by Sara Schwartz Gluck, LCSW
So you might think that because I am a clinical psychotherapist, I think you need to “be in touch with your feelings” in order to reach mental well-being. That would be a reasonable, but false assumption. In fact, the pain, sadness and fear I see each day have given me some perspective radically different from what you may expect.
Sigmund Freud was the first to identify “Defense Mechanisms,” which are our minds’ way of coping with stress by blocking it out on some level. Some of those defenses include, denial, rationalization, dissociation, repression, and splitting. In my office, defense mechanisms look like arms folded across ones’ chest, saying “I don’t know” in response to questions, or lots of chatter about any topics other than the reason for the session. When kids and teens are defended in session, its often because they are not in therapy by choice, rather they are brought in by frustrated parents. Their defenses might look like eye rolling, small vicious tugs, nearly invisible kicks toward their parents, or the silent treatment.
I think of defenses as shields that we hold to protect ourselves from experiencing and feeling pain. Those of us who have been hurt might have donned full suits of armor in the form of multiple defense mechanisms. We might use denial, projection, suppression, and humor to anesthetize ourselves against that which is too overwhelming for our psyches to process. And that’s ok. That’s how we have survived rejection, abuse, trauma, neglect, loss, or betrayal. The defenses are what have allowed us to wake up each morning and live some semblance of normal life.
It’s important that we honor our resistance to talking about certain topics, and to feeling certain emotions. When we honor our defenses we are acknowledging that they have served a purpose and helped us get by. And then, when we feel stronger and safer in our lives, that’s when it is time to question the need for blocking out parts of our experiences. By listening to our inner voices, we can tune in to our needs and recognize when our defenses no longer work for us. For example, the defense mechanism called repression may have worked for a 5 year old whose parents weren’t present, as it allowed the child to push the pain aside and learn to cope with the hard reality. However, when that 5 year old grows into a 25 year old who is in a committed relationship, repression may hinder his ability to express his feelings to his loved one. And when defenses stop working for us, it is time to take a step back and decide whether we want to try a new way of thinking.
Remember, those parts of us that aren’t ready to face reality are valuable parts which have served to protect us. Let’s honor and embrace that about ourselves. And then, let’s be honest about when it is time to make a change.
by Sara Schwartz Gluck, LCSW