Tuesday, August 12, 2014

If You Deny Your True Feelings, Your Children Might Just Express Them for You

A Dialectic Perspective On Defense Mechanisms.

In my post of February 11, 2011 on dysfunctional family roles, I described the roles of the savior and the avenger.  In families in which children play these roles, a parent is suppressing and/or denying strong impulses or desires which were unacceptable within the family in which the parent grew up. The parent tries, more or less, to ignore these impulses or even to pretend that they never existed.

In the case of the savior, the child acts out the parent’s repressed ambitions. In the case of the avenger, the child acts out the parent’s repressed anger and hostility. 

The above picture is a skit from the comedy duo Key and Peele doing an impression of President Obama. The President gets to act all cool and collected while his “anger translator” goes off the deep end.  This symbolizes exactly what such kids are actually trying to accomplish.

Why and how do children end up doing this?

To start with, trying to deny or ignore one’s strong emotions or urges unfortunately does not make them go away. This just plain does not work. This fact sets up what psychoanalysts call an intrapsychic conflict. The repressed urges and feelings press for expression, while the person who has them attempts to fight them off in one way or another. 

The analysts focused mostly on the individual’s mental gyrations, called defense mechanisms, by which people with intrapsychic conflicts compulsively attempt to ward off the undesired aspects of themselves while still covertly allowing themselves some hidden expression of those very aspects.

Although the analysts were wrong about a lot of things, they were certainly on the right track with the concepts of intrapsychic conflict and defense mechanisms. Those are quite real, and are universally recognized by people in our culture in their everyday lives - even by those psychologists who claim they do not exist!  

Even cognitive behaviorists have been known to shout at someone, “Don’t take your frustration out on me!”  That means the frustrated person is relieving himself of the feeling of frustration by redirecting it to someone that the person is not afraid of. This is the defense mechanism called displacement.

What the analysts missed are some of the interpersonal effects of defense mechanisms and their ramifications. It took a whole different school of therapy, family systems, to point out that repressed and warded off feelings in a parent can directly induce their children to act out those unacknowledged feelings. 

Of course, family systems therapists had to distance themselves from the psychoanalytic therapy that was the predominant paradigm when they started out. So they repaid the analyst’s favor by not acknowledging the role of the parent’s intrapsychic conflict and its aspects within the individual.

The dialectic perspective tells us that a mental phenomenon is neither exclusively an intrapsychic phenomenon nor  an interpersonal phenomenon, but both simultaneously. In fact, in general the dialectic perspective consists of the concept of both/and as usually being preferable to either/or. To fully understand psychology, we have to look at phenomena from a variety of perspectives and try to integrate them into a unified viewpoint. In today’s fragmented field of clinical psychology, an integrated, unified viewpoint is what is often sorely lacking. 

There are some of us trying to work on that (See the Unified Psychotherapy Project for more information).

So let’s get back to our repressed parent. The denial of strong feelings or urges leads people, in response to certain aspects of their family environment, to behave in a somewhat unstable way. They may appear to other family members to be highly emotionally disturbed. This affects the other family members and often leads to highly charged, dysfunctional interpersonal reactions by the whole family group.

Since group survival depends most on the functioning of the group leaders – the parents - having unstable parents frightens children. They consequently are induced to try to find ways to behave that seem to make the family interactions at least somewhat smoother. This does not mean that the interactions will become truly smooth by any means. Just more predictable and somewhat more stable. The process by which all family members strive to keep the behavior of its members within certain bounds is called family homeostasis by family systems therapists.

If the child acts out or expresses the parents’ repressed urges, the parent often calms down.  

As I explained in the earlier post, parents frequently live vicariously through identification with their children. When their children do what they themselves are afraid to do, it allows for some expression of their repressed urges. The parents may even subtly encourage these behaviors from their children without actually asking them to do anything. A parent might, for instance, grin like a Cheshire Cat as they describe their little darling’s exploits to others in the child's presence.

Of course, they cannot actually praise the behavior of the child without admitting that they think what the child is doing is a grand idea, so they have to deny that that they are subtly pushing the child in these directions. In fact, they will turn around and criticize the child for exhibiting the very behavior they are pushing the child to perform. This is the most common and typical type of double message seen in dysfunctional families. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

This general pattern of acting out is not limited to repressed ambitions and repressed hostility. A whole range of repressed feelings, urges, and even beliefs can be acted out by children. Let me give one more example.

Let’s say Mom was brought up in a severely and strictly religious family that preached that women must and should be totally subservient to their husbands. On the surface, Mom may claim to really believe that this is the way things ought to be, and join in with friends and fellow church members in loudly condemning more assertive women.

Underneath this almost smug sense of being satisfied with this allegedly morally superior way of  relating to their husbands, the women may actually be seething and chomping at the bit to decide for themselves how to behave, even if their husbands disapprove. In such a situation, they are actually jealous of the assertive women they criticize. They also covertly hate these other women, because the other women serve as a constant reminder to them that they are not really happy being on a leash. If they lived in a cave and didn’t get cable, as comedian Bill Maher used to say, they would not see that there were other options, so these hidden dissatisfactions might be easier to ignore. But alas, they do not.

Children are very perceptive and try to find ways to make Mom feel better. They look for ways to allow their mothers to vicariously live through them as they behave in a somewhat assertive way with the men in their lives. On the other hand, they cannot be too successful at being assertive in this manner, because that too would remind Mom of how unhappy she is when perhaps she does not have to be.

This bizarre situation can lead a child in this position to devise ways to walk this tightrope. Actually, there are a whole host of different strategies than can be employed to accomplish this seemingly impossible feat. For example, a daughter in this situation may marry a series of domineering and possessive men, put up with them for a while, and then go all ballistic on them in a wild and ultimately self-defeating form of rebellion that may adversely affect their own children. They then leave each men and go on to another one just like him.

Their mothers and other interested parties then get to tell them how insane they are, and also get to remain smug in the knowledge that they themselves would never act in such a manner. Being a "wildwoman" may even become a label by which other people tend to refer to them.

This is of course is just one example of ways in which children may develop a false self or persona. While the intrapsychic conflicts of the parents affect every other member of the family to a greater or lesser degree, one sibling out of many may become “it” while the others escape relatively unscathed.


  1. Dr. Allen,
    Let's suppose that one is able to identify the roles one plays in their family. How is one then able to throw aside those roles and come to knowledge of what one wants inherently, aside from a role foisted upon them by the repressed ambitions of their parents?

    1. Hi Christian,

      You ask a very important and complex question, and I'm afraid I can't give you a simple answer.

      There are two "downsides" to giving up a role like that. First, the person's family may all come down on them like a ton of bricks. In some families, parents may even threaten suicide or start or worsen substance abuse.

      Second, people in these roles have been playing them so long it becomes all they know, and they are no longer familiar with their underlying true self. The false self feels real and the real self false. This is called "existential groundlessness" and it is a frightening feeling although it does go away.

      Down deep, people in this situation really do know what they like and what they don't, but one has to start imagining themselves in various occupations and other types of relationships and re-evaluating how they might feel in those situations, and then trying things on for size even if they don't seem practical or obtainable. When one finally decides what they want to be after having avoided thinking about it for so long, the next step is to go to look for information on people who have accomplished these things, and find out how they did it. Then start doing those things even in the face of family criticisms or votes of no confidence.

      Most people will need the help of a knowlegable therapist. The types of therapy I recommend are listed here at the end of the post:

  2. Good grief! I was an only child. I needed to have a diagnosis of DID to have been able to accommodate all those functions. I think I outsourced to my school-friends.

    I recall what actor Cary Grant offered: I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. ...

    What does an unrepressed parent look like?

  3. Dr. Allen,

    You write a lot about family - relationships, dysfunction, etc. I don't mean to get too personal, but I'm curious - do you have a family (obviously, not of origin), but a spouse, children?

    It would be nice to know, to get an appreciation of your own experience, however if the question is too personal, I understand.