Friday, April 08, 2011


The Democratic spin is that the elderly will starve, 32 million will die from lack of health insurance, children will grow up without educations; women and children will die horrible and painful deaths; puppies and kittehs will be mercilessly killed, and hell on earth will descend upon America. The Republican spin is that our country is drowning in unsustainable debt and to save everyone in it, we have to tighten our belts and cut spending.

Republicans were presumably elected on a wave of public discontent to deal with the crisis we face; but then they are routinely punished for doing so by death threats, recall threats and general harassment by certain elements of the electorate for trying to deal with it (Hooray for civility!). Their cuts are supposedly "too draconian" and people are mad mad enraged. It seems that many want the crushing debt to be fixed--but not if it means that their precious entitlements are going to be cut. Cut the other fellow's entitlements instead.

Of course, there are many who don't want the problem of the debt to be fixed at all. They are contemptuous toward those who are needlessly scaring everyone; primarily because they firmly believe that there is no crisis that can't be fixed by taxing the rich some more. Those dirty, grubbing rich people could fix our problems and all they would have to do is give us more of their money.

The country is almost evenly divided into people who insist that we don't have to make any cuts and can continue to fund entitlements and pet projects for forever; and those who think that we are headed for fiscal disaster along the lines of Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.

Who's right? Who's "reality based"? Whose policies are really "progressive" and will "win the future"?

Which side of this argument is attempting to adapt to an unpleasant reality? and which is exhibiting symptoms of dysfunction and maladaptation? Which side is in denial and which is avoiding reality instead of facing it?

The accusations and rhetoric are flying around on both sides; and this a favorite tactic left over from elementary school days. YOU did it! No, YOU did it....etc. etc. etc etc.

Each side claims the "facts" are on their side and that the other is generating hysteria.

But, guess what?!

There actually are logical and reasonable ways of assessing for yourself who may or may not be using maladaptive psychological defense mechanisms and avoiding reality--especially when "the facts" are claimed by both sides.

It's important to remember that anyone who is reasonably psychologically healthy is not afraid of examining their thinking processes; nor are they so wrapped up in their emotions that they are unable to appreciate their own psychological blind spots or challenges to their ability to determine what is real and what is a distortion.

Everyone who claims a modicum of psychological insight and awareness; or who claims to be "reality-based", needs to constantly monitor what they are thinking and feeling; and, in particular how their feelings might be influencing their ability to test reality.

Speaking as a psychiatrist, it is not very healthy or adaptive for either an individual or a group of individuals (i.e., a culture) to distort reality for very long. In the short-term the use of an immature or even a psychotic psychological defense (see here , here and here for details) can give a person time to adapt to painful reality without their sense of self falling apart. It gives them time to change themselves and adapt; or, alternatively, it can preserve the psychological self at the expense of the physical self. Generally, though, a significant injury or death is a rather high price to pay simply because accommodating the real world is too difficult or abhorrent.

Thus we come to the fundamental topic of this post. How does one assess if someone is using a maladaptive defense that is a symptom of an underlying refusal to acknowledge reality? Even more importantly, how can you tell when YOU YOURSELF are using maladaptive defenses to disguise your own biases and unacceptable feeliings?

Researcher George Vaillant makes the following pertinent observation:
“…whether a defense is normal or abnormal depends on the eyes of the beholder. We always regard our own vigilance toward our enemies as adaptive, but we view their mistrust of us as an unwarranted projection of their own shortcomings”

This is why accusations go back and forth in political debates that can best be summarized by the following exchange:

"You are in denial!" or "No! You are the one in denial!"
"No, you are!"
"See! What did I tell you?"

And so on. This gets rather tiresome to listen to; and we have been hearing it pretty regularly from both Democrats and Republicans. Each side in the argument believes they are free from the “contamination” of using an immature or primitive psychological defense like Denial; while the other person/side exemplifies its use.

Logically, of course one or the other may be correct in their assertion, both, or neither.

While feelings about the matter maybe useful pieces of data with which to understand reality, but they are certainly not the best tool for that purpose; and an overreliance on them to the exclusion of reason and critical thought is a strategy that cannot be successful if long-term survival is the goal. If feelings are going to be used in an argument (e.g., "I feel that you are deliberately killing women and children if you do that!") then to assess the appropriateness of one's feeling (especially in the absence of any factual evidence), the contents of the unconscious must be explored and brought to the conscious level and considered. Unconscious internal conflicts (e.g. coflicts between "ideology" and the real world, for example) can easily mask the inappropriate aspects of the feelings, making them worthless as a means of understanding what is real.

Taking this kind of action as a method of checking and understanding one's own feelings is a process called "insight" or "self-awareness". Some people do this quite naturally and honestly. Some learn in therapy or when they are in crisis. But if insight is absent then one's feelings have the potential to do great harm --both to one's self and to others.

Some unconscious factors, or psychological defenses, that can make one's feelings untrustworthy are: 1) the person you are responding to has become symbolic of someone else in your life (displacement, fantasy, or perhaps distortion); 2) focusing on one particular aspect of a person, you ignore other, more objective data that are available to you about the person (denial); 3) you place your own unacceptable feelings onto the other person--e.g., I'm not an angry person, -- he's an angry person! (projection or full-blown paranoia).

The truth is that there are countless ways that unconscious processes within ourselves can distort our responses to others and to reality itself.

Growing up and attaining maturity requires that we take a moment to consider such factors playing a role in our emotions before we act on those emotions. If we come to know ourselves and understand our own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, limitations and secrets; then our emotional responses to people or to the world can be very valuable tools to help interpret the world. But they are only tools, and if not used wisely, they can do more harm than good.

Feelings cannot be used in a court of law--for good reason. And they are not ultimate truth in the court of reality, either.

The key to gaining control over behavior that is motivated by maladaptive, unconscious defenses is to make them conscious. This requires that a person be able to reflect on his or her behavior or feelings and on the contents of one's mind; and with honesty and forthrightness develop some insight into why one feels, thinks, or acts a certain way. This is particularly important if the way one is thinking, feeling or acting is causing serious problems to one's self or to others.

Let us return to the acrimonious political debate mentioned earlier. How can you decide if someone is "projecting" or is in "denial" versus accurately responding to and interpreting objective reality? In other words, how do you tell if the use of a defense is a symptom of some underlying psychological problem versus whether it is adaptive and healthy?

In order to be adaptive, a psychological defense:

• should regulate, rather than remove affect – that is, instead of totally anesthetizing a person, the defense would just reduce the pain (and therefore make it easier to cope; rather than to avoid coping altogether)

• should channel feelings instead of blocking them (i.e., allow a healthy expression of those feelings in a way that can discharge them in socially acceptable ways rather than keep them hidden and motivating behavior)

• should be oriented to the long-term; and not simply short-term comfort or avoidance (or, short-term political gain)

• should be oriented toward present and future pain relief; and not focused past distress

• should be as specific as possible (i.e., be as a key is to a lock; not as a sledgehammer applied to a door)

• the use of the defense should attract people and not repel them (Vaillant points out that the use of the mature defenses --i.e., humor, altruism, sublimation etc.-- is perceived by others as attractive and even virtuous; while the immature defenses are generally perceived as irritating, repellant, and even evil).

A discussion of the factors that influence the development of mature defenses and healthy adaptation can be found here.

If we want to test reality and determine who is in denial and who is trying to face and adapt to an unpleasant reality, then we need to look at the behavior of both sides and apply the criteria listed above. Go for it.

Remember, one or both sides may be in denial; one or both sides may be coping with the situation in a childish and immature manner; and one or both sides may have the real "facts" of the economic situation or be ignoring the real facts. If both sides are in denial and/or childishly attempting to avoid reality, then it becomes a question of which side is closer to acknowledging and adapting to the real world.

Sometimes, especially with childish and immature children and adults, that is the best you can hope for.

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