Healthy Lies

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Although many aspects of Freud’s psychoanalytic theory have been disproven, there are some concepts that have been accepted in the field of psychology today (according to the text I was reading this afternoon). These concepts include: the unconscious, repression, projection and displacement. As I read through these concepts, I couldn’t help but try to make sense of them with respect to my own experience (apparently Freud liked to self-study as well). The process actually gave me a sense of relief, because ultimately Freud suggests that the lies we tell ourselves are simply defense mechanisms, meant to uphold good mental health. Over the past few years I have uncovered/discovered a number of lies I had been telling myself. Consequently, I felt badly about my lack of awareness and my resulting behaviours. Well, it turns out I should not have been so hard on myself. Here is a brief explanation:

As we have seen, these defense mechanisms are unconscious denials or distortions of reality. We are lying to ourselves when we use these defenses, but we are not aware of doing so. If we knew we were lying to ourselves, the defenses would not be so effective. If the defenses are working well, they keep threatening or disturbing material out of our conscious awareness. As a result, we may not know the truth about ourselves. We may have a distorted picture of our needs, fears, and desires. There are situations in which the truth about ourselves emerges, when our defenses break down and fail to protect us. This occurs in times of unusual stress (or when under- going psychoanalysis). When the defenses fail, we are stricken with overwhelming anxiety. We feel dismal, worthless, and depressed. Unless the defenses are restored, or new ones formed to take their place, we are likely to develop neurotic or psychotic symptoms. Thus, according to Freud, defenses are necessary to our mental health. We could not survive long without them.

Here are a few of these mechanisms and my history of use:

Repression: Involves unconscious denial of the existence of something that causes anxiety

I don’t think I do this, but then again if things are highly repressed, I wouldn’t know!

Denial: Involves denying the existence of an external threat or traumatic event

Direct quote from myself, to myself: “I drank a little too much last night, but that doesn’t happen often. I wasn’t that bad, and besides everyone else was doing the same thing…”

Reaction Formation: Involves expressing an id impulse that is the opposite of the one truly driving the person

Looking closely at the development of my career in recovery coaching - it was initially based on my attraction to alcohol. I wanted to oppose the desire with all my the power of my superego (conscience).

Projection: Involves attributing a disturbing impulse to someone else

“No, YOU have a drinking problem” is what I thought or said to the people around me before (and for a while after) I quit drinking.

Regression: Involves retreating to an earlier, less frustrating period of life and displaying the childish and dependent behaviors characteristic of that more secure time

Clinging to my husband for financial and emotional support, refusing to deal with adult problems and playing the victim role.

Rationalization: Involves reinterpreting behavior to make it more acceptable and less threatening

Almost every blog I’ve ever written.

Displacement: Involves shifting id impulses from a threatening or unavailable object to a substitute object that is available

Shit flows down. Only after I quit my job did I realize how much I took my workplace stress out on my family. I couldn’t fight back with my boss (the ego suppressed that) so I unloaded on my family (and some friends).

Sublimation: Involves altering or displacing id impulses by diverting instinctual energy into socially acceptable behavior

My drive to soothe anxiety with alcohol (unacceptable behaviour) with a socially acceptable behaviour - art (writing).

Well, there you have my Freudian analysis of my personal defense mechanisms. I am continually uncovering these lies as I practice mindfulness and work to improve my life. I can see now, how the lies I told myself were meant to keep me drinking, which was my go-to mechanism for reducing stress. Now that I have learned other ways to reduce tension, I no longer need the old lies. According to Freud however, the lies never stop. We continue to use a variety of defenses throughout our lives to keep us functioning and our stress levels low.

What are your defense mechanisms? Have you been lying to yourself? Can you see how the lies were meant to reduce stress and preserve your mental health?