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Why Are You So Defensive?

Monday, October 17th, 2022

by Douglas L. Anderson, PsyD

The concept of psychological defenses dates back to Sigmund Freud.  Interestingly, the use of the word “defenses” came about because Freud liked using military metaphors to help people make sense of what he was saying.  What he saw in people was a tendency to avoid reexperiencing what they feared would be unbearable and overwhelming pain.  In other words, they were engaging in some kind of defensive process to avoid feeling their painful emotions and keep them out of awareness, as if those emotions were the enemy.

We all need to be able to do that at times.  In fact, defenses generally begin as adaptive functions, as ways of managing the emotional demands of life.

For example, think of the times you have attended a wake or a funeral where you hear as much laughter as crying.  Humor in such contexts is basically a high level defensive process that helps those who are grieving manage the agony of the life lost. 

Defenses can help us deal with grief.  They can also help us cope with anxiety.  Sometimes they help a person maintain a positive view of self.  We need defenses.

But defenses can also work against us, and they often do.  What were once adaptive and functional ways of coping with our emotional world sometimes become hazardous to our well-being.  

Pete doesn’t let himself feel the emotional pain connected to his history of being physically abused by his father during his childhood.  Instead he invests a great deal of internal or intrapsychic energy holding it in.  He gets irritable at the drop of a hat and doesn’t understand why he is so sensitive.  He numbs himself and shuts down in those moments of life where he begins to feel something.  He doesn’t realize it, but he is investing a ton of energy into holding back the pain of his childhood, and it is impacting his life and relationships every day.

But because he has maladaptively buried his emotional pain, Pete is unable to connect his current struggles with his past history.  In short, Pete is at the whim of his internal emotional currents, and the energy he invests holding his pain in limits the energy he has available to live forward.  

You are able to live forward in a good way when you acknowledge and risk feeling the emotional pain that you carry.  The goal isn’t to get rid of defenses, but rather to understand them and be aware of them.  The more aware you are, the more able you are to make choices about how you want to be or act in any situation.

I mentioned Sigmund Freud earlier.  He understood that emotional pain from past experiences stays with us.  The causes may be in the past, but the emotional pain connected to past experiences is always present, always just beneath the surface.  I sometimes describe this as our underground aquifer of affect.  

The painful affect or emotions in our aquifer need to be felt in the present moment.  That can feel threatening and very uncomfortable.  But what we know about painful human emotions is that they need to be felt and processed (grieved) in order to reduce their power in our lives.  That frees up internal or emotional energy to live life forward rather than be impacted unawares by submerged emotional pain connected to past experiences.

If you want some help dealing with your emotional pain, we have competent and caring therapists in all four of our locations - River Counseling Services in Platte, Sioux Falls Psychological Services, and Stronghold Counseling Services in Sioux Falls and in Yankton - who will meet you where you are, offering hope. That is our mission. You may schedule an appointment at the Platte office at 605-337-3444 or meet with one of our Sioux Falls or Yankton-based therapists from your computer, smartphone, or in person at any of our clinics. To schedule an appointment, please call 605-334-2696.