Denial, Distortion, and Justifying the Government Shutdown

It's not about Republicans or Democrats. It's about using primitive defenses.

Posted Oct 17, 2013

There is an old joke that goes, “How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Only one. But the light bulb has to want to change.”

And this is true. Nothing really changes for anyone unless they are willing to take responsibility for their part in what is not working. Which requires insight. It’s so much easier, however, to yell, “It’s not me, it’s you!” or "You won't give me what I want!" and then stomp one’s feet, arms crossed, and blame someone else. Or in this case, shut down the government, regardless of who is harmed by this decision.  

Since the shutdown, I have found myself doing a bit of a mental status on Congress. “Insight? Poor.” “Judgment? Poor.” “Mood? Angry.” “Affect? Congruent with mood.” And I have been ticking off some of the more primitive defenses that members of Congress have employed, especially as of late. Everyone has moments when they resort to developmentally earlier ways of coping, but over-reliance on primitive defenses is the hallmark of more serious mental health problems. There are many who have already described Congress in general and some elected officials in particular as “narcissistic,” or worse, “sociopathic.” Thus, I am not going to attempt to further “diagnose” here. But some may be interested to note 5 of the more primitive defenses that, in my humble opinion, Congress has over-relied upon, particularly in the past few weeks:

1.      Denial

2.      Distortion

3.      Projection

4.      Acting Out

5.      Splitting

1.)   Denial is basically negating the actual data available to avoid some painful or otherwise unappealing aspect of reality. Most Americans did not want a shutdown. At most, only one-third of Americans supported a delay, revision to, or repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Some polls estimated this number as low as 7% in favor of repeal. That’s not even close to a majority. Many Americans were eager to finally have health insurance. Congress had access to opinion polls, newspaper editorials, blog posts, and of course, countless calls from their constituents. The data did not support the shutdown. The American people did not think they’d benefit in any way from it. And they didn’t. In fact, many suffered considerably because of it. But members of congress held onto and then acted upon what was essentially a delusional belief that the shutdown was in the service of the American people. Today is the day after an “agreement” was reached that gave the architects of the shutdown pretty much nothing that they demanded. What they did gain from the experience was a healthy dose of criticism and blame from both the American people (their ostensible employers) and their own colleagues. As well as the dubious distinction of causing a $24 billion loss in revenue. What they failed to gain was insight.

2.)   Distortion happens when we internally reshape reality into the version that suits us. Distortion can range from a delusional sense of entitlement or superiority, including moral superiority, to, at the extreme, psychotic-level distortions of reality. Creating a situation where millions of people’s livelihoods and benefits were jeopardized because you were trying to “protect” them from a law most people subject to the law either support or do not actively oppose—while you continue to draw a paycheck for “working” for them—requires a megalomaniacal distortion of reality. One prominent senator, who shall remain nameless, referred to the shutdown effort as a “remarkable victory” resulting from the House’s “profile in courage.” I’m wondering if he asked the furloughed workers or anyone else directly affected by the shutdown what they think about this “victory.” My guess would be no.

3.)   Projection involves perceiving one’s own unacceptable feelings or impulses as if they belonged to, were coming from, or are characteristic of another. At the extreme, this can reach a psychotic level of distortion. It’s the classic, “I am not mean, you are!” as one does something that most would consider quite mean spirited and vindictive. In this case, it could be, “We are not harming the country, that law is!”

4.)   Acting out involves giving in to an impulse to avoid the tension one would feel if they tried to delay expressing or acting upon it. All of that emotion (for example, aggression and entitlement) can feel like too much to contain. There were plenty of chances for our elected officials to sit down like adults and come up with a solution that took the needs of the American people into account, well before day 16. As another unnamed (here) member of Congress was quoted, “We’re not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.” Acting out does not involve thinking about the consequences of one’s actions or taking responsibility for them. If we are lucky, that comes later. If not, see “denial” and “distortion.

5.)   Splitting, like the others above, is a very common toddler and young child defense. People and things are either “good” or “bad.” They

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can’t be both. Sometimes the good person or thing can become bad, and vice versa, but there is no ability in the moment to see another in a nuanced, realistic way. A three year old might think, “I love my mommy, she is the best!” one minute, and mean it wholeheartedly. When Mommy says “no” to something, as in, “No, honey, you can’t have that cookie, because we’re having dinner soon,” and the child says, “I’m mad at you, Mommy! I hate you! You are bad!” that is splitting in action. Both times the child means what he says, and there is no mental middle ground.

Regardless of whether anyone is in favor of, opposed to, or undecided about the Affordable Care Act is not the issue here. Being able to hold differing opinions and still work with others with whom we may disagree for the common good is at issue. We need psychological defenses in order to adequately “protect” ourselves from thoughts and feelings that would otherwise be overwhelming to us. Overreliance on the defenses above, rather than on more mature ways of coping and resolving conflicts, however, interferes with the ability to form and sustain healthy relationships (personal or professional), acknowledge and take responsibility for one's actions, and in general, just makes one unpleasant and unreasonable. For our elected officials to convincingly demonstrate that their priority is, in fact, the welfare of the American people would require marked courage, insight, humility, and the decision to take responsibility for what has been wrought. Given what has transpired, I’m not optimistic that we will see that kind of change. I hope I’m wrong.

About the Author

Dr. Traci Stein, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist, certified clinical hypnotherapist, and health educator who integrates complementary/alternative and conventional healing approaches.

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