If there’s one subject that ought to be required in the classroom, it’s the study of how we deceive ourselves. Self-deception occurs largely through unconscious mental activities that are associated with inner conflict.
It’s as if mischievous imps are cavorting inside us, duping us with cunning ingenuity and spinning reality just to bamboozle us.
The imps are us. We are the operatives in charge of our own befuddlement. We deceive ourselves largely through our psychological defenses. This process of self-deception succeeds in duping us because it operates unconsciously. Spinning reality in this way is one of our “favorite” mental activities, though unfortunately it’s also a major contributor to our misery and self-sabotage.
We instinctively and unconsciously resort to using psychological defenses to protect ourselves from our inner critic, which regularly attacks our integrity and worthiness. Ultimately, though, we give too much power to the inner critic and fail to shield ourselves from it. The inner critic, a primitive instinct impelled by self-aggression, gets away with holding us accountable and punishing us because we passively enable it. When our connection to our authentic self is weak, we unwittingly allow our passive side (inner passivity) to represent us in fending off the inner critic.
This passive side in our psyche manages our psychological defenses, but it does a poor job of protecting us. For one thing, it’s mostly protecting itself, the unconscious ego, and in doing so it resorts desperately to falsehoods and irrationality. It has limited ability to neutralize the inner critic and no interest in making us conscious of the dynamics of our inner conflict.
Here I discuss five little-known (though commonly utilized) defenses that engage in conflict with our inner critic and muddy the waters of rationality. First though, to help put our psychological defenses in perspective and explain their operating procedures, I review a few basic defenses. These are chronic blaming, chronic complaining, injustice collecting, and being chronically angry or offended.
Defenses serve to cover up our complicity in our own suffering. Chronic blaming and complaining, for instance, are two defenses we use to cover up the ways in which we contribute to our misery and self-defeat. Most of us, in varying degrees, are emotionally sensitive to feeling deprived, refused, helpless, controlled, criticized, rejected, betrayed, and abandoned. Unconsciously, we replay and recycle these hurts (the first hurts). The more bitterly we blame or complain, the more likely that we’re unconsciously determined to cover up, stir up, and cling to one or more of these first hurts from childhood. Our lingering emotional attachments to these hurts are the bread and butter of inner conflict.
Again, defenses are attempts to refute the inner critic or, failing that, to at least disarm it through negotiation. Our inner critic, operating like an authoritarian prosecutor, accuses us of what, in the authoritarian “legal system” of the psyche, constitutes a major crime. The inner critic’s indictment claims that our unconscious willingness to passively recycle unresolved negative emotions (the first hurts) constitutes a major crime. The prosecution claims that we willingly tolerate, indulge in, or “entertain” one or more of the first hurts. Inner conflict is activated when we begin to defend ourselves against this indictment.
The inner critic, in this instance, is actually correct. It has indeed identified our hidden weakness, our willingness to replay and recycle the first hurts. However, the inner critic uses the knowledge to inflict self-aggressive punishment, which, while over-the-top abusive, is consistent with its primitive, aggressive nature and its tyrannical determination to remain the master of one’s inner life.
And so, on an inner level, we’re constantly on the defensive, intent on protecting ourselves from the inner critic’s abusive advances. As a defense, injustice collecting involves, as the term implies, a process in which we accentuate emotionally the sense of being victims of injustice. This defense claims that we are innocent of all wrongdoing. We claim to be victims—poor little me—of the cold, cruel world. Our sense of victimhood, though, is often due to our unconscious determination to sneak in one or more of the first hurts, for instance feelings of being refused, controlled, rejected, or betrayed.
An injustice might be real or imagined, yet either way the injustice collector is determined to add a painful layer—the emotional embellishment of victimization—to his or her experiences. As examples, this added layer might be the misery one feels as a result of one’s unconscious willingness to experience and then exacerbate feelings of refusal, control, or criticism that arise, as part of everyday life, from challenging situations and encounters with others.
The more doggedly such individuals collect injustices, the more they unconsciously use the injustices as evidence to convince themselves that others (or circumstances in daily life) are responsible for their suffering. This psychological defense serves as their unconscious refusal to acknowledge their own willingness to indulge in one or more of the first hurts.
Being chronically offended or angry can also serve as defenses. Of course, being offended or angry is sometimes an appropriate response to egregious behavior. Even so, with healthy self-regulation we minimize our suffering. We want to be wise about what suffering is unnecessary, meaning we can put a stop to strife with others or to self-defeating acting-out when we recognize its artificial contrivance through our own inner conflict.
Defenses are always backed up by some semblance of rationality. The defense has to make a case for why it is being used or enlisted. For instance, when employing anger as a defense, a typical rationalization for the anger would be, “I’m not resonating with feeling helpless and controlled. Look at how angry I get at those people who make me feel helpless and controlled. My anger at being controlled proves I hate feeling controlled.”
This misleading rationalization, the essence of the defense, really only proves, however, how resistant this person is to acknowledging his or her willingness to resonate emotionally and painfully with feeling helpless or controlled (which are two of the first hurts).
The rationalization succeeds in leading people to believe their own lie. But the lie leaves us in the lurch. We remain entangled in the emotional attachment, meaning we will continue, in this example, to experience anger and to express it self-damagingly in order to cover up our unconscious willingness to feel helpless and controlled.
Defenses bind us rigidly to the lingering misery of the first hurts. What does liberate us, over time, is our growing recognition of both the misleading nature of defenses and the inner complicity in suffering that our defenses (and, in befittingly taking personal responsibility, we ourselves) try to cover up.
Now we come to the five little-know self-deceptions (defenses). These are 1) the pseudo-moral, 2) the magic gesture, 3) pleading guilty to the lesser crime, 4) the claim to power, and 5) negative exhibitionism. These defenses were originally identified by Edmund Bergler, M.D., and he says more about them in his book, Principles of Self-Damage, first published in 1959, as well as in his other writings.)
1) The pseudo-moral defense is a rationalization that presents a moral, ethical, or educational precept or adage for the unconscious purpose of hiding behind it. A greedy person might claim, for instance, that “Saving money is the smart thing to do.” He’s using this adage, however, to cover up the degree to which, in pursuing wealth compulsively, he is engaged in the betrayal or abandonment of his better self.
In another example, a passive husband who declines to confront an unfaithful wife might seize upon the adage that “Tolerance and forgiveness are admirable behaviors.” Here, he could be covering up his taste for submissiveness, along with his unconscious choice to experience helplessness in protecting his integrity. There are hundreds of pseudo-morals, and Bergler has a chapter on the subject in Principles of Self-Damage.
2) The next defense, the magic gesture, takes the form of an extravagant kindness extended to others. The gesture of kindness is an attempt to convince the inner critic that kindness is what one wants directed at oneself. A person unconsciously employs the defense to deny the inner critic’s claim that this person’s real aims involve being on the receiving end of refusal, rejection, or other first hurts.
In other words, the person performing the magic gesture is trying to prove that he or she wants to be treated kindly and lovingly. This gesture of kindness is itself often out of character. It’s extended extravagantly to others in order to make this claim, “This is how I want to be treated, with loving kindness.” Typically, as mentioned, this defense is covering up this individual’s unconscious willingness, through inner conflict, to recycle and replay experiences of unresolved refusal, criticism, rejection, or abandonment (from the first hurts).
3) The next defense is pleading guilty to the lesser crime. The classic example involves a man accused of murder who claims he’s innocent because he was miles away robbing a jewelry store at the time of the murder. He’s willing to accept punishment, but only for the lesser crime.
With this defense, we plead “not guilty” to the more serious charge, but “guilty” of a lesser one. In one example, our inner critic, pointing to our indecision and procrastination, claims the real crime consists of our emotional attachment to feeling helpless and controlled. Again, the inner critic is correct, but it’s scornful mockery and abuse prompts a quick denial from the defensive, passive side of inner conflict. In pleading guilty to the lesser crime, we say: “No, the problem is that I’m indecisive. I’m guilty of being indecisive.” The inner critic might now accept this plea and back off, providing we’re willing to accept sufficient punishment (in forms of guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression) for the lesser crime of indecisiveness.
Using this defense, people unconsciously plead guilty, through inner conflict, to a variety of character flaws, including being foolish, stubborn, angry, lazy, and selfish. But the character flaw is just a symptom. The person is pleading guilty to the symptom, not the underlying cause. Yet even when these guilty pleas feel like a minor victory, we are still surrendering autonomy to the inner critic and declining to acknowledge what’s going on at a deeper level.
4) The next defense, the claim to power, is based on one’s instinctive impulse to claim, again in conflict with the inner critic, that one’s true character is admirably aggressive rather than pathetically passive. “I’m not being passive,” the defense often contends. “Look at how loud and demanding I am.”
With this defense, people make mindless, reactive assertions or commit acts of verbal or behavioral aggression that they unconsciously present as “proof” that they’re not emotionally and passively entangled in unresolved infantile experiences that constitute the first hurts.
Neurotic individuals have only a narrow access to natural or healthy aggression. They operate or function more from the passive side. They’re able to access only counterfeit forms of aggression such as stubbornness, belligerence, defiance, anger, withholding, violence, and an assortment of passive-aggressive behaviors (all of which are themselves defenses).
Stubborn or angry reactions, though self-defeating, are felt by them to be preferable to passive acquiescence. Unfortunately, the inner critic turns the tables again and accuses these reactive individuals of being inappropriately aggressive. This often results in an additional plea of guilty by the passive side, followed by its (our) subsequent acceptance of more guilt and shame.
5) This fifth defense, negative exhibitionism, involves a behavior in which a person publicly displays ineptitude or folly, inducing pity, chagrin, or disgust in onlookers. This defense contains elements of the previously mentioned defenses, pleading guilty to the lesser crime and the claim to power. Negative exhibitionism, however, directly involves the visual drive. This drive is the psychological participant in our faculties of sight and imagination. Unfortunately, we sometimes unconsciously misuse these faculties, and they become involved in inner conflict.
Through the visual drive, people can be particularly sensitive to the feeling of being seen in a negative light. They can then become adepts at seeing others in critical or rejecting ways. Or they become negative peepers, and thus are unconsciously compelled or driven to see and experience aspects of their environment in critical terms or in terms of victimization.
The emotional issues underlying negative exhibitionism can involve attachments (from the first hurts) to feeling helpless, criticized, and rejected. An athlete, actor, or scholar whose performances or endeavors are plagued by mistakes or ineptitude can be reacting to the emotional belief that he or she cannot excel because of underlying unworthiness. Rather than recognizing the source of the sense of unworthiness (an attachment to feeling helpless, criticized, or rejected), the individual makes a claim to power: “Through my ineptitude, I cause the disapproval or disgust of me to happen.” He might then plead guilty to being foolishly inept and feel bad about himself on that basis.
A man who jumped out naked in front of his mother-in-law, as one of my clients once did, was reacting to the feeling that she had been thinking less of him. His negative exhibitionism asserted this claim-to-power: “I am not at your mercy, helpless to your perception of me. I, though my bold naughty behavior, am in charge of how you think about me.”
In trying to understand our defenses, it can help to recognize them as an expression of our passive side. With inner conflict, psychological defenses (the passive side) attempt to neutralize our inner critic (the aggressive side). The passive side (inner passivity) is often overwhelmed by the aggressive inner critic (also known as the superego), which can cruelly harass and condemn us with a litany of our real, alleged, or imaginary transgressions.
We might ask why our defenses are so active in the first place. Why do we instinctively feel a need to falsify reality? What facts or truth are so threatening that we need to cover them up? As mentioned, we instinctively become defensive in the face of our inner critic’s harshness and cruelty. But we also protect an ego-identification. This identification is a delicate sensitivity, an illusionary sense of who we are, that exists largely in our emotional imagination and can be both conscious and unconscious. We’re very protective of this sense of reality. Most of us feel this fragile ego to be the core of our being, and so we instinctively protect it and thereby resist allowing our consciousness to move beyond this limited sense of self and reality.
It’s now time to stop being duped by our defenses. To succeed, we need to expose the mastermind of self-deception, the scammer-in-chief, our conniving inner passivity, which can also be understood as our unconscious ego. This realm of our psyche has not been penetrated or claimed by our consciousness. It lives in fear of our inner critic. It’s where our weak, defensive identifications like to congregate and hide out. It’s time to flood this part of our psyche with self-knowledge.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.