May 15, 2009

The use of the defense should attract people and not repel them

from Dr. Sanity by Dr. Sanity

I have written quite a lot about psychological defense mechanisms on this blog, primarily because I think that a solid understanding of these critical psychological processes shed quite a bit of light on both individual and group behavior. To follow-up on the post from yesterday "In Defense of Psychological Defenses", I thought it would be useful to review how psychological defenses can either be "red flags" that alert a person (or an observer) about an underlying conflict; or they can be mature adaptations to life that bring pleasure and fulfillment, as well as enhance society.

There are three key books that I refer to repeatedly that have shaped my own understanding of defense mechanisms: Anna Freud’s The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense; and George Vaillant’s two books, Adaptation to Life and The Wisdom of the Ego. I can highly recommend all three books for anyone interested in these topics.

Before I tackle the question posed in the title of this post, I would like to provide some background and context on some of the research into psychological defense mechansisms.

Many people mistakenly confuse "pop" psychology--the kind of advice you read in supermarket tabloids and magazines-- with real clinical psychiatry; and the ideas of Freud, Kohut, Bion and other theorists, with those of modern, best-selling self-help gurus, who mostly oversimplify to the point of misrepresenting those psychological concepts and ideas. Between those people who worship the gurus and those who think anything from the psychological realm is a a load of BS, there is not a lot of understanding or appreciation of the importance of some of the basic concepts of psychology and their relationship to what we now understand of neurophysiology...

Interdisciplinary groups studying neurology, physiology and psychoanalysis are discovering how useful Freudian ideas are for understanding the way the brain works and to interpret the physiology, while offering a template upon which further understanding can be built.

I recommend an article in the May, 2004 Scientific American titled "Freud Returns" for an overview of this issue (article is available online only by subscription or purchase). In the article, Eric Kandler, the 2000 Nobel laureate in physiology states that psychoanalysis is "still the most coherent and intellectually satisfying view of the mind."

George Vaillant is a brilliant researcher who has spent most of his professional career studying psychological defense mechanism and collecting data over their use during the lifetime of many individuals. I can summarize some of Vaillant's conclusions based on his extensive research thusly:

• Psychological defenses are real and used regularly by everyone • These defenses can be reliably identified and analyzed • The “maturity” of a person’s defenses is positively related to mental health • This positive association between mature psychological defenses and mental health appears to be independent of gender, social class, culture, or educational level • Maturity of defenses also predicts a person’s satisfaction with life • Maturity of defenses predicts physical health up to about age 65. After that age, other factors (most likely genetic and biological) take over. • People with significant cognitive impairment (e.g., with IQ's less than 80; or someone who is brain-damaged) have demonstrably less mature defensive styles.

In order to be adaptive, a defense:

• should regulate, rather than remove affect – that is, instead of totally anesthetizing a person, the defense would just reduce the pain (and therefore make it easier to cope; rather than to avoid coping altogether) • should channel feelings instead of blocking them (i.e., allow a healthy expression of those feelings in a way that can discharge them in socially acceptable ways rather than keep them hidden and motivating behavior) • should be oriented to the long-term; and not simply short-term comfort or avoidance • should be oriented toward present and future pain relief; and not focused past distress • should be as specific as possible (i.e., be as a key is to a lock; not as a sledgehammer applied to a door) • the use of the defense should attract people and not repel them (Vaillant points out that the use of the mature defenses --i.e., humor, altruism, sublimation etc.-- is perceived by others as attractive and even virtuous; while the immature defenses are generally perceived as irritating, repellant, and even evil). Watch this video, for example, and try to imagine how many of the political leaders in either party could be this comfortable making fun of themselves. It is a sign of psychological health when a person can take his or her foibles and appropriately mock them in a pleasurable manner.

A discussion of the factors that influence the development of mature defenses and healthy adaptation can be found here.

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