Let’s suppose you have a patient who constantly yells at family members and can’t stop herself. Everyone tiptoes around her, giving in to her angry demands. This can be confusing to understand. Is her rage the underlying feeling? Is it a defense? How do we tell the difference?
First of all, any expression of emotion that causes presenting problems and symptoms is a defense. Thus, acting out of rage and yelling are always defenses. But, to understand this, let’s dig in a little deeper.
Let’s suppose someone actually was rude to her. That is a real stimulus. In response, she will feel angry. She can express that anger adaptively to set a limit, so the other person knows not to do that again. Or she can yell and verbally abuse the other person to provoke him to punish her for being angry. That would be a defense.
We express a feeling with a dose appropriate to the situation. We express a “defensive affect” with an inappropriate dose. We express a feeling to achieve a goal in an adaptive fashion. We express a “defensive affect”, in this case, to provoke punishment.
What do we mean by “defensive affect”? A defensive “affect” either functions as or results from a defense. For instance, if I judge myself and project that judge onto you, I will imagine you are always criticizing me. In response to my projection, I will be constantly angry at your “criticism.” You don’t cause my anger; my projection causes my anger. If a woman projects that men will always reject her, she will relate to her projection, not to the men. In anticipation of the imaginary rejection, she begins to cry. She is not even on the date! Her sadness is not in response to a real loss, but to an imaginary, future loss based on her projection. This would be an example of weepiness that results from the defense of projection.
How can we tell if something is a feeling or a “defensive affect”? Several ways. First of all, if a patient feels a feeling deeply, she will feel relieved and clear. If she feels a defensive “affect” deeply she will feel worse and just as confused. For instance, if she projects onto her husband and rages at him for imaginary slights, she will feel just as enraged at the end of the session as she did at the beginning. Why? Because the projection is still in place. If she cries deeply over imaginary rejections in the future, she will feel even more depressed at the end of the session and her projection will be even more fixed. Any time a patient feels feelings deeply in session and does not feel relief, review the session to see if you were unwittingly encouraging the expression of a defensive “affect.” If so, then try to figure out what defense or defenses are creating those defensive “affects.”
Another way we can differentiate feelings from defensive “affects” is anxiety. Feelings trigger anxiety in the body. Defensive “affects” do not. Why? Defensive “affects” result from or function as defenses already, so they don’t trigger anxiety.
Another way we can differentiate feelings from defensive “affects” is process, the sequence of events in a session. A real stimulus triggers feelings, which trigger anxiety, which evokes defenses. An imaginary stimulus (e.g., projection) triggers defensive “affects” which do not trigger anxiety or defenses. Sometimes a real feeling will trigger anxiety, which is followed by a defensive “affect.” For instance, a man was angry with his boss. He became anxious then weepy. His tears washed away his anger, serving as a defense.
There are many more things we could say about defensive “affects.” In fact, I have a complete chapter on this subject in my forthcoming book, Co-Creating Change. Understanding this concept is essential to establish an intrapsychic focus with patients in the fragile spectrum.