Last month we made clear the distinction between dialogue and debate. Simply, debate has as its foundation the need to be right versus establishing what is true. We also discussed how a better understanding of our thinking habits can enhance our quality of communication. One of the most common thinking habits that occurs, in my assessment, is known as defensive routines or defensiveness. When individuals debate, they are usually engaging in unconscious and irrational defensiveness, which occurs when individuals want to protect themselves from anxiety. This protection is established through diversionary and intimidation tactics or by distorting reality. Defensive communication can lead to one-sided conversations, where individuals only want to prove their point versus wanting to also understand the point of view of those that they communicate with.
These unconscious psychological defensive mechanisms include repression, rationalization, projection, reaction formation, displacement, identification, regression, fantasy formation, intellectualization/isolation, and denial. Most individuals who are overly defensive are trying to protect themselves from a threat that does not really exist. Before I breakdown the various types of defensive routines, it should be known that everyone uses defense mechanisms and that it is quite normal to do so. Problems arise when they are overly or habitually used.
Types of Defensive Routines
Repression: The primary ego defense that give life to all other defensive routines. Its prime function is to prevent anxiety and helps individuals deal with everyday problems. It often occurs in response to conflict and pain from one’s past history, whether that conflict actually exists or not. Repressed memories can drain our creative energy, cause stiffness of character and lead to more serious psychological challenges. It is important to know that repressed memories don’t ever go away and that the goal is to create a better understanding of the negative feelings associated with that memory. Such identification allows us to associate more positive feelings with the old memory. The difficulty with this is that the only way to associate a new feeling with an old memory. is to actually feel the repressed pain associated with it. Trained professionals can help individuals through that process. It is through the darkness (pain) that we find the light (something other than pain).
Rationalization: In order to cope with anxiety, our ego uses reason to “explain them away.” This reasonableness is often seen in dishonest explanations for various acts, or justifying those acts with complete disregard to how hurtful those acts may have been. This rationale is often clouded in delusion, which results in an over sense of superiority. The bottom line is that those who overly use their rational faculties to justify their acts are really implementing impaired judgment.
Projection: In this case, individuals transfer their own personality traits onto other people, places or even things. It is the unconscious act of labeling or attributing to others one’s own feelings, thoughts or intentions.This actually happens a great deal and is one of the highest forms of delusion. An example might be when someone accuses another person of being a coward and too afraid to achieve something, when in actuality they are talking about themselves. How do we know if we are projecting to others? Simply, every time we assume to know the intentions of another person without asking them about what they are doing with an “ear” of respectful acknowledgment of that persons capabilities.
Reaction Formation: This is used by the ego to primarily control the expression of “forbidden” impulses by repressing them consciously. This repression is justified by making that impulse (i.e. sexual lust, seeking wealth, only doing a job you love, etc.) unworthy or unjust, regardless of whether or not those impulses are valuable. One becomes the crusader against the forbidden urge, often resulting in compulsiveness, exaggeration and an all or nothing attitude.
Displacement: This occurs when an instinctual impulse is redirected from a more threatening activity, person or object to a less threatening one. For example, you might yell at your dog because you are too afraid to yell at your significant other. Injustice is what describes this defensive routine best; the innocent becomes the victim.
Identification: In this case, individuals take on the characteristics of someone admired or considered successful; hero-worship. In doing so, they are able to bolster their sense of self-worth by protecting themselves through the illusion that they are giving themselves an identity, albeit a false one. If used too often, it results in feelings of inauthenticity and a sense of separation from others.
Regression: Reverting to an earlier child-like stage of development, which one views as a more secure period. Individuals act as if they are very tired or fatigued, ill and often will throw tantrums.
Fantasy Formation: Individuals gratify frustrated desires by thinking of imaginary achievements and satisfactions; thinking that they are something that they are not. This allows the individual to transport themselves away from real problems. It can be difficult to communicate with people who display this defensive routine.
Intellectualization/Isolation: Unpleasant emotions are suppressed by engaging in detached analyses of threatening problems. Feelings of anxiety are ignored and not allowed to reach one’s conscious awareness. Becoming a third party to issues to prevent them from emotionally attaching to the feelings associated with the issues. Obviously, these individuals have difficulty with intimacy.
Denial: The ego refuses to acknowledge the existence of threatening events by refusing to believe in them. It can assist an individual in getting through difficult times and can be very valuable if they are willing to address the issue at a later date.