Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Defense Mechanisms, Irrational Beliefs, and Mortification

"...what makes them defense [mechanisms] is not that they protect you from pain-- they don't, clearly. They suck at doing this, look around.  The purpose of defense mechanisms is to stop you from changing." ~ The Last Psychiatrist

As originally defined by Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalytic (PA) therapy, a defense mechanism is a tactic developed by a person’s ego to protect against anxiety. The ego is part of his three part model of the mind that also includes biological impulses (the id) and the learned values of the individual from his or her cultural milieu (the conscience or superego).  

Defense mechanisms were thought by the Freudians to safeguard the mind against feelings and thoughts that are too difficult for the conscious mind to cope with because of an internal conflict  (neurosis) between one’s natural impulses and one’s conscience. In some instances, defense mechanisms are thought to keep inappropriate or unwanted thoughts and impulses from entering the conscious mind at all.

For example, when someone's desire to have sexual relations with a stranger conflict with a belief in the societal convention of not having sex outside of marriage, unsatisfied feelings of anxiousness or  anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, the ego might employ one of the defense mechanisms.

The most common defense mechanisms are called regression, repression, reaction formation, isolation of affect, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self, and somatization. Some defenses are considered “primitive,” such as acting out, splitting, and dissociation.  Others are considered somewhat healthy, including sublimation and humor.  A man with repressed angry impulses might, for example, become a surgeon and get to both cut on people and do good at the same time. Some of these defenses are illustrated in the cartoon above. Interested readers that are not familiar with the various PA defense mechanisms can find definitions of almost all of them here

Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) therapists, as opposed to analytically oriented therapists, reject the whole concepts of the unconscious, the tripartate mind, and defense mechanisms – although they often seem to recognize their behavioral manefestations and just call them something else.  

They believe that seemingly neurotic or conflicted, Woody-Allen style behavior stems mostly from irrational beliefs.

The first cognitive therapist was Albert Ellis, who came up with his theory at least a decade before his model was hijacked by Aaron Beck.  He listed some of these irrational beliefs:

·        It is a dire necessity for adult humans to be loved or approved by virtually every significant other person in their community.

·        One absolutely must be competent, adequate and achieving in all important respects or else one is an inadequate, worthless person.

·        People absolutely must act considerately and fairly and they are damnable villains if they do not. They are their bad acts.

·        It is awful and terrible when things are not the way one would very much like them to be.

·        Emotional disturbances are mainly externally caused and people have little or no ability to increase or decrease their dysfunctional feelings and behaviors.

·        If something is or may be dangerous or fearsome, then one should be constantly and excessively concerned about it and should keep dwelling on the possibility of it occurring.

·        One cannot and must not face life's responsibilities and difficulties and it is easier to avoid them.

·        One must be quite dependent on others and need them and one cannot mainly run one's own life.

·        One's past history is an all-important determiner of one's present behavior and because something once strongly affected one's life, it should indefinitely have a similar effect.

·        Other people's disturbances are horrible and one must feel upset about them.

·        There is invariably a right, precise and perfect solution to human problems and it is awful if this perfect solution is not found.

These irrational beliefs cause people to do irrational things like overgeneralize, catastrophize, awfulize, or musterbate/should all over themselves – and this leads to low-frustration tolerance, self-pity, anger, depression, and to behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, and inaction. To a musterbater who feels a failure because he came in second at something, Ellis might reply, “What JEHOVIAN MANDATE says that you MUST come in first?”

Cognitive behavioral therapists are beginning to grudging admit that these irrational beliefs are often tied into one’s upbringing as a child. They originally believed, and many still do, that they only occur because people are fundamentally and innately irrational.

So who’s right, the CBT folks or the PA folks? Well, of course, both are right. And both are also wrong!  Let me explain.

When I first learned psychoanalytically-oriented psychotherapy, I began to notice what the Last Psychiatrist mentioned in the quote at the beginning of the post. Defense mechanisms were envisioned by Freud as protecting the self against anxiety, but neurotic people were the most anxious people out there! Yes, indeed defense mechanism suck at preventing anxiety. So what do they do? 

What defense mechanisms do, from my unified therapy (UT) prospective, is to block a person's expression of innate thoughts and desires that run counter to the roles they feel they must play to maintain homeostasis in their family of origin. If a belief or a desire conflicts with that role, it has to be blocked so that the person does not change from their role behavior. This specifically is the “change” that is blocked. People literally try to kill off parts of themselves that are incompatible with their social role (I call this mortification)

If this is the case, it becomes easy to see that the irrational beliefs listed by the CBT’ers also come in handy. People use these beliefs to discourage themselves from indulging in certain behaviors that they might otherwise want to do if they became self-actualized and stopped playing their role.  

For example, a woman with a gender role conflict who secretly wants to be a singer instead of a housewife as her sexist family demands will stop herself from ever being a successful singer if she thinks, overgeneralizing, that having failed one audition invariable means that she will never pass one in the future. That being the case, why bother to try? 

In other words, the irrational beliefs listed by Beck and Ellis serve the same function as defense mechanisms.  One could say, in fact, that they are defense mechanisms!

I once suggested to Albert Ellis during a Q and A at a therapy conference that perhaps irrational beliefs and defense mechanisms serve the same purpose. He naturally launched into a sarcastic tirade at me for daring to even think something like that. Too bad.


  1. It's interesting that you bring up The Last Psychiatrist in this post, because I've come to the conclusion that while TLP is very psychodynamic in his formulation, he is very behaviorist in his treatment plan. What do you think?

    BTW, I have a new blog and I will be writing about many of the themes that you are interested in, from a child psychiatrist's perspective. Please feel free to visit and contribute some comments.


    1. Hi Psycritic,

      Good luck with your blog - I just added it to my reading list, and added it to my list of related links.

      I'm not sure where TLP stands on things. I love some of his observations, but his posts are hard to follow and long, so I usually lose patience with them after getting part way through. It's probably his writing style, but for me, they often don't seem to coalesce into coherent arguments.