“That’s the way I am!” How many times have you heard that? When patients believe a defense is who they are as a person, we call that defense syntonic. That is, the patient equates who she is as a person with a choice she makes when dealing with her feelings. That’s why we respond to “That’s the way I am”, by saying, “No. It’s not the way you are, but it is a way you deal with your feelings. You are not a distant person, but a person who distances yourself from your feelings and you distance yourself from me. It’s the way you deal with your feelings. Do you see what I mean?”
Why do patients think defenses are who they are? We begin to use defenses from the earliest days of life. Think of the baby that arches her back when feeling intruded upon by her mother. These early non-verbal defenses over time become elaborated into the verbal forms of defenses we deal with in therapy. See Phebe Cramer’s book, Protecting the Self: Defense Mechanisms in Action, for a terrific summary of the development and evolution of defenses throughout childhood.
Since these defenses emerge automatically and become habits, they have never been conscious. Since the patient does not see these automatic choices (defenses), naturally she assumes they are simply part of her nature. But they are not who she is as a person. They are how she learned to protect herself with other persons. You might call her defenses the history of her suffering, how she had to protect herself when other people were anxious or angry in the face of her feelings.
These defenses are automatic and habitual, part of procedural memory. Procedural memory is the non-verbal memory of procedures. For instance, if you and I went for a bike ride, we would hop on our bikes and know how to ride. But if I asked you how you do it, you couldn’t tell me because you learned how to ride your bike not through verbal instruction, but through memorized motoric procedures. Thus, you can think of defenses as the ways the patient learned to “ride” a relationship. And sometimes that was a pretty odd relationship the patient had to ride: hence, the defenses the patient uses.
Now since the patient’s defenses are automatic and habitual, she does not see them. The patient does not wake up in the morning and say, “Note to self: use intellectualization at 4:25 today with my therapist.” These defenses just happen out of awareness. That’s why it is so important to help the patient see these automatisms. He can’t change if she can’t see the defenses that are hurting her. And she can’t change unless she can catch those defenses at the very moment they occur. But if you point out her defenses frequently enough, she can see those habits of feeling avoidance that have created her suffering. And with this new awareness, the patient can finally make a conscious choice to let go of a defense to face her feelings instead.
And one more point. I don’t refer to healthy and unhealthy “parts” of the patient. There is the patient and then there are automatic habits known as defenses. These habits are not “part” of the patient as a person, even though they are unconsciously acquired habits. For instance, let’s suppose a patient had a habit of turning right every time he came to an intersection. We would not say that is the way he is. Nor would we say that is his “unhealthy” part of the personality. We would simply say he has a funny way of driving his car. We must always differentiate the person as an agent from impersonal habits. Defenses are not an expression of the essence of the person. Rather, they express and enact identifications with other people. We will cover this later in another blog on character defenses. And this entire topic is covered in depth in my forthcoming book, Co-Creating