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Friday, January 4, 2013

Defensiveness

A tip about dealing with it and an introduction to a new series


The other day, I told my doctor about my acupuncturist and brought him some written materials she has about her work.  Here was his initial response: "She isn't an MD.  To be frank, she just doesn't have the training.  I only work with MDs."  
I said nothing in response to this but just waited as he read over the materials.  Then he said:  "Can I keep these?"  Sometimes a person will have an initially defensive response to any sort of communication.  Some even do this as a habit.  The tip is that when this happens, just wait.  I think that people who do this are trying to give themselves time to make a choice.  They are protecting their sphere of influence so that they can decide if they want to be influenced.  If, when you get this resistance, you immediately jump in and try to persuade the person who is in the self-protective mode, you are going to engender an even more defensive reaction.

In therapy, the therapist often tries to help the patient to lower their defenses in the session.  This is to allow for opening up.  Eventually, some patients begin to cooperate with this effort themselves, noticing when they have a defensive reaction and trying to deactivate it or, at least, saying out loud that they feel defensive.  The therapy can then proceed to examine why the topic caused this guardedness or the need to feel protected.
Defense mechanisms is a clinical term and concept; therapists use a defensive functioning scale and identify defense levels in a patient they are working with.  But, speaking for myself here, I don't consider them to be an all bad thing.  Actually, defenses are mostly what is commonly referred to as coping mechanisms.  They are useful and necessary.  In fact, if a client does achieve a deep opening in a session, I will consider it important to help them resurrect their defenses before they leave the office.  I don't want people leaving a therapy session raw and exposed, if possible. 
 Lowering of defenses is for certain situations:  The therapy office, an intimate relationship, and introspection.  
Sometimes therapists have to also consider the larger effect:  The therapy process, overall, tends to help people develop more self-acceptance, more self-knowledge, and therefore, more openness in general.  So, a therapist might consider that if the therapy is removing or modifying one defense, there may be some method of dealing with difficulties with others or with oneself, that should be put in place of it.  
 At the same time, I like to teach people that some of the darkest parts of life can be faced with consciousness and without devastation.  
Some people do come to therapy hoping to be able to enjoy a change in their life without opening up, without self revelation and without having to go through much of a process of learning to trust the therapist.  This approach will impede any real insight or true internal shifts.  It will still allow for problem solving, venting, and a lightweight therapeutic effect, however.  So this is a more guarded, defensive posture which will preclude profound change but can still be one way to use the therapy resource.  Related post:  http://therapiststhoughts.blogspot.com/2012/06/attachment-and-transformation-in.html
Here is a post, written earlier that talks about defenses in a different way: http://therapiststhoughts.blogspot.com/2011/04/self-esteem.html

"Defense mechanisms (or coping styles) are automatic psychological processes that protect the individual against anxiety and from awareness of internal or external dangers or stressors.  Individuals are often unaware of these processes as they operate.  Defense mechanisms mediate the individual's reaction to emotional conflicts and to...stressors".  American Psychiatric Association

My intention is to write more about specific defense mechanisms.  Are you interested in this topic?

4 comments:

  1. Defenses are so interesting and I love how you say that they serve a purpose. I find that I often express a belief our defensive stance out loud just to see if I actually believe it. I like trying on ideas and opinions for size. This is probably maddening to my loved ones. :)
    -PJ

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  2. This reminds me of the quote by Oscar Wilde: "One's real life is often the life that one does not lead." Thus we have defenses............

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  3. Two enriching comments. Robert, another avenue of thought and an idea for a post (the Persona). Anon, humor (always welcome here) is one of the highest level "defenses". Thank you both for these comments!

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  4. I found this post which speaks to Robert's comment. it's about a person working toward being more congruent (the inside and the outside more closely match): http://therapiststhoughts.blogspot.com/2012/10/fear-of-fear-and-seredipitious.html

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