NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Understanding Internal and External Psychological Defense Mechanisms - Part 2

In a prior article, I began a discussion by describing internal and external psychological defense mechanisms.  To illustrate the points that I made in that article, I'm providing a fictional clinical vignette:

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Understanding Internal and External Psychological Defense Mechanisms
The defense mechanisms in the following fictional vignette will be identified and italicized in parenthesis to make it easier for the reader to identify (to see a full list of defense mechanisms, click on this link for the prior article):

After his girlfriend threatened to end their relationship if Ted didn't get help in therapy, Ted contacted a psychotherapist and reluctantly began psychotherapy.

Understanding Internal and External Psychological Defense Mechanisms

Ted explained to his psychotherapist that his girlfriend of two years, Amy, told him that he was too defensive and this was causing problems in their relationship.  He said that Amy indicated that she felt frustrated with him because he couldn't admit when his behavior caused problems between them.

His psychotherapist noticed that as he talked to her, Ted frequently looked away as if he was uncomfortable (non-verbal tactical defense mechanism: lack of eye contact).  He also spoke about his problems in the relationship in a vague way so that she would need to ask him to be more specific (verbal - tactical defense mechanism: vagueness).

She also noticed that Ted was sitting slumped with his arms folded across his chest and with legs crossed looking uncomfortable (non-verbal tactical defense mechanism: posture and body language).

Since Ted was only talking about what Amy thought were the problems in the relationship, the psychotherapist asked him about his opinions.  In response, after thinking about it for a minute or so, he responded by saying in a sarcastic tone, "I think things are perfect between us. (verbal - tactical defense mechanism: sarcasm).

Then, when he saw that the therapist was still waiting for his answer, he cleared his throat and said, "I'm just kidding.  Of course, I think we have problems, and I acknowledge that I can be defensive, but I think she's too hard on me" (verbal - tactical: dismissive/blaming).

Seeing that Ted was uncomfortable and highly defended, the psychotherapist realized that this was probably what Amy was dealing with in their relationship.  So, with much empathy, she decided to tactfully bring up Ted's discomfort and defensiveness in the session with her.

"I know it's difficult to begin therapy, especially during the first few sessions before you're comfortable with me.  I wonder if you've noticed that your defensiveness as we are talking," she said.

At first, Ted denied being defensive (regressive - intrapsychic: denial), so his psychotherapist pointed out the defense mechanisms that he had used so far in the therapy session at the same time that she reiterated that she understood that it's difficult to talk to a stranger about personal problems.

Ted thought about what the psychotherapist said, and he responded by beginning to talk about something unrelated to what they were discussing (verbal - tactical: changing the subject).

His therapist responded by bringing Ted back to the issue that they had been discussing and telling him that she thought it would help him to use the therapy sessions to begin to become aware of his defensive behavior.

When she asked him if he wanted the dynamic between him and Amy to improve or if he was ready to allow the relationship to end, Ted looked at her directly and said, "I don't want to lose Amy.  That's why I'm here.  I know I've been screwing up in our relationship.  It's just hard to face it."

His psychotherapist acknowledged that change is hard, especially if Ted's defensive behavior was an emotional survival strategy he learned to survive when he was younger.  In response, Ted acknowledged that he had a hard time in his family when he was growing up because both of his parents were perfectionists and he was made to feel ashamed when he made a mistake.

Over the next few sessions, the psychotherapist helped Ted to appreciate how important it was for him to use an emotional survival strategy when he was younger because it was the only way he knew how to survive with punitive parents, but that same survival strategy, defensive behavior, was no longer working for him as an adult.  In fact, she said, it's causing problems for him.

Gradually, Ted became more aware of how often he used defense mechanisms to ward off his uncomfortable feelings in the therapy sessions.  This helped him to bring that awareness to his relationship as well, so he was less defensive.

As Ted became more comfortable with his therapist over time, they worked on his unresolved childhood trauma that was at the root of his defensive behavior.  There were still times when he occasionally engaged in defensive behavior, but when he did, he was aware of it and acknowledged it to his therapist and to Amy.

Over time, Ted felt more comfortable being open with Amy and so he was less defensive.  He was able to communicate in an honest way about his feelings without being afraid that there would be the kind of repercussions that he experienced when he was a child.

Defense mechanisms are usually a life-saving emotional survival strategy when children are in an abusive and/or neglectful home and they have no other options.  These defense mechanisms help to ward off emotions that would have been overwhelming to a child.

But when that child becomes an adult, a propensity for defensive behavior causes problems.  The adult needs to first become aware of his defensive behavior and then learn new ways of relating and communicating.  If he has unresolved childhood trauma, he and his psychotherapist also need to work on resolving that trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
Defensive behavior is often unconscious so the the person who engages in it is usually unaware that he is doing so.

A skilled psychotherapist, who is tactful and empathetic, can help a client become aware of his defensive dynamic and help him to learn new ways of relating (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A psychotherapist, who is a trauma therapist, can help the client to work through underlying unresolved trauma that is at the root of the defensive behavior (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you have been experiencing the negative consequences of defensive behavior, you owe it to yourself to get help in therapy so you can free yourself of this problem.  Once you have learned healthier ways of relating and you have worked through unresolved trauma, you can lead a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome unresolved trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.