It’s so important to see through our psychological defenses if we want to become emotionally strong and escape from suffering. Through our defenses, we lie to ourselves in much the way that parents lie to children to protect them from life’s harsher realities.
Some experts believe that psychological defense mechanisms serve a good purpose. One expert, writing at the Psychology Today website, said, “Psychological defenses are forms of self-deception we employ to avoid unbearable pain.”
“They also protect you,” said another writer at the same website, “from the anxiety of confronting your weaknesses and foibles.”
“They work as shock absorbers and help a person deal with pain,” according to another website.
Wow! Thank goodness for these defenses. Without them, we’d apparently be bouncing and rattling down the road in spasms of pain.
Wait a minute! What is this “unbearable pain” that we’re protecting ourselves from? Wouldn’t it be better if we were to see it clearly? Wouldn’t that give us a better chance to heal or resolve it? Our defenses, it seems, are preventing us from seeing ourselves more objectively. Well, what is it we don’t want to see? What reality or pain is so dangerous or threatening that we must navigate life’s highways in a truth-proof armored vehicle with jolt-free shock-absorbers?
One of the above writers provides the following answer. She says that (in a situation in which the defense of denial is being used to cover up a person’s substance abuse) “you protect your self-esteem” by refusing to acknowledge the harmful behavior. But this doesn’t make any sense. What kind of self-esteem is that? It sounds awfully fragile.
It’s true that our defenses protect us from anxiety and pain, but that emotional pain is not overwhelming. It’s all part of the intensity of feelings that invariably accompany inner growth. For the most part, anxiety and pain of this kind, as well as our defenses themselves, are elements of our resistance to inner growth and freedom. Like a baby blanket, we cling to the old self, the old order—however dysfunctional that self is. Inwardly, we’re afraid of change, afraid of the new self. Yet we won’t make much inner progress, or be able to protect and enhance political freedoms and environmental integrity, until we stop using our defenses as baby-blankets.
Our defenses protect us from being humbled at the realization of the vast extent of unconscious psychological dynamics to which, through our ego, we have been completely unaware. Our ego, the limited self with which we identify, experiences inner growth as the process of its demotion, even as a form of death. The feeling is that, were we to embark on a voyage of self-discovery, we’ll lose all our familiar landmarks and risk falling off the edge of our world into emptiness or nothingness. Our resistance to this undertaking is activated in the form of anxiety and fear. The anxiety and fear are mainly childish emotional associations along with manifestations of our resistance.
We all harbor inner fear left over from the helplessness and irrational conjectures of childhood. Inner fear is also experienced when our superego (inner aggression or inner critic) harasses and bullies our subordinate ego (the seat of inner passivity). It feels as if we need to defend ourselves (through the subordinate ego) or we’ll be crushed or annihilated (by the superego). Our psychological defenses, in large part, are mustered in an attempt to fend off our inner critic which harasses and belittles us.
We can go deeper still. Our psychological defenses are protecting not only our ego but something that is actually quite amazing. This is not something we have to be afraid of, though it does produce anxiety and pain when we approach it.
What is that deeper issue? In varying degrees, just about every one of us tends to identify with a sense of unworthiness, the deep-down impression of being a fake, a fraud, a nobody. This is the Big Enchilada and a major cause of shame, anxiety, and guilt. This is what we really defend against, the realization of how emotionally attached we can be, how identified we are, with this irrational belief. (An earlier post discusses the childhood origins of this painful belief.)
If you want to break free from this inner pain, you have to own or acknowledge your emotional attachment to the irrational belief in your unworthiness. To do so, it helps to understand that our conscious ego, when vigorously self-preoccupied, serves as a defense against this realization. The conscious ego is a complicated phenomenon—part illusion, part necessity—that can when stretched become a mental-emotional compensation for our deep, repressed personal sense of having little value, being hollow at the core and insignificant in the world. The greater our repressed self-doubt, the more self-centered and narcissistic we can become in compensation. The more we tout our individuality and superiority, the more we’re defending against realization of deeper truth, namely our identification, to a significant degree, with this conviction of our unworthiness. This emotional liability is expressed, at a collective level, in petty nationalism.
The idea from religion that we are abject sinners in need of salvation arises from this deep conviction. This sense of unworthiness is an emotional construct, a lingering existential pain from the past, not the truth about our place in the world. The problem is complicated by the fact that, unconsciously, we identify with this pain. This repressed identification with inferiority and self-rejection causes us to lose sight of who we are and who we can become.
Author and teacher Eckhart Tolle recognizes this deeper aspect. He writes in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Plume, New York. 2006): “The underlying emotion that governs all the activity of the ego is fear: The fear of being nobody, the fear of nonexistence, the fear of death.” I see it slightly differently, and the distinction is important. It may be more precise to say that the underlying factor that governs much of the activity of the ego is our emotional attachment to (or identification with) the repressed sense of being nobody. Resistance can be understood as our unconscious determination to hold on to that painful identification. We chose the suffering self we know over the mysterious stranger we don’t.
This is a challenging concept, yet there’s historical evidence for it. People resist inner growth and fiercely hold on to painful identifications rather than move toward higher consciousness. It often takes revolutions to force people to break free from their identifications with feelings of inferiority. A century ago in America, men believed themselves superior to women who were not allowed to vote. The feeling of superiority was a cover-up for their identification with women, meaning that, through women, men could slip into the familiar old feeling of what it was like to be regarded as inferior.
The same process was acted out in the American Civil Rights struggle. White racists fiercely held on to their unconscious identification with feelings of inferiority, which they covered up psychologically by projecting their unconscious inferiority-complex on to blacks. Gays have also been subjected to this unconscious behavior, in the form of decrees proclaiming the inferiority of their sexual orientation. Sexual and racial slurs can hurt so deeply because they go to the heart of this issue. Issues of inferiority are also at play in class struggles and widening income disparity and by impulses to feel disdain toward the poor. The situation is worsened by the tendency of many poor people to resonate, even if only unconsciously, with the idea of somehow being lesser citizens. The Nazis, in a grotesque rendering of unconscious humankind striving for self-importance, were egotistically mesmerized and stupefied by presiding like demigods over large-scale life and death. They actively projected upon the Jews the belief in worthlessness that they harbored and despised in themselves. The projection of this negative belief is clearly a factor in the psychological origins of intolerance.
We can break the spell our ego holds over us and become more compassionate when we make conscious our emotional attachment to that negative core impression of being nobodies. Now we can say with deep understanding, “That’s not the real me—that’s just an old emotional association. It’s powerful, though, and I have to be insightful and vigilant not to be drawn into it.”
As we see deeper into reality, we feel our goodness and value more fully. Our ego, which separates us from the feeling and the knowing of the goodness that exists in ourselves and others, steps into the background. We’re each great in our self, while at the same time very much part of (and dependent on) something greater than our self. With this awareness, we no longer need artificial defenses because we have nothing to hide.
(An earlier post, “Get to Know Your Psychological Defenses,” also deals with this subject.)