A very warm welcome back ever patient blog readers. Although imparting and receiving an education are both worthwhile and important activities, they don’t half take up a lot of time. Therefore, I apologise for the delay in producing posts.
Those of you that have been following will remember that I have been outlining the Ego defences as classified by Vaillant. The last post ended the examination of the Mature defences. I will, therefore, now pick up with the next ones on the list which are the Neurotic defences. These are often fairly common, and tend to appear at time of stress. If used long term can cause mood swings, relationship breakdowns and difficulties coping with stressful situations. They may also develop into the next level of defence. As with the Mature defences, I will break these defences into groups.
Intellectualisation: I have chosen to begin with this defence as it is one I will admit to using on a frequent basis (I write a theory based blog on counselling…who knew?). This defence allows us to move our attention away from painful or difficult emotions and onto cold clinical thinking. In physiological terms we move away from our amygdala and into our frontal cortex. While focussed on conscious, cognitive processing of an idea, we do not have to be involved with the emotions and feelings involved. For example, if I had to do a presentation, rather than facing the fact that I am nervous and worried about not being good enough, I might throw myself into learning facts and figures, studying the venue (there are thirty three steps to the podium) and the audience (there are representatives from five companies and I know what each one does), and rehearsing responses to potential (usually improbable) questions. This means that I do not have to face up to the fact that my Super-ego thinks I won’t be perfect, and my Id wants to run away in fear.
Intellectualisation can take the form of deep philosophical thinking, problem solving or sheer over-analysis. Thinking about things is acceptable to our Super-egos as society tends to reward thinking, and it allows us to ignore the demands of the Id. However, it means that the emptions are not being felt and processes and the psychic conflict and anxiety in the unconscious is simply being held off for another time. This defence is often common in the helping professions as it allows distance to be gained from troubling emotions when helping others, however, it blocks intimacy and empathy.
Rationalisation: This defence is related in a way to intellectualisation (siblings, cousins…hmm there I go intellectualising again). Whereas intellectualising allows us to escape from emotions into thinking, rationalisation allows us to escape into reasoning. This defence enables us to use excuses to rationalise our thoughts and behaviours, so that we do not need to take ownership or responsibility for them, and their associated emotions. Our Super-egos want us to be perfect and so if, and when we fail one way of preventing it from attacking the Ego is to blame something or someone else.
So if my presentation that I was nervous about was not a success I can rationalise away any disappointment I might feel by blaming the microphone, or the lighting, or the fact that it was after lunch, or the brief I was given was imprecise. In fact, the possibilities are endless, all that matters is that unconsciously I am able to defend my Ego from processing uncomfortable emotions. My Super-ego is satisfied by the deception as it appears to be logical and rational, and the Id is placated through justification for being uncertain at the start, or excused if it unconsciously caused unacceptable behaviour (e.g. storming off in a huff). However, by continually rationalising, the feelings are not being processed, and you are essentially denying responsibility. Twisting the truth can be exhausting and eventually things can catch up with you when the excuse pile gets too big to justify any more.
Dissociation: Dissociation has different levels. At one level it can simply describe a “switching off” from reality for a moment, for example when you are driving and get to a landmark and can’t recall the drive in between. This is known as highway dissociation. Daydreaming is another form of mild dissociation, when we check out from reality and enter our own thoughts and fantasies for a while. The Id will derive pleasure from this defence as it can allow us to be with our unconscious desires for a while. It may also include short periods of blanking out or disconnecting from ourselves, such as missing part of a conversation or momentarily not recognising ourselves in a mirror. These can sometimes occur during times of tiredness or stress, as a defence. By disconnecting and dissociating we do not have to engage with thoughts and emotions that could cause us distress, and therefore they defend the Ego. At this level dissociation can be described as acting as a Neurotic defence mechanism. So, if while I am waiting to go on stage to deliver my presentation, I may drift off to imagine a rapturous round of applause and standing ovation at the end, which I am only pulled away when someone taps me on the shoulder. This would be me dissociating rom my feelings of nervousness and anxiety.
However, dissociation can be far more severe and develop into a pathological disorders. This can be caused by sudden large, or ongoing trauma. As we move along the dissociation spectrum, there are disorders such as depersonalisation, where one feels detached and separate from your own body. Derealisation, where the world doesn’t seem to be artificial, and amnesia where memories are detached and forgotten, and fugue states and personality dissociated identity disorders, where aspects of personality are split off or new personalities developed. These are complex conditions which require specialist help to manage and provide care for. I will not go further into them, but I will highlight the organisation Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors (PODS) https://www.pods-online.org.uk/ which has information and resources about dissociation and its associated disorders and support.
Repression: Repression can be seen as an extension on some of the Mature defences outlined previously. In thought suppression and distraction, troubling thoughts and emotions were essentially pushed to one side to allow normal day to day functioning, but were then picked up again for processing later. In repression, however, the thoughts and emotions are deemed unacceptable (usually by the Super-ego) or are too painful to face, and so they are pushed down into our unconscious. Memories of difficult situations and emotions are pushed down and buried in the hopes that they will disappear. This can be done by the Ego in two ways. It can exclude things from conscious thought before it gets there. In other words, a terrible event happens, but it is so traumatic that its content (emotions and memories) are pushed into the unconscious before you’ve even processed and thought about what has happened. The other way is to repress the problematic content afterwards.
The problem with repressing emotions and memories is that they do not go away, instead they linger in our unconscious. With the right triggers, they can then remerge through our pre-conscious and into our conscious awareness. So for example, I may have repressed memories about a previous terrible presentation that I gave when I was much younger. I am not even aware of it as I am waiting to go onstage. Then I see something, for example the shape of the podium, and I start to recall the event and feelings from before, and I become overwhelmed with feelings of fear that were repressed.
As with dissociation, repression can exist on a spectrum. Some things that we repress may simply cause us mild discomfort and distress, however, deeply traumatic events can cause major repression which can remain hidden for years, only to come out later.
I will leave it there, having looked at the first four of the Neurotic defences. I hope it can be seen how these are a step up from the Mature ones in terms of how they operate, and the effect that they can have when they are employed.