When we are experiencing negative emotions we tend to exaggerate the negative and deny the positive; and the opposite happens when we are in a happy frame of mind or in a manic phase. That is we exaggerate the positive and tend to deny the negative.
We also tend to distort the reality because the realities of our lives, as we perceive them, iare not acceptable to us. If we accepted the reality as it is, it may lead to intolerable emotional reaction that can threaten the integrity of our mental functions. We therefore end up distorting the reality to fit in with what is acceptable to us so that there won’t be any strong intolerable emotions to cope with. It is a way in which the mind shields itself from psychic trauma.
Now let us examine why the reality as we see it may not be acceptable to us – it’s because of our definitions of “what is normal” and if things don’t fit in the normal or desirable mould we feel the need to distort it in order to avoid the discomfort that comes with the thought that things are not normal. However, there is a positive side to this distortion as well, which we are going to talk about in today’s session. We will also talk about authenticity that is – genuineness and truthfulness, in today’s session as it’s linked with what we are going to discuss.
The word authenticity means – our external behaviour and feelings are not consistent with our inner self, it’s about acting in accordance with our inner self. If we are saying that distortion of the reality is the main problem then authenticity would be the antidote to this problem, as it encourages us to be with the reality and become real.
Carl Gustav Jung a pioneering psychologist and psychiatrist said that the conscious mind and the unconscious mind work in tandem, and at times the conscious mind creates the opposite of what is there in the unconscious mind in order to strike a balance, and be able to express one’s desires and motivations in a harmonious and socially desirable manner. At times, the conscious mind also complements the unconscious with a view to achieving wholeness. If what is held in the unconscious mind is socially acceptable and desirable then the conscious mind will facilitate its expression without any distortion but if the conscious mind realises that the contents of the unconscious mind might meet with disapproval from others and can potentially create a difficult situation for the itself – then it works on the unconscious impulses by distorting the reality in such a way that the person becomes comfortable with the original thought or the emotion and it becomes socially acceptable and desirable. To give you an example if a child becomes angry towards their parents or a loved one and feel that if they expressed this anger it may not be acceptable to themselves or to others – the anger then gets converted into intense self-loathing and results in depression or suicidal thoughts, and instead of blaming or targeting the parent they end up blaming themselves for having the anger, because in their mind the thought that the parent is bad is more unacceptable than the thought that they themselves are bad.
To some extent this distortion of reality happens in our dreams as well, and in psychotic states – a totally unacceptable idea finds its expression in dreams or in hallucinations in a symbolic or distorted fashion so that the message is conveyed to those who can understand and tolerate, and not conveyed to those who haven’t acquired the ability to understand and tolerate it as yet.
According to psychoanalytic theories depression and suicidal thoughts are an expression of anger turned inwards and its clinical implications are that – one should always try to explore the client’s aggressive feelings towards one self and others if they present with depression or suicidal thoughts.
The next question we need to ask is whether this distortion of reality is desirable or undesirable. Is it adaptive or maladaptive? The simple answer to this question is that it’s adaptive in the short term as it protects the person’s psychic functioning from further damage as the raw emotions that can accompany the perception of one’s reality can threaten one’s mental functioning. The strong emotions are therefore shut out of one’s awareness if the perception of their reality is distorted. However, they become maladaptive if one continues to use these defences in the long term as they come in the way of one’s psychological growth. It is therefore important to have a reasonable understanding of all these defence mechanisms so that one can overcome these obstacles in the way of one’s personal development in due course.
I would now like to talk about the different ways in which our mind tries to distort reality with a view to defending itself from psychological trauma.
At the most basic level the defences that operate are denial and projection and these relate to – one’s responsibility in creating these negative emotions or allowing them to happen. Denial can mean refusing to acknowledge the existence of something i.e. a thought or an emotion, and also one’s personal responsibility in its occurrence. If one refuses to acknowledge the existence of an experience then there is no need to use any further defences such as projection or displacement – but if one acknowledges the existence of emotion but is not comfortable taking responsibility for it then it has to be understood in the light of some experience and thereby the second defence of projection or displacement or any other defence comes into play and helps the client to shift the emotion to something else – a common expression “it was not me who did it but you made me do it” explains this. This can happen normally as well i.e. we make some mistakes but want to blame others for creating the conditions in which that mistake happened. Denial is also seen in neurotic conditions such as anxiety, depression, phobia, obsessions and it can also happen in psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia and mania. The difference is that to a degree initially and in psychosis, one refuses to acknowledge even the things that are blatantly obvious i.e. one’s identity, family members, work and life situations. We need to understand why the mind is trying to shut feelings out of consciousness here – perhaps the feeling is intolerable and unacceptable to the person. In a situation like this making the person confront the truth is not going to be helpful but one has to make the person psychologically stronger so that they themselves are willing to accept the truth and there won’t be any need for confrontation.
At times this projection takes the form of projective identification which basically means that if you yourself are feeling angry but don’t want to take responsibility for it and want to project it onto somebody else, but the other person doesn’t appear aggressive to you at all, then you behave in
such a manner that the other person does become angry with you and then you can justify your aggression and can see it as a response to that person’s aggressive behaviour. One can thereby justify one’s anger and it becomes more acceptable to oneself. This is commonly seen in marital situations where you want to explain a lot of your own behaviour on the basis of what has been done to you by your spouse. This understanding can help you realise that if the other person is getting angry towards you it’s not about you that they are getting angry but because they are projecting their own anger on to you, and if they can’t do it easily they are provoking you to anger, so that they can justify their own anger as a reaction to someone else’s provocation. This understanding can help you hold back and not fall into the trap of behaving in a manner in which the other person expects you to behave in order to justify their own emotions.
Another defence that is used commonly is reaction formation. “The reaction formation” is a type of defence that can explain how the conscious mind and the unconscious one work in opposite ways. If the unconscious mind has got emotions and feelings that are destructive, undesirable, anti-social and the conscious mind becomes aware of them then it creates a facade of attitudes, feelings and behaviour that are just the opposite of what is in the unconscious mind and starts behaving in a socially desirable manner. This leads to repression of one’s unconscious impulses and wishes to an extent that they don’t even find expression in the real world apart from the opposite behaviour that is exhibited by the conscious mind. If there are elements of laziness in the unconscious mind the conscious mind can adopt an attitude of hyper-punctuality and perfectionism that we commonly see in obsessive-compulsive individuals. If there are elements of attraction to immoral behaviour then the conscious mind can adopt a very rigid moral stance on issues to the point that immorality in others becomes intolerable and one initiates a crusade against them. If there are elements of aggression or indifference to people in the unconscious mind then the conscious mind adopts a persona of over-politeness and helpfulness to others and if deep down one suffers from low self-esteem then it can result in ideas of grandiosity and excessive self-importance in the conscious mind. There are important clinical implications to this understanding i.e. if one understood that the way the other person is behaving is just the opposite of what they are experiencing deep down inside themselves then one would choose to react differently to their behaviour. It may be that, in certain situations, one’s aggression towards others will turn into compassion if their behaviour can be understood in the light of what is there in the unconscious mind. In a similar fashion, if one applies this to one’s own self, one can realise that creating the opposite of what is there in the unconscious mind is not helpful in the long run, as, at some stage, one has to acknowledge what is there in the unconscious mind, in order to begin the process of self-healing and psychological growth. Living a lie doesn’t help in the long-run.
Another important defence I want to talk about here is called somatisation. Basically, it means that someone who is not able to work through psychological conflicts or deal with issues at the psychological level, converts the conflict, without their own knowledge, into a somatic symptom or a physical symptom. Sigmund Freud called this defence “conversion reaction” which means that primarily the problem was psychological but it got converted into somatic or physical symptom because of the individuals inability handle the problem at a psychological lever. However, if we study other schools of psychology and philosophy one will realise that psyche and soma i.e. mind and body have been understood as the two sides of the same coin. Almost all problems manifest or have the potential of manifesting in the form of both psychological as well as physical symptoms. Some people who are more psychologically sophisticated express their distress in the form of psychological symptoms or conflicts; whereas those who are somatically sophisticated try to describe their symptoms more in terms of bodily sensations. Sigmund Freud himself said “there cannot be a psychology without a biology” which means every thought and emotion has a molecule in our body. Unfortunately, psychology or for that matter psychiatry has not developed to the extent where the various somatic symptoms can be understood or explained in terms of psychological disorders. Hence, professionals tend to describe these physical symptoms as “vague somatic symptoms” or medically unexplained physical symptoms. Whereas many Eastern contemplative methods have understood the functioning of the mind in terms of the whole body functioning and have produced the maps of the mind that can explain the origin, the existence and dissipation of these somatic symptoms in a very scientific manner. The practical application of this understanding is that we can understand a lot of unpleasant physical symptoms or sensations in our body that we experience on a daily basis in terms of our own unconscious emotions that need to be worked on psychologically.
Another defence that is commonly used is called “repression” which means that the thought or the emotion that is unacceptable to the conscious mind gets pushed into the unconscious mind without the person being aware of it. This is the most basic defence and operated alongside a lot of other defence mechanisms. This is commonly seen in panic attacks where the person feels a sense of dread and catastrophe without knowing the exact cause. Repression is generally used to ward off the emotions of anxiety, anger, sexual feelings etc.
There are many more defences that can help us understand other behaviours i.e. teenagers using minimisation and counter-phobic behaviour to indulge in risky behaviour. The Counter phobic behaviour means going ahead and doing the feared activity which may involve risk-taking with a view to overcoming the fear.
Alcohol-dependent individuals normally use denial and rationalisation whereas identification with a lost relative is often seen in bereavement reactions.
Similarly identification and negative identification with a parent figure can explain a lot of behaviours that may not be consistent with one’s own inner self. Identification would mean imbibing or acting in a way that your parents behaved and this is based on a defence called introjection. It protects you from a sense of loss because a part of your parent has been imbibed in yourself.
However, for certain people it’s just the opposite – if they had a feeling of dislike or a feeling that their parents were not able to achieve in their lives that they had set out to achieve or were inadequate in some ways, then one has the temptation to do just the opposite in order to reach life goals different from the ones their parents had achieved. This negative identification can make them do things just the opposite of what their parents did. There is nothing wrong with following these lines of actions but it may be counterproductive if these behaviours i.e. both identification and counter identification are not consistent with one’s true inner identity.
Another related defence mechanism is identification with the aggressor which basically means that one becomes abusive towards someone because somebody else had been abusive to them. A sexually abused person becomes a sexual abuser, a bullied person becomes a bully himself, a victim becomes the aggressor and a cheated person becomes the cheat. I must say that this doesn’t happen with every individual, it’s only those who are not able to work through their emotions of being at the receiving end that they go on to become the perpetrators and find this as a way of dealing with their emotions as they haven’t found a better way of dealing with these emotions. In therapy perhaps they can learn how to handle their emotions in a more mature and adaptive way.
So far we have discussed only about half a dozen defence mechanisms but according to an estimate there are about 100 different defence mechanism that our mind uses to shield itself from stress.
I would now like to discuss the concept of ego strength as it might help us understand the minds capacity to cope with stress and how to enhance it.
The minds capacity to handle stress can be described as ego strength and the force of the unconscious emotions can be described as the unconscious impulses. Just as the conscious mind is constantly confronted by the demands from the outside world it is also confronted by the demands imposed upon it from these unconscious impulses.
If the force of the unconscious impulses is stronger than one’s ego strength then one feels destabilised, unable to concentrate, anxious, depressed, restless, agitated, and unable to enjoy life irrespective of having a strong ego strength.
On the other hand if the ego strength of the conscious mind is stronger than the unconscious impulses one feels in control, calm and collected, focused, able to enjoy things even if the force of unconscious impulses is strong.
In stress management it is therefore just not sufficient to manage the stresses imposed upon the person from the outside world, but one has to constantly work at increasing the ego strength of the conscious mind and also reducing the force of the negative unconscious impulses.
All the defence mechanisms that we have talked about are helpful in the sense that they protect the ego or the conscious mind from these harmful unconscious impulses by deflecting them, but if used long term they don’t allow the conscious mind to work on these unconscious impulses and neutralise them. Stress management therefore involves three things:
- Reducing the demands placed upon the conscious mind from the outside world.
- Reducing the demands placed upon the conscious mind from inside.
- Ability of the conscious mind to handle these demands.
In view of this the core issue in therapy should be – how to increase the ego strength or the capacity of the conscious mind to handle the demands from the outside world and also from the inside. The following techniques can be helpful:
Practising equanimity with the help of breath awareness and using the principle of impermanence which has been described in this programme elsewhere.
Adopting a witnessing attitude without being judgemental about things related to both one’s own mind and the outside world.
Not identifying with the contents of elements of the mind that are constantly changing but trying to understand oneself in terms of the characteristics or traits that have been longstanding and are likely to persist long term.
Operating from a secure silent base in the mind that is not made up of thoughts and feelings – as thoughts and feelings are constantly shifting and moving and will make it difficult for us to organise and manage things. It is therefore important that we remain connected with our inner consciousness that is silent and neutral. In short “not identifying with the thinking, judging, feeling and reacting part of the mind but with the inner consciousness that remains a silent witness and simply reflects like a mirror.
Always be on the side of the truth as it will steer us clear of using any defence mechanisms. Even if it means increasing our stress in the short term as it will make us more authentic in our everyday life.
To conclude I would like to say there are two things that can facilitate psychological growth.
- One’s ability to see the reality as it is.
- Be accepting of it.
And these two are interdependent. If we have an attitude of acceptance then we will be able to see more of reality as there will be no attempts to distort it.
And secondly, if we choose to follow the path of truth or stay on the side of the reality then in the course of doing so we will gather strength as we will start working on our unpleasant emotions rather than seeking escape by way of distorting the reality.
© Kishore Chandiramani, Consultant Psychiatrist
Emotions Clinic, Education and Training Centre Cic, Staffordshire, England