Psychological Self-Defense

When we feel weak or threatened, unable to trust, we find ways to defend ourselves.  Defense mechanisms are ways we’ve learned to survive.   In this blog I’ll describing some of the typical ways we defend ourselves.   Sometimes, life seems more like a jungle ready to devour us than like a tranquil forest that needs only a little trimming so we can get through it.  In times when a person feels threatened, psychological self-defense is needed and used to keep others from cutting us down, or rolling over us or sawing us into pieces.  I’ll use this terminology at times to emphasize a point.

  Denial-there is no problem in the forest!  “What makes you think I’m angry?  I’M NOT ANGRY!!”  Denial may be loudly proclaimed, or gently acknowledged, like “whistling in the dark” that really doesn’t help if something is wrong.  In denial, we act and talk as though something doesn’t bother us at all when deep down it really disturbs us.

  “Oh, I don’t mind cancelling my bridge tonight.  They know they can’t count on me.  I was looking forward to it, but Jamie’s ball game is much more important.  No, it’s O.K.  I just wish you’d go like you promised.”

Repression is another type of denial, a way to forget or “repress” unwanted information, events, instructions, appointments, or emotions (usually painful ones) and have no recollection of them.  In severe cases, repression leads to multiple personalities in which one part of the person knows nothing about another part.  Different personalities “come out” depending upon the situation confronting the person.

Aggression–“Move over, put that down, and get out of the way you worthless pup! (Whap!),” is an example of both verbal and physical aggression.
Verbal aggression is cutting others down and sawing them to pieces psychologically.  Proverbs 29:22 gives us an example of aggression, “An angry man (continually) stirs up strife, and a furious man (continually) abounds in transgression.”  Cynicism, sarcasm, belittling, constant negative criticism, and even teasing are forms of verbal aggression. Verbal aggression frequently is accompanied by some form of physical force.
Physical aggression may take the form of shaking, tickling, thumping, shoving, pushing, hitting, slapping, punching, tossing, scratching, poking, twisting, burning, binding, and cutting.
Do you need a way to get a child’s attention without either verbal or physical aggression?  Try this.  Call the child’s name and move close to the child.  Face the child, stoop to his eye level, gently place your hands on both sides of his face, turn his face toward you, and speak slowly, softly, and distinctly, looking into his eyes.  (If you are angry, wait until you are calm and caring.  Be careful not to use sudden or strong force; you do not want the child to have a neck injury.)

Passive aggression–getting others to saw themselves to pieces.  We see that someone is headed for trouble, but do not warn them of danger.  Or, we act nice on the surface, but are tricky, appearing innocent, in getting back at others for something we didn’t like.  “Forgetting” important messages and events can be a mental method of passive aggression.

 Displacement--sawing down the wrong tree in the forest.  It is expressing our anger at someone other than the original offender.  The object of our displaced anger may be completely innocent, or may have committed a minor offense.  We feel powerless to express our anger at the original offender.  We turn the saw away from the offending person to someone else, someone “safe” to pick on.  This changes the tendency of passive aggression (doing nothing to help and blaming others for things we could have changed) into “secondary aggression” or “displacement.”
The story of the boss who was mad at his wife and took it out on his secretary, who went home and scolded her child who kicked the dog who bit the cat who scratched the furniture is an example of a chain of displacement activities that may sound humorous.  But it is not funny for those who feel they cannot influence the offending person and, in their frustration, punish the child instead.
Displacement can take a sadistic twist.  Being angry at the spouse (usually the same sex as the child), we may, either unintentionally or intentionally, “set up” the child by not giving clear instructions or by failing to warn.  “Jamie, the flowers are thirsty.  Go give them a drink.”  If Jamie hasn’t carefully been shown how to water the flowers, he may take refrigerator water or juice or milk to them in a container that spills easily and create a mess.  He may turn the hose on full blast and break the outdoor plants.  The twist comes when we blame the child for doing whatever we set them up to do, “Now you’ve done it!”  We add “salt to the wounds” when the child is belittled, “You never do anything right!”  If we find ourselves in this pattern, we need to search now for help to change the pattern.  Counseling is essential.
Before going on with defense mechanisms, let’s think about instructing children in a way that fosters success and lessens their need for defensiveness.  Words and actions are better than words alone.  When you want Jamie to learn how to water the flowers, take him with you from start to finish, and talk about each step of the process as you show him what to do.

   “Jamie, come help me water our thirsty flowers.  See?  Here is where we keep the special water.  We take a little towel in case of drips.  Now this flower is a little droopy and the soil is dry when you touch it.  Touch the soil.
    The pot has a drip pan under it.  Watch how much water it takes before we see water in the drip pan.  We pour it slowly and carefully, under the leaves, so it doesn’t splash out.  This is a little plant and it doesn’t take as much as the big one over there.  Do you see any drips we need to wipe up?  Good for you!
    Now, you water the big plant and I’ll help you this time.  Then we’ll refill the water container.”

Jamie’s self-esteem builds as he pleases you and hears your words of thanks and praise when you carefully show and tell him how to do a task.  You will watch him the first time you ask him to “do it by himself.”  When he spills, you don’t scold, but with a pleasant voice and a wry smile you say, “It’s a good thing we have towels to wipe it up.”  He isn’t blamed and he doesn’t need to be defensive.  He gains skill with each practice.  If a plant tips and spills or is knocked down and broken, it is an opportunity to learn more about cleanup, plant rooting and re-planting procedures, admitting problems, becoming tolerant of self and others, and receiving forgiveness without enduring guilt.
Now, Mom, Dad, Grandpa and Grandma, Aunt, Uncle, Whoever, if you aren’t yet able to be gentle and kind when the plant tips over, practice being kind.  You, too, can learn.  Jamie is far more important than the plant.

Sadism–a sick defense mechanism that finds pleasure from inflicting physical or psychological pain on another person or animal.  Simple sadism may arise as curiosity, “What does the cat do when you pinch its tail?  Doesn’t it have a funny howl!”  

It can be malicious.  It can begin in childhood.

“Momma always treats you better than me!  I”m going to see how many times I can make you cry!”

This may happen even when the child is too young to be verbal.  You can stop the “mean” actions and words

“No, that is not nice.  You cannot bite your sister.  (Pry the mouth open with your finger and thumb.  Take away any dangerous objects; replace them with safe, soft ones.)”

Catch the “mean” child when she is behaving acceptably and tell her how much you like what she is doing.  On a regular basis, spend time alone with her doing something fun.  Let her know that you love her just as much as ever.  Let her help you with the younger child with safety for both in mind.  “Touch softly, you can wash Baby’s foot.  Oh, what a good job!”  If the ‘meanness’ persists after a period of consistent attention for positive behavior, you need outside help.
When angry with another person, we need to talk with them and solve our problems together, especially with children.

“Jamie, your sister is crying again!  What makes her cry when you are together?”     
“Don’t  know. (Head hanging low.)'”      
(Softer in voice, face to face) “I want you to play nicely together.  Then you can both be happy.  When she cries so much, you and I don’t have time to read and talk.”  (Later when sister is quiet, take Jamie aside to read or talk or play just with him.) 

Masochism–hurting oneself to relieve psychological pain or to prevent expected physical or mental pain, or as a cry for attention.

“Momma doesn’t like me any more.  If I cut myself I bet she will be sorry.”

If there is an injury, treat it matter-of-factly as you gently remove the instrument of injury.

 “You can hurt yourself when you play with knives.  Do not use the sharp knives to play with.  They are for big people to use.  I do not want you to hurt yourself.”

Over-attention or emotionally-laden attention may gratify the child.  If the child’s wishes for attention are satisfied as a result of the injury or threat of injury, it is more likely to happen again.  Be sure to give the person attention for normal, non-negative behavior.  “Self-mutilation” requires counseling if the behavior persists.  For children, you need to find a “play-therapist.”
If “I” am in an aggressive or passive-aggressive mode of behavior as an adult, I may be deceiving myself, thinking I am acting in the spirit of love, and really not knowing what I am doing, most of the time.  If I thoroughly enjoy the other’s discomfort, I am being sadistic.  At best, I need to realize something is very, very wrong, and act to get help for myself and those whom I victimize.  Get help if you are the victim, too.

Resolving Aggressive Feelings
Before going on to games as a form of defense, we need to consider better ways to handle my aggressive feelings.  I need to notice when I first begin to be uncomfortable.  What are your first signs of being uncomfortable?  A sense of uneasiness?  Pounding pulse?  Sweaty palms?  Making a fist?  Dry mouth?  Headache?  Speechlessness?      At this stage I need to say, “I am uncomfortable,” excuse myself, and leave the room until I am more in control of myself.  Practice saying, “I am uncomfortable.”  We can alter the course of events before we have become so very angry by speaking early.
Some individuals report that lithium has helped them express anger in words, whereas, before lithium they were unable to do so and acted instead.  Propanolol and carbamazepine also have been useful in reducing aggression.  Adequate, high quality protein and Vitamin B6 in the diet is necessary to produce the neurotransmitter (gamma aminobuteric acid) that reduces aggression.  Ironically, egg, much maligned for its cholesterol content, is the standard for high quality protein.
When alcohol is used to relieve the agony of inexpressible anger, it also reduces self-control.  A bad situation can deteriorate into domestic violence and violent crime.  Rage, sudden and out of proportion to the precipitating event, such as an argument, is frequently associated with alcohol use, low serotonin, low blood sugar, and temporal lobe lesions of the brain.  Impulsive anti-social behavior, arson, and high aggression levels are related to low-blood sugar and low serotonin products 5-HIAA) in the spinal fluid.
(Neurobiological Factors in Aggressive Behavior, by Enrique S. Garza-Trevina, M.D., Hospital and Community Psychiatry, Vol. 45, No. 7 (July) pp. 690-697)
In the early stage of anger we have many options.  We can change these destructive, cyclic patterns of behavior.  Uncontrollable anger does not mean that you are a bad person, although you are probably very sad about the things you do and how they complicate your relationships.  It does mean you need to do a number of things for yourself, as in this “Anti-Agression Recipe.”

“Anti-Agression Recipe.”
You need to:  1) avoid alcohol and high-sugar foods, 2) eat well-balanced meals of complex carbohydrates (starches), one tablespoon of oil each day, high quality protein, including eggs at least 2 times a week, at least 2-3 glasses of milk a day (milk is high in the protein amino acid tryptophan that is needed to make serotonin and its products in your body.), and a minimum of five to six fruits and vegetables a day, 3) exercise (to increase the stimulation to your system, physically “let off steam” and combat depression), 4) develop friends, or support groups such as AA, who are encouraging and supportive, 5) learn to recognize feelings and express them verbally, 6) learn relaxation methods, meditation, and prayer as ways of calming and affirming yourself, 7) find a job that will provide funds for nutritious meals, shelter, and adequate clothing,  8) find a clinic or physician who will provide medication as needed.
If you have done all the above and still have impulse and anger control problems, you need counseling and perhaps a specialist in neurology or psychiatry for medication to moderate your electro-chemical brain activity.

“Games” as Defense
You might enjoy reading a little book called Games Christians Play by Julie Cubertson.  If you don’t like the book at all, please read it carefully.  You see, when we cannot laugh at ourselves we have a sign that we may need some kind of help.  This book is a mirror of some of the not-so-nice and sometimes funny things we do to one another as Christians.  You might say our “trans-a-gressions.”  Often, it is the tone of voice and facial expression, in addition to the actual words we use, that belittle or embarrass others while extolling ourselves.
If you want a window into the unconscious area of your soul, ask a trusted friend to observe and report your body actions and facial expressions to you as you converse together.  When you know immediately that your words and behavior fail to match, you can check your thoughts and your friends impressions to dig a little deeper.  “You mean I was grinning from ear to ear while I was saying that?!!”  “Yes.”  Let’s listen to the original story!

“Oh, there is Sister Sue.  Sue!  Susie! I’ve been trying and TRYING to reach you!  (Sweetly, smiling.)  You MISSED Sunday School last Sunday.  I know you were probably worshipping SOMEWHERE ELSE, and you are SO BUSY.  I’m on the mission committee and I need some HELP.  If you need HELP, you always look for the BUSY people to get the job done!  We can never do enough, you know!  (Grinning and shaking index finger.)”

Of course, you do not have to be a Christian to “play head games.”  Whether or not we take part in these “games,” let us pray, “Forgive us, God, we really don’t know what we are doing much of the time.”  But the Teacher will help us learn as we ask for wisdom.
Straight Talk: a new way to get closer to others by saying what you really mean by Drs. Sherod Miller, Daniel Wackman, Elam Nunnally, and Carol Saline is the book that helped me learn to untangle my mixed motives, recognize, and control “games” in my relationships.  From the author’s awareness wheel I developed additional steps to help you get out of the vicious circles that hold you in the whirlpool of ineffectiveness.  See

Avoidance–pretending we can ignore or go around the forest, another method of defense against dealing with anger, blame, shame and guilt. Avoidance has a variety of forms, such as: changing the subject, joking, laughing, crying, trivializing, minimizing, globalizing or generalizing, joining in with tacit agreement, criticizing the other, or agreeing just in order to move on in spite of our real thoughts and feelings.  Rather than giving examples of each avoidance tactic, I think it is more important that we learn better ways to cope with life’s everyday kinds of challenges and frustrations in the next blog.

In the jungle of life, we may be using a variety of defense mechanisms to protect ourselves psychologically: Denial, Aggression (Verbal, Physical or Passive), Displacement, Sadism, Avoidance or Games.  Some defenses are sick enough to require professional help, others we can work on independently.


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