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Friday, February 1, 2013

Defensiveness, Part II

High level defenses

             As mentioned in the 1st post on this subject ( the so-called "defenses" can be highly adaptive.  They represent optimal coping with stressors.  So, while like the other lower defenses, they do protect one from anxiety, they are more a way for a therapist to consider the coping style of a particular patient than they are a problem.  
Some of you reading this may find it enlightening in looking at your own patterns and bringing them into more conscious awareness.  It could, potentially, also be a way to grow, i.e., you could try to emphasize these, if they are already in use or develop them if they are not.
Some, such as anticipation and altruism are commonly known and recommended.  Think of how often you have heard someone say, "I can get through this (difficult thing) if I have something to look forward to."?  And, often that person will set up a reward for themselves at the end of whatever trial they have to endure.  Altruism is also frequently recommended, usually by volunteer workers.  It isn't unusual to hear someone engaged in this activity to say, "It helps me more than it helps them." or "I get more out of this than the people I am helping."  There are many avenues to altruism so knowing that such an effort can enhance your functioning makes it something to seek.
One that women are often known for, affiliation and another that men are usually credited with implementing more easily, self-assertion are, nonetheless, available to both genders, used by both men and women, and are highly adaptive defense mechanisms.
You may be surprised to know that humor is counted by the American Psychiatric Association as a defense.  Not always, of course.  But, here's an example from my own recent experience that will make it clear.  A friend had a symptom that led his doctor to order a stress test.  He did very well on the test and when the cardiologist was reading the results, she said:  "You did very well for an obese male."  He told me this as a joke.  It was immediately obvious to me that this would not feel very good when it was happening.  I could have said that-I could have cut through his defenses and sympathized with the possibility that this was hurtful.  I decided not to challenge his coping choice and joked back:  "Did he say, old obese male?" (not an elderly person but, at the older end of middle age).  We both laughed a little and he got to report the incident and remain intact.  
Another place where humor can be used beautifully is with couples.  Partners who can joke with each other about their own foibles and their less than optimal patterns with each other, benefit!  It's one sign of a healthy couple.

Self-observation, counted as a defense, can be used to mediate and bring thoughtful awareness to emotional conflicts. A post devoted to this topic is, Seeing Your Self.
The final 2 of the APA's list of the highest defense levels are sublimation and suppression.  Suppression is when we purposefully say, "I am not going to think about that."  It means excluding a thought or feeling, by various measures such as distracting oneself. 
Sublimation is the diverting of an impulse or emotion into a more productive or socially acceptable avenue than would be if it were expressed in it's original form.  The most common example is when a person declares that they are going to " their anger."  So, instead of beating up the drunk driver who messed up your car, you volunteer for MADD or make a donation to this or any institution working to curb drunk driving.
These defenses are understood to promote balance, gratification and awareness.  They can be evaluative functions and  can ease conflicts. 

Did you find something of interest here?



  1. I have, on occasion, been aware of my own knee-jerk reactions to clients. This often amounts to defensiveness. As irritating and disturbing as this may be for me, I feel a sense of relief at having spotted it (at least) and having a chance to do something about it. I place it in my 'supervision knapsack' and off I trot!

    1. Hi Steve, There are a number of readers here who have expressed a wish to hear about the therapist's experience of therapy. Here is an example from someone besides me! Thanks for sharing.
      BTW, I know what you mean-that feeling of having reacted too quickly in a session and wishing you had thought more first. Sometimes being human just gets the better of us!!

  2. Part of the beauty of the Person-centred approach (for me) is that it enables us, as therapists, to work with these phenomena (e.g. our clients' defensiveness or any other experiences), without attempting to 'cure' or 'fix' but to 'hold' them, accompanying clients as they 'walk round' their lives, looking in on themselves, like looking at living exhibits in a display, and facilitating their attempts to give a voice to their experiences without fear of judgement. To say "look at what just happened", "what was that?", "what did/does that feel like?" in an accepting way can enrgise a person and give them a feeling that they are not alone during this strange experience called 'life'. Working with metaphors can also help.

  3. Would that everyone in therapy could have this kind of experience even part of the time!