We spend a lot of time in our podcasts talking about hormone replacement, making good medical decisions, and preventative medicine. (See biobalancehealth.com podcasts with Dr. Kathy Maupin.) Today, I am going to share some thoughts on coping strategies, and the impact that our emotions have on the regulation of both our behavior and our bodies.
In the field of Psychology, we talk a good deal about the mind-body split, or the Cartesian Split, as it is sometimes called. It is a reference to Renee Descartes statement, “I think, therefore I am.” We understand this to mean that people who use logic, evidence and reasoning properties to try to solve all their problems and to “know” themselves, stay in their heads. Actually, therapists call these clients “talking heads” because they appear to be disembodied heads just floating, without feelings or true selves. It is just a verbal way to make a distinction about people who are out of touch with the information and data flow from inside their bodies. As a result of being out of touch, they are out of balance making use of only half the tools they might have for knowing what is going on with them and with their surroundings.
Balance is the key to harmony. In order to achieve balance we need to be able to access our emotional and physical side, as well as our cognitive or thinking side. There is always information being sent from these sources, but some of us have learned to close off those channels. We do not receive or process the data that comes from those channels as we try to solve our problems or deal with things in our lives. There are books in the popular literature that focus on trying to access all these channels and utilize them so that we are not just be predominantly one-sided. One example is the book The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Part of the challenge is to access the data. Another part is to incorporate it in framing our understanding and developing strategies for problem solving and relationship maintenance.
Let’s review some of the basics. It is a given that everyone experiences raw anxiety. There are lots of theories to explain why this is so. Understanding why we are creatures who have anxieties is interesting in its own right and is sometimes helpful. I think the larger challenge is to determine what we do in response to these anxieties that we have. We develop a series of coping strategies, called defense mechanisms, to help defend us against the anxieties that we have. These feelings make us afraid and uncomfortable so we try to find ways to deflect, avoid or contain our anxieties so that we can function and we can feel better.
Our defense mechanisms are unconsciously developed as our psyche learns to “read” the incoming data. Through trial and error, it discovers ways to behave, either overtly or covertly, which successfully helps to reduce or avoid the data. We can develop physical behaviors like thumb sucking that are age appropriate and help soothe us so that our fears do not terrify us. As we age and learn more about interacting with our environment, our experiments become more complex.
We move from thumb sucking to more complex behaviors such as reaction formation or projection to protect us from our fears. Reaction formation is the development of both a belief and behavior pattern that allows us to behave the exact opposite of what we desire to do. We have a desire to do something which we feel is not acceptable and which we are afraid to do because it will lead to punishment or rejection which we cannot afford. So we deny that we feel that way (denial is another defense mechanism) and begin to act and speak in the exact opposite way so that we and the world believe that we want what we say and not what we secretly desire. An example would be someone who wants to look at pornography, but finds it morally objectionable or dangerous because it might cost us our job if it was known that we behaved this way. Or, it might cost us our place in the community and the respect we have earned for being perceived as a certain type of person. It would be destructive if it became known to others that we wanted to do these things. So we use reaction formation to develop a false self, one that projects the desirable value and contains our acting out behaviors. We become anti-pornography crusaders and loudly proclaim that it is awful and that no one should ever look at it. Several well-known politicians have fallen into this trap.
Another defense mechanism we utilize is the one called projection. This is when we find some part of ourselves to be threatening or objectionable and we want to hide from it. Since we cannot admit to ourselves that we feel a certain way, we deny it (denial again) and project it on to someone else. This way we can convince ourselves that we don’t really feel this way. It is the other person who desires it and isn’t that awful that they do? This behavior is common in loving relationships that are fragile and on the rocks. I may secretly desire to change partners but the social, economic, reputational, and moral costs of doing what I want are just not acceptable on any level. So I defend myself from this desire by projecting it on to my partner. She wants to do this; she is the bad person, she is looking for someone else. Ain’t it terrible? Isn’t she bad? If I say these things about her, I protect myself from the anxieties of knowing and feeling what I want, and from the public cost of behaving in ways that may be “true” to me, but are more expensive than I am willing to afford. Often these projections allow us to unconsciously act out in other ways, which will upset our partner but for which we are not going to be held accountable. Our partner becomes mad at us and eventually tires of us and our projections have become a self fulfilling prophesy and we become innocent victims who finally get what we secretly wanted!!
In therapy, I see a lot of what I call “globalization” of defenses. By that, I mean that when we are young, we discover a strategy that becomes our preferred defense. It can be any of the defense mechanisms: denial, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, etc. It works for us as children because our choices are limited and our control over the world is not very effective or complex. As we mature, our defenses become more complex and sophisticated. We develop more finely tuned and precisely layered defenses to protect us from anxieties. When these more mature and complex defenses work, our anxieties are contained and manageable. But sometimes they do not work. When this happens, we are said to regress or retreat to more primitive defenses, primitive meaning developed earlier and being less complex. When we do this, we resort to the one defense that we preferred to use as a child and apply it to all circumstances as adults. In other words, we use the only hammer we have in our tool box and everything in sight is a nail. (This is referred to the Law of the Hammer.) This strategy is not effective, it is not nuanced or complex and it does not work to solve the problem, but it may work for a while to contain the original anxiety. Since it does not work in the long term, our difficulties lead to new anxieties in an ever increasing spiral that we cannot contain or manage. Our lives begin to unravel because we cannot adapt or modify our thoughts and feelings to protect ourselves. We lose the ability to function in healthy and productive ways.
One of the main reasons people seek out therapy is that their defenses are not working to protect them. Their lives are falling apart, their health is deteriorating and they know that they need help, or they at least hope that there is help for them. Usually when they come to a session, they want to talk about everyone else and how if all the other important people in their lives would just change the way they think or behave, then life would be better. It takes a lot of work in multiple sessions to get them to begin to look at their own behaviors and their own desires. This must happen before they begin to consider whether or not the strategies they are using are helping or hurting. Only then can progress can be made and new behaviors be tried.
These are challenging issues because they happen so far from the realm of our cognitive approaches. They are reflexive, unconscious, and automatic. When they don’t work, they are very expensive to our relationships, our economics, and our lives.