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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

Mechanisms of Defence

Getting to know ourselves better sounds, on the surface, like a project we might all buy into. But this is to underestimate the extent to which are, just below the surface, typically highly invested in not getting to know or feel a range of important but troubling things about who we are. Whatever lip service we may pay to the project of self-knowledge, we would – it seems – very much like not to know a great deal about our identities.

In order to shield us from ourselves, we rely on techniques known as ‘Mechanisms of Defence’: a range of astonishingly clever internal manoeuvres that subtly enable us to expel uncomfortable ideas from awareness without alerting our conscience and so return us to a blind placid equilibrium. It is thanks to Mechanisms of Defence that we’re able to convince ourselves that we hate someone we’re actually drawn to (but can’t have) or that we get depressed in lieu of getting angry with a person who has done us wrong but who we want to believe is good.

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However effective they may be, Mechanisms of Defence ultimately impose a great psychic cost on us; they tie up our energies repressing ideas on which our growth relies. They mire us in symptoms and secondary illnesses. Every denied thought creates a drag on our minds; every unfelt feeling generates an underground whirlpool of repressed energy. Our Defences buy us short term calm at the expense of long-term development. 

Developing an understanding of the way Mechanisms of Defence work won’t magically save us from reliance on them but it may give us an inkling of what we are up to, and increase our tolerance to insight.

None of us are without defences. What we call a person’s character is in large measure the result of the particular set of defence mechanisms they rely on; it’s the outcome of the distinctive ways in which they have opted to defend themselves against the painful sides of their reality.

A list of our Mechanisms of Defence might include the following:

1. The Grandiose Defence

Once upon a time, we felt catastrophically insignificant; once we were humiliated and ignored by our caregivers and denied a basic sense that we had a right to exist. Many years later, grown and more capable, with arch rigidity, we make use of money, reputation and cultural capital to insist on a specialness that we can’t – for that matter – ever truly believe in. We wield grandiosity as a shield against the risks of any renewed encounter with the neglected, powerless, desperate child still sobbing and forlorn somewhere inside us.

2. The Common Sense Defence

We are filled with huge and painfully complicated truths; they might be about sexuality, love or money. There is so much that we might need to think about and would, as a result, need to mourn or grapple anxiously with. But we lack the courage and the wherewithal and therefore settle on a highly consoling line of defence: that the whole field of psychology, the discipline that tries to draw our attention to ourselves, is so much hype and ‘psychobabble.’ We dismiss its efforts as specious nonsense; we pride ourselves on calling a spade a spade and cling fervently to the solacing thought that our minds are lacking any of the waywardness, complexity or folly that seems the universal lot.

3. The Manic Defence

We run strenuously from one project to another; we give ourselves no time at all to sit with our odder wishes and fears. It might have been a year since we last had a day without commitments. We devote manic energy to something, anything – work, the news, exercise, literature, drugs, gardening – to keep our unresolved thoughts at bay. The most terrifying prospect in the world might be to sit in a silent room with ourselves.

4. The Sadistic Defence

We choose to feel strong and in control by subjecting another to the pains we once endured as children. We make a junior colleague feel inept, we ensure our offspring knows how little they are worth, we criticise our partner for their countless departures from perfection. There are, in our deep minds, only two roles a person can play: victim or perpetrator. And we have firmly decided the one we’d rather be.

5. The Masochistic Defence

We feel too weak to prevent ourselves from suffering, but not too weak to turn our suffering into a sort of choice, even – in a manner of speaking – a kind of pleasure. So we go in active search of partners who won’t fulfil us, we make very sure we criticise ourselves in the wake of every success, we gain a particular relish in being treated badly once again. We know we are going to suffer; but at least – this time around – we are in charge of inflicting the pain on ourselves. 

6. The Avoidant Defence

We might like so much to be close to others. But as certain people hurt us intolerably when we originally tried to be so, we have come to an easier and more bearable position: we don’t in fact need anyone at all, talk of emotional connection is exaggerated, we very much enjoy sport or needlework and would – sincerely – far prefer to spend the weekend, or the rest of our lives, in our own company.

7. The Early-Retirement Defence

There is much that is – troublingly – rather great about us. We are clever, we can be charming, we might triumph socially or professionally. But such victories carry enormous risks. Someone we once relied on for survival was not comfortable with success; someone preferred it if we messed up. And so we fail repeatedly out of subterranean loyalty to a threatening and threatened caregiver. Internally hemmed in by an invisible choice between victory and abandonment, we retire early from the perils of victory. People wonder why we gave up some pursuit or another. ‘They showed so much promise…’ they muse, and that – of course – was precisely the problem.

8. The Self-Hatred Defence

Someone was once very unkind us; someone once left us feeling frightened and insignificant. We should – in all fairness – hate them back with equal measure but that would be too wounding to our innate modesty and wish to think well of people in whose care we began. So we rely on an alternative fiction: that our caregivers were fine enough, the problem lay with us. We were not treated abysmally; we happen to be awful. Harm wasn’t done to us; we are entirely stupid or ugly. We don’t live in a world of random injustice; we deserved the ill treatment we received. We deem our problems deserved rather encounter a greatly more troubling thought: someone we adored was very cruel to us.

9. The Magical Defence

The laws of science can be abysmally harsh; the laboratory results mean that we are going to develop a chronic disease within a few years. The laws of economic and romantic probability can be as arduous; we may now never come into great wealth or meet an ideal partner. And precisely because the truth is so vile, we thinker with the basic premises of reality. If we eat the root of a certain plant, if we adopt a particular conspiracy theory, chant a certain mantra or visualise health or success hard enough, we will defeat the ‘rational’ naysayers. Magical thinking turns despair into delusion. 

10. The Cynical Defence

There can be protection in cynicism too. We resort to cynicism to avoid the torment of our own expectations. It becomes easier to believe we are doomed, that life is inherently awful and that satisfaction is always a mirage – rather than to risk the further torments of promise.

Weaning ourselves from reliance on these Mechanisms of Defence is the work of a lifetime. We don’t easily let go of techniques that are so effective at sparing us pain. Surrender of these mechanisms requires a leap of faith: that the price will eventually be worth it; that our symptoms will abate the more we understand them; that we will live more easily once we nurture the roots of self-awareness. A true adult – that ever elusive goal – might be defined as someone with a no-longer-so-powerful need to deny; someone willing at last to pay the real price for knowing their truth.

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