Defense mechanisms are among the most useful and, literally, the most dangerous aspects of our way of being in the world. A few we are most familiar with as a result of our own self observation, psych 101, or the popular language of AA, for example, include denial, rationalization, intellectualization, regression.
Regression is a reversion to earlier forms of behavior (putting my hands over my ears took avoid heading bad news). Intellectualization is a focus on the analysis of a situation rather than its emotional components (when I was first diagnosed with MS, when asked about it, I would describe its causation-demyelination-, historical origins-medieval Europe, or symptoms, but not its actual current or potential effects upon my life).
Rationalization is familiar to all of us because we employ it so frequently, giving ourselves plausible but false reasons for what we say or do (I can’t go to event X because of the weather, when actually I’m lazy or self-centered). It’s not a white lie because I believe it myself.
And there is denial! Probably the buffer most widely known in recent years because of its association with AA, and the alleged inability of alcoholics to acknowledge their addiction. But it’s applicable elsewhere (when I did not get hand controls despite the danger I was to myself and others).
In most psychological texts defense mechanisms are presented as unconscious means by which we protect our self image, pride, or vanity from perceived threats to their ability to sustain themselves. We rationalize self-centered acts, for example, because we firmly believe ourselves to be caring.
But let me go beyond that. What is so dangerous that it is worthwhile to lie or not to see reality clearly? And I suggest that what these mechanism defend against is two fundamental beliefs at the core of our modern notion of an autonomous and integrated self.
First, we want to maintain the experience of ourselves as individuals. If we were “undefended,” we might get how often what we do contradicts what we say or how we see ourselves in our mental mirrors and there can be a shattering experience. The person we think we are might turn out to be but multiple fragments. No one, but many. The “I” is no self, but a construct that holds our ever changing modern body/minds together.
Secondly, without these defenses which hold “me” in place, I would feel. They resist life. Observing my contradictions, my selfishness, my pettiness, my ignorance I would feel so deeply ashamed. Conscience, in other words, would awaken.
Defense mechanisms are a spell that keeps us enthralled to the demon of ignorance. They keep us from feeling in our bones fundamental facts of life–we have bodies that will age and sicken and die over time and we also possess a spirit that in its limited time can be truthful, compassionate, alive.
Amazing grace does not necessarily arrive gently, it may come as a shock that brings us to our knees. Once blind, but now seeing is not always welcome. After cataract operations that remove the veil from their eyes, some cannot adjust to the world of sight. As my friend Heidi reminds me that when the former prisoner from the cave, blinded by the light of reality, returns to the cave to tell the current prisoners of the world outside, he is killed by them.
John Newton, the composer of “Amazing Grace”, wrote his hymn after he survived a storm while captain of a slave ship and fulfilling a promise he made to the Lord if he were saved. With illness, frailty, and dependence we, too, are blessed with a great need to be honest with ourselves. The alternative is enslavement by the true illness and disability of self-deceit and delusion.