Seniors & Aging

Real Life | How our minds trick us with defense mechanisms

Guess what, folks: We’re all Freudian! And that’s normal.

Our perfectly lucid, undemented minds play their own secret tricks on us. The behavioral scientists call them “subconscious defense mechanisms.” They blast through our consciousness without telling us and without our permission. We’re totally unaware that they’ve taken over.

“The human brain is a survival machine, not a figure-it-out computer. Its main job is to shield us from the perceptions that disturb us, and autocratically change the things that we think and do,” says perception expert David Ropeik’s “Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”

Saul McLeod in his 2008 article “Defense Mechanisms” in Simply Psychology magazine, explains Sigmund Freud’s “Life is not easy!” teachings, “The ego — the ‘I’ — sits at the center of some powerful forces: Reality, society as represented by the superego; biology, as represented by the id. When these make conflicting demands upon the poor ego, we feel threatened, overwhelmed, vulnerable.”

That’s anxiety. It alerts the ego to perceived threats to its well-being. Freud explained that our egos then deploy an arsenal of defense mechanisms against them, destroying our anxieties.

You knew that, right? So, why am I, a life-business and estates guy, bothering you with this profundity from the world of psych professors? Because defense mechanisms, especially subconscious ones, daily send us, and our caregivers and care-receivers, gyrating in wrong directions, sometimes tragically. Thus, in shaping and managing the business of our and Loved One’s living, shouldn’t we laymen — you and me — know something about how to suspect, discover and counteract the hidden subconscious defenses, as we do with the conscious ones?

You’ve graciously contributed some gems from your own experience. Let’s learn more together:

Lester, a favorite client, insisted to his family and me that his diagnosis was merely a nuisance blood imbalance, and he could handle a round of his beloved golf whenever he wanted to. He really believed it, no doubt about it, and forbade “frivolous and pointless” inquiries to the doctors. So, we planned accordingly. You guessed it: The terminal cancer soon killed him, leaving the family unprepared and shocked. Lester had no idea that his ego had brilliantly and successfully invoked the defenses of denial, repression, compensation and aggressive reaction.

Those are only four of the many subconscious defenses that control us. Our egos are smarter than we think, secretly but adeptly choosing whichever ones to fool and defend us with when they sense fear, guilt, doubt, anxiety. They’re masterfully stealthy, so we sincerely and adamantly insist, “I know that’s not happening to me. No way!”

I think we needn’t master all, but let’s learn enough to know what to look for and to counteract. Thus, more examples:

One practitioner tells about Wifey who brought Hubby to him about Hubby’s “lying” about family finances and his mysterious absences from home, lies and absences so despicable that she was headed for divorce court. It turns out that he and the money were disappearing because he was gambling and treating friends to favors, totally suppressing it all because of his apprehension about her explosion as she became aware: That’s involuntary suppression. He justified doing those behaviors as revenge for Wifey’s resulting temper, drinking and aloofness: That’s rationalization and compensation. His ego insisted that the time and money were being invested in the family business: That’s confabulation, not lying. Fortunately, truth emerged and won.

“I forgot!” — to make a dental, radiology, counseling, lawyer, tax-prep, physical exam, life insurance agent, car service appointment. Sound familiar? Willful procrastinating, cheating ourselves by faking “valid” excuses to cop out on unpleasant things? Maybe, but possibly, involuntary repression. Further, when ego stonewalls an ugly thought by substituting a not-anxious activity, it’s into sublimation.

When Reader “E” is woefully bothered about something, she magnifies it, suffers all sorts of emotional and physical reactions, and runs to “dump” on a friend. Cheers for your honest introspection and wise self-therapy, “E”, but if your ego sneakily takes the issue out of your hands, and you irrationally over-dump on Friend, it’s hyper-assertiveness. And if it decides that Friend, instead of you, committed the bad stuff, that’s buck-passing projection.

Remember the proverb, “We don’t see things as they are — we see things as WE are”? That applies to hearing, too. Our egos, defending us against fear and discomfort, hear only what they want to hear. “Auditory selectivity!” says my family.

Reader Dr. O speaks of patients who subvert his instructions, insisting, “That doctor didn’t tell me that.” Their fear of bad news triggers this selective-listening denial. We also combat anxiety by intellectualizing, such as patients obsessively studying their ailments as emotionally disconnected scholars, ego-protecting against the reality of being the suffering patients.

I remember Mom ordering me to wear my galoshes to school. Fearing ridicule, my ego dispatched my left foot to kick a hole in the kitchen wall (sans galosh). That push-back, like slamming things down, throwing a tantrum or slugging the antagonist, is acting out.

We hear about rescued battered women, enslaved for long periods, astonishingly protecting their abusers, exclaiming, “But I love him!” Reminded of a few marriages like this, too? Protecting one’s ego to believe the opposite of reality is reaction formation. And if our anxiety becomes severe or prolonged enough, the ego can protect our feelings further by dissociation, disconnecting us from perceptions of time, place, identity and all that’s happening around us.

Onward we could go: compartmentalization, undoing, regression and more. But, let’s get to what to do about defense mechanisms:

Seems to me, to manage ourselves and loved ones wisely, we must know that defenses abound, and watch for and discover them. Then understand them and the true facts, and counteract or work around them. We’ll not likely achieve perfect success, but everything helps, right?

We can learn more. I’m no expert. We find experts’ wisdom in university extension courses, libraries and websites (Google “defense mechanisms”).

Let’s sit ourselves down and re-think Loved One’s and our own behavior, as objectively as we can. To help them, as well as ourselves, let’s filter out some of our own defense mechanisms’ misguidance, too.

Guidance and tips from professionals, knowledgeable experienced friends and our own good sense can alert us to clues and discovery techniques. Bring in professionals and skilled, trusted friends who can “get through” to the victim, urgently when in crisis.

Be nosy and proactive. Count the pills, study the bank statements and bills, listen carefully to Loved One and near ones. Notice the body language. If something doesn’t seem right, assume that it isn’t and needs aggressive attention. Ask incisive questions among all who might know.

Remove threats by finding alternative solutions.

Therapeutic professional treatment is welcome, essential in many cases, especially when there’s actual mental illness (perhaps undetected). It’s not to be stigmatized.

Assert firmness, stop acquiescing and condoning, and insist on corrective action. We’ll antagonize Loved One, but we’re doing him or her a vital good. And we’ll stop feeling guilty ourselves for not intervening.

Of course, above all: love, patience and understanding.

Yes, Dr. Freud, we’ll concur: Life is not easy!

Contact GARY NEWMAN at Your ideas and comments are always welcome.