial buries these from the conscious mind and replaces them with fictions that are easier for the child to tolerate.  Thus, I was convinced that ours was a loving mother and a loving home.

(Particularly impressive is the power of dissociation in children/adults who have been sexually abused. The knowledge that his/her parent has violated the child in such a heinous way is close to impossible to assimilate. Add to that the fact that in most cases the parent continues to be a presence in the child’s life (often displaying otherwise parent-appropriate behavior and affection)—perhaps sitting across the table for breakfast or dinner. How does that child not explode or disappear into insanity? He/she splits off separating the intact self from the one violated).

And it’s not just children who employ defenses. We all do. Certainly my father was insulated by denial in continuing his delusion that Mom was a loving mother who harbored no ill will against her children. My mother’s defenses remained intact as well (I will explore her psychological development in a further chapter); with reaction formation she was able to convince herself that she was who she wanted to be. She needed to see herself as a good mother who gave all for her children and found her happiness in mothering. And so she did. She died believing that.

It’s important to note, however, that though these truths disappear from the conscious mind, they are not erased completely; they still exist in the unconscious mind [psychology teaches that we have a conscious, a preconscious and an unconscious mind] and can wreak their own havoc on the psychological development of the child continuing their erosion into adulthood until such time that they become conscious and are worked through—most likely in psychotherapy. (That process is complicated and involves teasing out the source of the person’s misperceptions and confronting them; the patient/client and the therapist become partners in a kind of research project aimed at discovering who this person is and where he/she came from—making conscious the unconscious. That’s the goal of therapy. The decision to enter therapy usually stems from the individual’s dissatisfaction with his/her ability to achieve happiness—be it in relationships, professional life or overall peace with one’s life and self).

Finally, though defenses develop unconsciously out of a need to make sense of a dissonant reality, and are therefore essentially good, they often become problematic (outdated, if you will) when they continue to protect us in environments that are actually safe, in other relationships that may well be loving. When the young man or woman continues to see all potential partners as replacements of the parents—forbidding, demanding acquiescence, hypercritical—and to respond as such, intimacy and trust with another becomes virtually impossible.  Our defensive response is no longer appropriate. We expect the world to treat/view us as our parents did. But the world isn’t our parents. Some may be like them, but not all. It becomes our challenge and that of therapy to recognize the difference.


The following is a list of commonly used defense mechanisms many of which will be discussed further in subsequent sections of The Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust series:

Repression: “Keeping distressing thoughts and feelings buried in the unconscious”

Denial: “Refusing to accept reality or fact, acting as if it isn’t so/didn’t happen”

Rationalization: “Creating false but plausible excuses to justify unacceptable behavior”

Identification: “Bolstering self-esteem by forming an imaginary or real alliance with           some person or group”

Displacement: “Diverting emotions (usually anger) from their original source to a               substitute target”

Projection: “Attributing one’s own thoughts, feelings, or motives to another”

Regression: “A reversion to immature patterns of behavior”

Reaction Formation: “Behaving in a way that is the exact opposite of one’s true feelings”

Sources: Weiten, Wayne. Psychology: Themes and Variations. Thomas Wadsworth

Upcoming: Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust III: The Passive Father

Psychology Today


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