While pathological and neurotic defense mechanisms are in the realm of mental illness, immature defense and coping mechanisms are considered “normal” while not optimal. The fact is that 98% of us still have a hurt inner child that is still running the show. We call these coping mechanisms immature because we expect children to display these behaviors. When they are observed in grown-up adults, we may raise our eyebrows and recognize them as a weakness or an eccentricity. We would however never put them in the category of mental illness, or requiring therapeutic intervention as they are so common in every day life. When I meditated on that topic, I found 23 of them so I split them in 4 separate categories to make this blog series more digestible:
Projection-based immature coping mechanisms
Projection is a defense mechanism where a person projects his/her impulses, feelings, habits, and/or traits onto someone else and begins to identify his own traits in that ‘someone else’. Projection is so common that it is everywhere. We see in others what we resist to see in ourselves. Most judgments have some level of projection. The closer the relationship, the more likely the projection is, and this is why there are so many projections in intimate relationships. When we receive constructive feedback, it is healthy to see to what extent the person is right about their observation so that we may learn and grow from it. If we do not understand their critique then we can ask questions until we are able to see what they saw in us. This is why brutal personal honesty is so important in this work. However, it is important to see what projection may be in their feedback too. There is no need to share back what we observed unless we feel the person will be able to receive it and learn from it. I talked sbout the philosophical aspect of projection in a previous article.
- Projective identification
Projective identification is a type of projection that involves both people. The one person does not use the other merely as a hook to hang projections on. He/she strives to find in the other, or to induce the other to become willingly, the very embodiment of projection. Throughout our relationship, I had a partner who kept repeating a number of complaints she had against me. First, she said that I had duped her into the relationship, promising her a dream that never came to fruition. I accepted this feedback because I was so much in love with her that I displayed unconsciously (and in a codependent way) what she wanted to see to win her over. Also, there were a number of unfortunate hardships that came our way. However, I got to realize that her insistence on being “duped” was projective identification. She suffered from severe separation anxiety and needed her partner to be with her all the time, always focusing on her, basically becoming an object in her reality. She did not know how to function otherwise but carried deep shame about this aspect of herself so felt that she had no other way than “duping” her partners to become her crutch. Additionally, she kept accusing me of putting my needs over hers. I am clear now that it was projective identification. As a recovering codependent, I was learning about my authentic needs and I was starting to set healthy boundaries. In her perspective, her needs were most important than mine so they had to come first. I was not allowed to have needs that would conflict with hers. She was not interested in an equal partnership and she carried some shame about it so projected it on me. She also complained that I had not put any energy into being a stepparent. While I made some efforts and committed to spend one day a week with him, my relationship with her son was not ideal because he felt her mum preferred to spend time with me rather than him (while this came from her separation anxiety) so he saw me as a rival. Also my own trauma in missing my own children lost through parental alienation created a difficult emotional dynamic to attach to my partner’s son. There was also a level of projective identification because she perceived my children as the biggest threat to our relationship so she felt a lot of guilt for not being able to support me through this ordeal. Generally speaking, narcissists will have a lot of projective identifications on codependents who gladly accept all the faults because of their low esteem. Narcissists carry too much shame to see these flaws within themselves so need to project them externally.
The concept of emotional tanking may be a bit complex to understand at first. When two people are in an intimate relationship, they are closely connected emotionally. We can visualize that each one of them is represented by a tank with emotions inside connected together by a pipe. So if one of them is repressing emotions, the pressure will be pushed back to the partner who is more emotional, empathic and less repressed. This pattern is typical with repressed brain-centered men married with an emotional woman. Let’s imagine the man is having difficulty with his supervisor and is afraid to lose his job. He does not want his wife to worry so says nothing. She notices something is not quite right so she asks him if everything is all right. He responds he is fine and starts watching TV. All his repressed anxiety « tanks » his empathic wife who suddenly feels very anxious without understanding why. She starts crying feeling sorry for herself. The man gets frustrated thinking « I have enough problems at work and now my wife is acting neurotic for no reason ! ». He asks her with an irritated voice « what’s wrong now ? » which does not help his wife’s state. He is not realizing that his wife is perfectly mirroring his repressed emotions, but because he is unwilling to see this aspect of himself, he is scolding his wife for something he created in the first place. Anyone married to an empath needs to be aware of the concept of tanking. When I was married to Teal, I made that mistake many times. I was trying to protect her from my children custody court case because this was making her very anxious but I repressed my own nervousness in the process which would erupt in her unexpectedly. This is another (selfish) reason why it is so important that we care for our loved ones’ state whether it is our spouse or children. If they are not doing well, they will tank us, especially if we are empathic.
In general, deflection means that we are passing something over to someone else in an attempt to draw the attention away from ourselves. I have written about my unfortunate bad habit of deflecting in a previous article. We deflect when we feel ashamed so our ego will deflect the shame back typically to the person who made us uncomfortable in the first place. Because we understand well the insecurities of our partner, it is easy for us to trigger their shame, and get them on the defensive so that we stop being in the spotlight. Our biggest ego fear resides in seeing our own shadows. In order to resist deflection, we need to remember that when our shame is triggered, we have an opportunity for personal growth so we are actually winning. We learn to sit with our emotion, and we take advantage of the trigger to start the process of healing. If our partner is supportive, we do it with them otherwise we isolate to take care of it on our own. If we feel there was an element of projection in our partner that triggered our shame, we let 24 hours pass and find a suitable moment to share our observation consciously with them in a way that does not trigger their shame and benefit their own inner growth. Deflection is often responsible for the quick escalation of argument between people. Taking time for self-reflection will neutralize this unhealthy habit and will require our letting go of the need to be right. For example, let’s say you are at a party and you spend most of the evening talking a pretty girl rather than being with your partner. Your partner then tells you “I really did not feel we were a couple tonight. You were all over this girl” and you respond “What are talking about? I saw how John could not stop following you all evening. Is there something going on between the two of you? Also, the dress you wore is way too provocative!”. When the deflector cannot find an argument, he can always use your own reaction against you. So in this situation, he could also say “Why are you so negative all the time? I am really tired of your constant jealousy. I feel I am suffocating!”
While useful in communication for our thinking process, labeling can become a coping mechanism to avoid feeling some unpleasant emotions triggered by other people. In cases of parental alienation, the alienating parent labels the targeted parent as bad, dangerous, irresponsible, hurtful and unreliable so as to encourage the children to abandon and hurt him/her. Because of morality and personal values, a person has to be made bad before we can hurt them. This is a well-known fact in the world of politics. The nazis called the Slavic people underman and the Jews filthy contagious rats so as to dehumanize their opponents before exterminating them. The far right French government of Vichy that was an ally of the nazis during the second World War treated the French resistance as terrorists. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US government made up a story that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ready to use against the US and that he had ties with al-Qaeda terrorists to justify their invasion of Irak to the American public. However the real motive was to keep control over Middle East oil and preserve the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. These are extreme examples but labeling creates distance between us and the person we label and prevents connection at a basic human level. When we label someone, we shield ourselves from the uncomfortable reflection they provide to us. It is another way to avoid seeing our shadow. It is another attempt by the mind to shut itself from feeling. We can label someone as young to imply they are too inexperienced for us to learn anything from them. We can label someone as irresponsible and lazy so that we do not feel the guilt that we are not helping them. We can also use labels to put people on a pedestal whether they are a celebrity, a successful businessperson, or a spiritual teacher. We idealize them and we cease to see them as a person too. We use the connection to boost our self-esteem by association or to extract valuable information from them. This is why celebrities avoid associating with fans as they feel objectified. Only equal partnerships with a balance of giving and receiving feel nurturing. So we use labeling to connect and disconnect from people independently of how we truly feel about them. Instead we can make an effort to feel the essence of anyone or anything we come into contact whether it is a prince, a beggar, a child, an animal, a tree or even a crystal.