In the 11th edition (2015) of Kaplan and Sadock’s text, Synopsis of Psychiatry, six qualities are considered “mature defenses,” or qualities of a psychologically well-off person. While most of us harbor some neurotic, immature, or narcissistic tendencies, we can focus on the following traits to cultivate a well-lived and healthier life:
People with a modicum of these qualities meet demands while satisfying personal needs. They are adaptable, resilient, and can take on challenges and form solid relationships. (Good relationships are the greatest contributor to contentment, according to Sadock and Kaplan.)
In psychoanalysis, we distinguish life goals, such as a particular career, from psychological goals, such as greater resilience. The hope is that a strengthened psyche (internal life) will breed a better external life. The development of “mature defenses” is useful both psychologically and practically. Who you are motivates what you do, achieve, and acquire, whether a position or a person to love. Though much of disposition is innate, inherent tendencies can be honed and existence-enhancing behaviors learned.
These characteristics foster a more harmonious way of living, interpersonally and otherwise. Happy moments are more frequent when you are psychologically fortified. Altruism, anticipation, asceticism, humor, sublimation, and suppression foster positive outcomes and even inner peace.
With these traits, the chance of success in work and love improves. Freud said that meaningful work and love are the basis of mental health. Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, found that character predicts success more than test scores. I posit that a healthier, happier person is more likely to give, create, and contribute when the "inner equipment" is refined.
Let’s look at the six qualities more closely.
Self-sacrifice is healthy unless you deplete yourself or become resentful. This latter situation, called “altruistic surrender,” can be a masochistic choice and cause more harm than good. Your exhaustion and your subject’s guilt are non-deal outcomes.
Tip: Understand where to draw the line between giving and surrendering.
Anticipation steadies and readies. Healthy pessimism is a positive quality. Considering what could go wrong prepares you both psychologically and practically. Blows, setbacks, obstacles, and competitors won't blindside you. Although optimism can motivate, and negativity deflate, blind optimism leads to hard falls.
Tip: Stay the course with confidence, awareness, and good reality testing.
“Gratification is derived from renunciation.” Self-mastery is empowering. The ability to resist temptation was studied in the famous Stanford Marshmallow Test. Young children were told that if they did not eat a marshmallow put in front of them they would get two later. Those that delayed gratification turned out to be more successful adults. Asceticism is often associated with religion, but psychologically speaking, it represents the self-control that conjures happiness. This is not to say that indulgences are not necessary; they are.
Tip: The bottom line is to balance the pleasure principle (hedonistic drive) and the reality principle (ability to assess circumstances and choose discomfort to achieve a superior result.)
“Humor allows one to bear, and yet focus on, what is too terrible to be borne, in contrast to wit, which involves distraction or displacement from the affective (emotional) issue.” Tragedy and comedy can stem from the same source. Humor is a way to deal with a problem while staying connected to the source of pain, whereas wit can be an attempt to dismiss or detach from it.
Tip: Be with a person who makes you laugh because this provides both connection and distraction. You may have to sit in the sadness for a while, but that is far better than fighting it. In order to be free from heartache, you first have to feel it. Denial interferes with moving on because your energies are used (unsuccessfully) to battle truth rather than accepting it, working through it, and letting go.
Sublimation involves channeling raw instinct into refined production. Powerful energies that might otherwise cause chaos or destruction are directed into positive situations, people, projects, or goals. Trying to repress or rid intense drives, can lead to torturous inner states and uncomfortable symptoms, such as anxiety.
Tip: Know and accept what is in your core and employ it rather than running away. Follow your passion/desire/wild side, but direct it, rather than letting it direct you.
Sometimes you have to put things on the back burner. Suppression is different from repression in that the matter is within reach of consciousness but is not immediately addressed. It floats about in the back of the mind. The ability to hold back and live with the nagging discomfort of non-resolution is a skill. Suppression allows for the ripening of the solution. Sometimes you just can’t deal with it right now—and it is better that you don’t.
Tip: Wait until the solution comes to you rather than taking premature action, which can interfere with a natural course and a desired result. Timing matters. Also, if something is too overwhelming, maybe you should wait till you have support.
Everyone has something to work on, psychologically speaking. We all have healthy and less healthy qualities. If change interests you, here are 6 more tips for psychological change:
- Gather insight
- Be curious
- Practice rational self-critique
- Get comfortable with discomfort
- Remove unnecessary guilt
- See which of the six traits are already within you and build upon them. Starting with a fragment is just fine
As far as healthy traits go, I would add self-knowledge. Good-fit decisions (choices that best match the healthier side of your authentic personality) with regard to work, love, school, community, and environment can elude you if you are not self-aware. Insight protects, saves, liberates, and even leads to happiness.
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