Robert F. Mullen, PhD
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This is a draft of Chapter Twenty-Eight – “Defense Mechanisms” in ReChanneling’s upcoming book on moderating social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities. We present this as an opportunity for readers to share their ideas and constructive criticism – suggestions gratefully considered and evaluated as we work to ensure the most beneficial product to those with emotional dysfunction (which is all of us to some degree). Please forward your comments in the form provided below.
“Unable to cope with fear and uncertainty,
a person resorts to denial, repression, compromise,
and hides behind the mask of a false self.”
― Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls
Unhealthy or negative coping mechanisms are called defense mechanisms – temporary safeguards against situations difficult for our conscious minds to manage. Defense mechanisms are mostly unconscious psychological responses that protect us from our fears and anxieties. At one time or another, we will likely use a defense mechanism of some kind to protect ourselves from threats to our emotional well-being and sense of self.
Without coping mechanisms, healthy or otherwise, we can experience decompensation – the inability or unwillingness to generate effective psychological coping mechanisms in response to stress – resulting in personality disturbance or disintegration.
There are extensive lists of defense mechanisms. Cognitive distortions are considered defense mechanisms. Any mental process that protects us from our fears, anxieties, and threats to our emotional well-being is a defense mechanism. Some, like Avoidance, Humor, Isolation, and Intellectualization need no explanation. Compensation, Dissociation, and Ritual and Undoing have their positive value as well and are utilized in our recovery process. The following nine coping mechanisms are commonly exploited by persons living with social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities.
Space is Limited
RITUAL AND UNDOING
Ritual and undoing as a defense mechanism is the process of trying to undo negative self-behaviors or image by performing rituals or actions designed to offset them. For example, a person may engage in excessive prayer and abstinence to compensate for unhealthy behaviors or donate to a homeless shelter to make up for profiting from the underprivileged. As we can see, there can be some value to ritual and undoing, except when we use it as an excuse to continue our adverse activities.
Substance abuse is another example – the uncontrolled or dissipation of alcohol, illegal drugs, or prescribed medications that affect our performance. Misusing drugs, pharmaceuticals, and alcohol to calm our fears and anxieties in a situation (1) can be physically harmful, (2) requires increased dosage to maintain the same effect, and (3) is a temporary solution to a long-term problem. Exercising Ritual and Undoing for positive gain is a valuable coping mechanism. It supports negative to positive neural restructuring, and the replacement (undoing) of our negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones.
Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that perpetuate our anxiety and depression. In essence, we twist reality to reinforce or justify our toxic behaviors and validate our irrational attitudes, rules, and assumptions. We have willowed down the expansive (and redundant) number of cognitive distortions to thirteen that are most associated with social anxiety disorder.
Always Being Right. Our need to always be right protects our fragile self-image sustained by our fears of criticism, ridicule, and rejection. Being right is more important to us than the truth or the feelings of others. We aren’t comfortable with thoughts or opinions that contradict our own. In our formative years, many of us were undervalued – subject to the circumstances of our childhood disturbance. Our parents may have been controlling or dismissive, and our siblings abusive. Some of us never experienced positive feedback or appreciation. This drives the impulse to disregard thoughts and viewpoints that conflict with our own.
Blaming. Blaming is when we wrongly assign responsibility for things and happenings. One focus of our accusations is external blaming – holding outside forces accountable for things that are our responsibility. Blaming someone or something for our personal choices and decisions seems illogical, but remember, SAD sustains itself on our irrationality. Internal blaming is assuming personal responsibility for the problems of other people and the things that go wrong which do not involve us. Internal or self-blaming can be expressed as power or weakness (Control Fallacies.). When we blame ourselves for our symptoms, we feed into our perceptions of incompetence and ineptitude. Believing we have power and influence over other people’s thoughts and behaviors can be seen as grandiosity. Both correspond to our low self-esteem and sense of inferiority.
Catastrophizing drives us to conclude the worst-case scenario when things happen, rather than considering more obvious and plausible explanations. It is the irrational assumption that something is far worse than it is. We validate this by Filtering out the alternatives. We anticipate and prophesize disaster and twist reality to support our projection. If our significant other complains of a headache, we assume our relationship is doomed. If this happens again, our belief is confirmed.
Control Fallacies. A Control Fallacy is the conviction that (1) something or someone has power and control over things that happen to us or (2) we hold that type of power over others. We either believe events in our lives are beyond our control, or we assume responsibility for everything. When we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as weak and powerless, blaming outside forces for our adversities. Conversely, the fallacy of internal control is when we believe we have power and influence over other people’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. We blame ourselves for their mishaps and misfortunes.
Emotional Reasoning is making judgments and decisions based on instinct or feelings over objective evidence – best expressed by the colloquialism, my gut tells me… This emotional dependency dictates how we relate to things. At the root of this cognitive distortion is the belief that what we feel must be true. If we feel like a loser, then we must be a loser. If we feel incompetent, then we must be incapable. If we make a mistake, we must be stupid. All the negative things we feel about ourselves, others, and the world must be valid because they feel true. Emotional Reasoning is an oxymoron. Resolving this opposition is a crucial element of recovery.
The Fallacy of Fairness is the unrealistic assumption that life should be fair. It is human nature to equate fairness with how well our personal preferences are met. We know how we want to be treated and anything that conflicts with that seems unreasonable and emotionally unacceptable. Fairness is subjective, however. Two people seldom agree on what is fair. The fact that those of us living with SAD are predisposed to emotional reasoning or personalization does validate the irrationality that life is fair.
Filtering. When we engage in Filtering, we selectively choose our perspective. Our tunnel vision gravitates toward the negative aspects of a situation and excludes the positive. This applies to our memories as well. We dwell on the unfortunate aspects of what happened rather than the whole picture. Negative filtering is one of the most common cognitive distortions in anxiety because it sustains our toxic core and intermediate beliefs. Our pessimistic outlook exacerbates our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. We accentuate the negative. A dozen people in our office celebrate our promotion; one ignores us. We obsess over the lone individual and disregard the goodwill of the rest. We view ourselves, the world, and our future through an unforgiving lens.
Heaven’s Reward Fallacy is when we put other people’s needs ahead of our own with an expectation of reciprocation. Contrary to others who share this cognitive distortion, SAD persons are not seeking heavenly reward, but acknowledgment in this one. We continually say yes to others while denying ourselves, We tell ourselves our motives are selfless, but we accommodate out of neediness and loneliness. Consummate enablers, we ingratiate ourselves and allow others to take advantage to compensate for our feelings of undesirability and worthlessness.
Jumping To Conclusions is judging or deciding something without having all the facts to substantiate our beliefs or opinions. We become fortune tellers and mind-readers, assuming we know what another person is feeling or why they act the way they do. When we form our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) we usually jump to conclusions because the only evidence we rely on is our fears and anxieties which are abstractions based on perception rather than reality. When we overgeneralize or filter information we usually jump to conclusions.
Labeling. When we label, we reduce an individual or group to a single, usually negative, characteristic or descriptor based on a single event or behavior. As a result, we view them (or ourselves) through the label and filter out information that contradicts the stereotype. Our SAD symptoms encourage labeling because of our preconceived notions about how others perceive us. Our fears of criticism and ridicule label our projected antagonists as rude and dismissive. If we anticipate rejection, we label them cold and untrustworthy. Negative self-labeling like inadequate and incompetent supports our sense of hopelessness and undesirability.
Overgeneralization. When we engage In this cognitive distortion, we draw broad conclusions or make statements about something or someone unsupported by the available evidence. We make blanket claims that can’t be proven or disproven. Everyone knows Suzie is a liar. To imply that everyone thinks Suzie is a liar is an exaggeration without consensus. A few colleagues may share our opinion, but not the whole world. We overgeneralize when we base our conclusions on one or two pieces of evidence while ignoring anything to the contrary.
Personalization. If someone says to us, “don’t take it personally,“ we are likely engaging in personalization. When we engage in this type of thinking, we assume we are the cause of things unrelated to us. We believe that what others do or say is a reaction to us – that random comments are personally relevant. For those of us living with social anxiety disorder, personalization is symptomatic of our belief we are the center of attention and the subject of criticism or ridicule.
Polarized Thinking. In Polarized Thinking, we see things as absolute – black or white. There is no middle ground, no compromise. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are for us or against us. We do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. We refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt. Worse than our anxiety about criticism is our self-judgment. If we are not faultless, we must be broken and inept. There is no middle ground.
Compensation is when we direct our attention and energy to complimentary aspects of our personality to avoid dealing with perceived inadequacies. In other words, we overachieve in one area of our life to compensate for failures or deficits in another. A teenager might compensate for his learning difficulties by excelling in sports. While she or he may accrue social and physical benefits, it can cause long-term problems unless educational issues are properly addressed. In recovery compensating for our fears and anxieties through certain defense mechanisms can be beneficial as long as we address them honestly and rationally. We compensate for our negative thoughts and behaviors by replacing them with healthy and productive ones. We compensate for our low self-esteem by recognizing and emphasizing our character strengths, virtues, and achievements.
Like any approach, moderation is the key. It is easy, especially for those of us living with SAD, to overcompensate by setting unreasonable expectations or undercompensate by minimizing or dismissing our character flaws.
Denial is one of the best-known defense mechanisms that we use to protect ourselves from thoughts and behaviors we cannot manage. Our inability or refusal to recognize trauma or personality defects is detrimental to recovery. People experiencing drug or alcohol addiction often deny that they have a problem, while victims of traumatic events may deny that the event ever occurred. SAD persons are disproportionately resistant to recovery because they deny its personal impact or its destructive capabilities as if, by ignoring them, they don’t exist or will somehow disappear. Our core sense of hopelessness and worthlessness does not encourage a willingness to accept our diagnosis, which is the primary criterion for recovery.
Even with overwhelming evidence, we deny feelings and experiences that need to be addressed by rejecting them or minimizing their importance. Denial allows us to lie to ourselves; it does not eliminate the situation.
Displacement involves taking out our fears and frustrations on people or objects that are less threatening. An example would be the worker, reprimanded by his superiors, who goes home and kicks the dog. This defense mechanism is prevalent in SAD persons due to our symptoms. We feel incompetent, inferior, or unlikeable. We are unduly concerned we will say something that will reveal our shortcomings. We walk on eggshells, convinced we are the center of
everyone’s attention. We anguish over things for weeks before they happen and negatively predict the outcomes. Our overriding sense of helplessness convinces us that nothing can alleviate the distress of our negative self-beliefs. When the pressure threatens to overwhelm our emotional well-being, we often take out our frustrations on persons or things that pose a limited threat such as a roommate, sibling, or total stranger.
Dissociation is a disconnect from reality to shield us from distress and traumatic experiences. In theory, our mind unconsciously shuts down or compartmentalizes distressful thoughts, memories, or experiences. Daydreaming or streaming television to avoid conflict is a harmless form of dissociation. Conversely, morphing into multiple personalities (dissociative identity disorder) is defined as psychosis.
In recovery, we deliberately dissociate ourselves from SAD as a mental exercise that helps us regenerate our self-esteem. We redefine ourselves by our character assets rather than our social anxiety disorder. To repeat the analogy I use regularly when we break our leg, we do not become the injured limb. We are someone experiencing a broken leg.
Projection is when we subconsciously deny our character defects yet recognize them in another. Rather than accepting them as a natural component of our symptoms, we project our negative thoughts, experiences, and behaviors onto someone else. Often when we instinctively dislike or avoid someone, it is because we have projected our disagreeable tendencies onto them. Oblivious to our own awkwardness, we ridicule a friend’s clumsy attempt at socializing. Or rather than deal with our unhappiness, we project it onto someone else.
Rationalization is when we justify our irrational thoughts and behaviors by creating a variety of logical explanations for them. We may be doing this intentionally, or unconsciously when we rationalize unmanageable feelings or experiences. Rationalizations are used to defend against anything that threatens our emotional well-being. Attributing our headache and dry mouth to the flu, rather than the massive consumption of alcohol the evening before is an example of trying to justify our behavior by creating an alternate explanation.
The defense mechanism of rationalization is not to be confused with rational response, which we construct by identifying and analyzing our situational fears and anxieties.
We often conflate regression with repression. Regression is when we revert to an earlier or less mature stage of psychological development where we feel safe from emotional conflict. Repression is the exclusion of painful impulses, desires, or fears from the conscious mind. Repression is a psychological attempt to unconsciously forget or block distressing memories, thoughts, or desires from conscious awareness. Often involving aggressive childhood disturbance but applicable to any untenable trauma, we direct these unwanted mental constructs into areas of our subconscious mind that are not easily accessible. In recovery, personal introspection and interrogation can expose regressed memories as part of the discovery process.
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