SHIFTING FROM DEFENSE MECHANISMS TO COPING SKILLS
CAROL KURTZ WALSH
“Dysfunctional defense mechanisms allow us to avoid reality, while functional coping skills help us deal with reality.”
Four year old Ashley was awakened by her mother, so Ashley could get up and dressed for pre-school. Upon hearing her mother’s voice, Ashley hid under the covers and said, “Ashley’s not home right now. Please leave a message after the beep. Be-e-e-e-p!” What a creative, humorous, defensive move on Ashley’s part. Of course she went to pre-school, yet she felt safe enough express her resistance. Not all situations are this functional. Most families have some degree of dysfunction and in response the children develop some defense mechanisms to counter realities that feel uncomfortable or threatening. If we grew up with any dysfunction, (i.e. an emotionally shaming mother, or a workaholic father) we found ways to help us cope. The situation becomes even more serious when the family-of-origin is severely dysfunctional, i.e. by being neglectful, or physically, emotionally or sexually abusive. The defense mechanisms that are then employed become a matter of emotional (and sometimes physical) survival. As children we were dependent and defenseless, so when hurtful things happened, our anxiety became overwhelming. In response we created techniques to help us emotionally avoid our childhood reality, i.e. by allowing us to disassociate from reality, or by believing we had some control. The more unpredictable or hurtful things were, the more we employed these defenses to help us deal with what was unacceptable and frightening. The degree to which we developed these skills determined how emotionally or physically safe we felt. (I encourage you to read a powerful and incredibly well-written memoir, The Glass Castle: a Memoir by Jeannette Walls, which illustrates some great examples of childhood defenses.) A child is totally dependent on their parents for survival, but clearly this is not true once we leave home and become independent adults. However, our childhood experiences still leave an impact on our personality and the choices we make. As an example, if a child is being physically abused by their father, a very helpful defense is to disassociate – that is to emotionally “leave” and pretend to be somewhere else. However if that individual continues to use the same defense mechanism when they are an adult, it will inhibit their ability to function at the highest possible level. For example the child who was physically abused by their father might, in adulthood, continue using this same defense with a male authority figure and in turn hinder the current relationship. Reacting to our adult reality with old child-like patterns of behavior assumes that we feel as vulnerable as a child. We would be seeing the world through the eyes of our “inner child”. In addition, when we react defensively, as we did as a child, we are not dealing with our current reality in a pro-active, mature way. (Except as I teasingly say to some of my clients, that this is a great skill to have when we are sitting in a dentist chair having a cavity filled, and can consciously choose to disassociate.)
As adults it is helpful to convert our childhood defense mechanisms, into mature coping skills. Dysfunctional defense mechanisms allow us to avoid reality, while functional coping skills help us deal with reality. The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the defense mechanisms I encounter most frequently in adults, and then to describe what constitutes healthy, mature coping skills, as well as how to develop them. There are many “defense mechanisms” considered basic in human psychology. Depending on which text book is being consulted, there are about twenty-five. A few of these, along with the definition and an example of each are: Denial: A thought, feeling or reality is being totally rejected; for example, “I am not eating too many sweets”. Projection:...
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