How to Talk to—and Tame—Your Outdated Defenses

If you access your psychological resistances, you can free yourself from them.

Posted Jul 06, 2020

Jeff Hitchcock_Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jeff Hitchcock_Wikimedia Commons

How Your Defenses Take Hold of You

Creatively dialoguing with old defense mechanisms can enable you to stop sabotaging yourself. And however far-out such an imagined communication might seem, what could be more useful than constructively addressing facets of your character that no longer contribute to your welfare?

Richard Schwartz, the originator of Internal Family Systems Therapy (or IFS) postulates that we all have multiple "parts" to our personality. But most people can’t even recognize their defensive parts because they lurk somewhere below conscious awareness. And because these parts have become so ingrained, so second nature, and you believe they’re vital to your survival, they really don’t want you to question them either.

Having a personality—or sub-personality—of their own, they fear that if you confronted them, your motive would be to get rid of them altogether. As they see it, if you were to do that, they’d no longer be able to protect you from re-experiencing such overwhelming, discombobulating feelings as panic, terror, rage, or shame. And as distorted or exaggerated as their worrisome efforts on your behalf may be, having existed as far back as early childhood, they assume—as they have from the beginning—that you couldn’t adapt sufficiently to your family, or environment generally, without their assistance.

This may seem rather obscure. But psychologically, it makes a lot of sense.

Your defense mechanisms can be defined broadly not just psychoanalytically as repression, denial, displacement, projection, and the like, but also as excessive people-pleasing, an over-generalized distrust of others, an almost reflexive avoidance of intimacy, procrastination, passive-aggression, selective inattention or forgetting, or being afflicted with a super-harsh or strident “inner critic.” Such defenses arose in the first place because at any particular moment, whether rationally or not, you experienced an extreme threat.

That threat could have been brought about by virtually anything. Perhaps when you were a child, your mother lost her temper so badly that she threatened to put you up for adoption. Or she subjected you to a silent treatment that lasted for days but felt like an eternity. Or it could have been nothing more than how she looked at you when you were in an especially vulnerable state (as in, “if looks could kill”).

Or consider your father. What if he constantly criticized you, compared you unfavorably to one (or more) of your siblings, repeatedly gave you the message that you weren’t good enough? Or maybe subjected you to yelling and corporal punishment so out of control you literally feared for your life? Or, on the contrary, neglected you to the point that you felt totally abandoned by him?

These highly selective childhood examples, any of which could have led to acutely distressing forms of insecurity, would have led you to feel emotionally desperate. And to reduce your psychic (existential?) anxiety and pain, you would have searched for ways to mitigate this perceived hazard. Experiencing as precarious your critical attachment bond with either, or both, of your caretakers, you would have done all you could to lessen such deeply felt vulnerability.

For instance, you might have subjugated your wants and needs to those of your parents in the hope that acts of self-sacrifice would prompt them to regard you in a more positive light. Whatever parental deficiencies they may have had, you were nonetheless dependent on them, you’d feel an intense need to “earn” their understanding, empathy, and support.

On the other hand, you might have decided to cultivate an (admittedly bogus) sense of independence from them, convincing yourself that you didn’t really want or need their caring so, if you had to, you’d simply “raise” yourself. Or, by way of protesting their apparent unwillingness to adequately nurture you, you might have developed a habit of angry outbursts toward them. And this to reassure yourself that you deserved what they seemed adamant to be withholding from you. And although blaming them, rather than yourself, for what you were deprived of would have helped conceal bad feelings about yourself, it wouldn’t finally rectify them either. Worse yet, such defensive negativity—and anger is an incredibly powerful defense—would almost guarantee that over time your challenging relationship with them wouldn’t improve.

Moreover, your self-protective mechanisms against perceived rejection, failure, guilt, or humiliation aren’t just limited to immediate family concerns (and this would definitely include brothers or sisters, who may have viewed you as a rival for parental care and said or done mean things to you). In fact, any number of things in your school and home environment may have impelled you to feel anxiety or shame, the most blatant of which might relate to being a hapless victim of protracted bullying.

To sum up, in situations experienced as endangering, it was in your nature—and everybody else’s, too—to develop a whole host of defenses to protect your ego, or self-image. And, given your limited mental, physical, and emotional resources, these self-protective devices were more or less adaptive back then. They may have taken the form of going all out to garner others’ approval, avoid confrontation and conflict, or cultivate a cynical resistance toward—or distance from—anyone whom you weren’t certain it was safe to trust.

How to Empower Your Self by Convincing Your Defenses to Back Off

In the past, your defense mechanisms, albeit exaggerated and over-generalized, may have worked reasonably well in protecting you from having to endure unbearable emotions. But today these same, or similar, methods are typically self-defeating. For now, you’re more mature and (maybe even despite yourself) have developed resources for dealing with painful feelings missing when you were younger. If with certain people or in certain areas of your life, you’ve become cognizant that your behaviors regularly sabotage what you desire, it’s essential to reevaluate what, internally, may still be compelling you to act in maladaptive ways.

Whether we call it people-pleasing, approval-seeking, or a passive, overly accommodating communication style—you’ve formed the habit of acting counter to your personal interests to feel more secure in relationships. Here are some steps that will assist you in getting in touch with—and ameliorating—your no longer necessary protective mechanism. And note that these suggestions are adapted from IFS, which centers on longstanding issues deriving from past emotional disturbances:

  1. Give that part of you a name that, intuitively, feels most appropriate for you (for according to IFS theory, it’s one of your “sub-personalities,” with a mind of its own).
  2. See whether you’re able to locate that part somewhere in or around your body, evoke an image of it, identify its feelings and physical sensations, and listen to whatever it might be willing to tell you about its beliefs and biases. If you’re having difficulties “activating” it, recall the last time it functioned (however benign its intentions) to undermine you. And take care not to speak for it but—patiently—wait for it to speak to you.
  3. If it’s a dominant part, you may have “blended” or “fused” with it; ask it to separate from you, so you can know it better—or, for that matter, see whether you can distance yourself from it. (Remember, the essence of you, the innermost core of your being, isn’t—and never was—keyed to your defenses: They got “programmed” in to safeguard you from intolerable feelings that you didn’t yet possess the ability to manage effectively.)
  4. Respectfully, welcome the part into your conscious life. This step is both critical and profoundly paradoxical since you can’t but perceive it as interfering with your current goals and aspirations. Still, you want to give it its due, since you’re now aware that it originally “volunteered” to bear the burden of what felt so threatening to you. And never before has it been acknowledged—let alone, thanked—for its unceasing labors on your behalf. Showing appreciation for it is likely to lessen its rigidity and increase its willingness to take seriously the feedback you’re now wanting to share with it.
  5. Ask the part whether it knows how old you are. For it’s likely that it’s assumed you’re pretty much the same age you were when it came into being to protect you. Since it really hasn’t grown since the time it originated, it doesn’t think you have either. Because it's younger—probably much younger—than you are now, let it know—though not judgmentally—that it no longer needs to work so hard to protect you, and definitely not to the extreme degree it has until now.
  6. Give it examples of what you have been able to achieve, despite its routinely cautioning you not to extend yourself or “go for it” because it fears you’d fail or be rejected. At the same time, let it know how, in its zealous endeavors to protect you, it’s held you back, interfered with your relationships, and in many ways left you frustrated and discontented.
  7. Since protective parts regard themselves as existing independently from you and are concerned you might be driven to eradicate them, assure it that you only want to moderate its efforts—or better, choose an alternative role that would allow it to relax, maybe even take a long-needed vacation. Although you’re aware that this part only wants to help you survive better, let it know that a lot of its ideas are woefully out-of-date and that, more often than not, it’s getting in your way, trying to warn you of negative contingencies that are remote or no longer relevant.

What I’ve been describing is, admittedly, an abridgment of the rather intricate model that is IFS. I’d advise anyone who can relate to this approach to read more about it (e.g., see Reference section).

What’s most important here, however, is to realize that your defenses are not who you are. Doubtless, it could by now feel this way. But if you can get in compassionate touch with these defenses, vs. angrily confronting them, they may well be willing to let go and let you take charge of your life—as they themselves have taken charge of it until now.

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

References

Earley, J. (2009). Self-therapy: A step-by-step guide to creating wholeness and healing your inner child using IFS, a new, cutting-edge psychotherapy, 2nd ed. Larkspur, CA: Pattern System Books.

Goulding, R. A. & Schwartz, R. C. (1995). The mosaic mind: Empowering the tormented selves of child abuse survivors. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Pubs.

Internal Family Systems. https://ifs-institute.com/ [the official website for IFS, including its voluminous bookstore]

Murphy, B. (2009). About internal family systems therapy. http://www.selfledsolutions.com/resources/aboutifs.html

Schwartz, R. C. (2001). Introduction to the internal family systems model. Oak Park,IL: Trailheads Pubs.

Schwartz, R. C. (2008). You are the one you’ve been waiting for: Bringing courageous love to intimate relationships. Oak Park, IL: Trailheads Pubs.

Seltzer, L. F. (2013, Sept 11). Surprise! Your defenses can make you MORE vulnerable. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201309/surprise-your-defenses-can-make-you-more-vulnerable

Seltzer, L. F. (2017, July 19). How and why you compromise your integrity: Internal family systems therapy can free you from self-sabotaging defenses. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201707/how-and-why-you-compromise-your-integrity

Seltzer, L. F. (2018, Apr 4). Your ideal self is your unadapted self: 9 key attributes: The self we unconsciously seek—and rarely find—was originally who we were. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/evolution-the-self/201804/your-ideal-self-is-your-unadapted-self-9-key-attributes