What’s at the Root of Your Defense Mechanisms
Making peace with the parts of ourselves that aren’t so pretty—cynical, self-righteous, afraid, weak—isn’t easy. What can make it possible, says Boston therapist Aimee Falchuk (founder of the eponymous The Falchuk Group), is when we realize that “negative” traits often stem from adaptive strategies we once created to protect ourselves, but that we no longer need and can now let go of. This kind of self-exploration, Falchuk explains, ultimately allows us to become comfortable with who we really are. Rather than masking or distorting uncomfortable feelings, we’re able to sit with them and express them in ways that are not self-sabotaging or destructive to others. And the real prize may actually be a collective one: If we’re also able to sit with the feelings of others that make us uncomfortable, then we have the potential to stay connected to one another—even when humanity as a whole doesn’t look so pretty.
A Q&A with Aimee Falchuk
What’s behind the distortion?
We often mask (or try to mask) our negativity and negative intentions with our idealized self-image—the person we think we are, the person we want others to see, or the person we believe we need to, or should, be. As a result, these parts of our personality often go underground. On some unconscious or semi-conscious level, however, the negativity and negative intentions exist—and we can sense our lack of integrity, which generates feelings of guilt. This can manifest into an overall belief or feeling that we are not good. The guilt is misguided and frankly can often become a way to abdicate our responsibility to do the work: The truth is not that we are not good—but that we are not in alignment. This misalignment is the result of avoiding parts of our personality that warrant our attention. When we bring attention to our distortions—to our negativity and negative intentions—we are already stepping back into alignment.
Can you give an example of operating outside of integrity?
Let’s say a child grew up in a home where anger was not allowed—any expression of it resulted in some form of rejection or abandonment by the parent or caregiver. While anger is a natural and healthy response to frustration, the child forms a generalized belief that anger means abandonment—that “negative” feelings are unsafe—and on an even more basic level, that love is conditional. While the child experiences this belief as true, it is a distortion of the truth.
“We often mask (or try to mask) our negativity and negative intentions with our idealized self-image—the person we think we are, the person we want others to see, or the person we believe we need to, or should, be.”
As a consequence, the child will use his energy to ensure his anger (and hence, abandonment), is kept at bay. To do this, he may become a people-pleaser. He may form an idealized self-image: “I am a person who can rise above anger. I am easy and agreeable. I am all-loving and serene.” The anger is still there, but because it has gone underground, buried by this idealized image, it gets acted out in distorted ways—perhaps as silent judgment, passive aggression, or a certain withholding of love: “I will not show you I am affected. I will submit to you but you will never get all of me.”
It sounds like a distortion of power, too?
Yes, there is almost always a felt sense of power in negative intentions. This child, for example, unable to express himself and his anger without risking loss, feels powerless. His judgment, passivity, and the negative intention of “I won’t” represent attempts to maintain some semblance of power and self-agency. The child finds pleasure in power and self-agency, which he then associates with the negative intent to withhold.
Pleasure and power are hard to surrender, so we need to acknowledge when we are getting pleasure and power from behavior that no longer serves us. We tap into our true power and pleasure when we can come at life more honestly and directly—when we are in integrity.
As we connect with our negative intention and explore what’s formed it, we access deep-seated feelings—often anger, sadness, and terror. If we can learn how to be with these feelings—to witness and express them—we can then transform the distortion and come back into integrity with ourselves.
“Pleasure and power are hard to surrender, so we need to acknowledge when we are getting pleasure and power from behavior that no longer serves us.”
What else it typically behind negative, or distorted, intentions?
Let’s start with resistance, which I define as anything that obstructs the movement towards truth. I define truth as the experience of being awake, aligned, in flow, of wholeness and unity. The scholar and humanist, Irving Babbitt described life—and I think by extension truth—as a “oneness that is always changing.” Our negativity and negative intentions are the resistance to the awakened and integrated flow of our life force. We resist in different ways. When I am in resistance, I am saying, “I do not want to know the truth. I do not want to feel the truth. I don’t want to do what it takes to be in truth.” Our resistance is a defense against pain—pain that parts of our personality do not believe we can survive. (For more on this theory of resistance, check out the Pathwork Guide lectures.)
Sometimes, we resist through our self-will—the demand that life be our way. Self-will is a distortion of free-will. It is a forcing current of energy set in any direction our little ego wants it to go. Self-will is born out of fear and mistrust—the belief and feeling that we must get our way to be safe, loved, accepted. Our self-will resists flexibility and surrender.
Pride is another form of resistance, often expressed as invulnerability or self-righteousness. Pride says, “I am better than you. I will not let others feel my heart. I won’t let anyone see my needs.” Pride thinks it is protecting us from the pain of showing our vulnerability. It thinks vulnerability, humility—the reality that we are not all powerful and knowing, the truth of our simplicity and ordinariness—are humiliating.
Pride also helps us manage the discomfort of complexity and conflict. If I make myself right and you wrong, I don’t have to find a way to hold space for the truth that our opposing opinions create conflict, which can be frightening. Pride creates separation from our own humanness and by extension the humanity of others. It resists humility and connection.
Fear and Duality
Fear—as a form of resistance—is when we don’t trust that we can survive the truth—the truth of life and death, loss, uncertainty, disappointment. Fear makes us question our courage. Fear keeps us in reaction—we fight, flee, or freeze. Which isn’t to say fear isn’t real—trauma behind fear needs to be honored gently and with compassion. But when the threat is perceived but not actualized, we also need to examine potential misperceptions.
Fear, as a form of resistance, views life as either/or—which can also be described as duality. Duality says, “Life OR death. Good OR bad. Pain OR pleasure. Control OR chaos.” Fear resists unity, our innate potential, our desire for evolution, and the truth that life is not either/or, but and/all.
How can we begin to address our resistance?
I ask my clients to identify which form of resistance feels most alive in them. Once they identify it, we can explore it. Let’s say someone resists through self-will and she traces it back to a fear of uncertainty. Our task is to understand what it is about uncertainty that she fears. What are the beliefs and feelings about uncertainty that make her double down on her controlling behaviors? Perhaps the belief is that uncertainty is death. Or maybe, it’s the feeling that if she surrenders her will, there will be nothing on the other side—that she will be alone and unsupported. Even just being able to name these beliefs is a step in the right direction.
“Resistance is typically a defense against pain.”
If we can learn to tolerate the feelings without needing to get rid of or distort them, then we can be with the fear in a different way. We have the opportunity to build a more trusting relationship with ourselves and with life. This is an ongoing process, and often not as linear as we wish it could be. We may touch the truth and feel safe it in for a moment, and then go back to our resistance. Our life task might be to have to meet this challenge over and over again.
As I mentioned, resistance is typically a defense against pain. It was originally formed to protect us—a creative, life-affirming set of adaptive strategies that often date back to childhood. When we come to see that these strategies are based on childhood/old perceptions, we get that they no longer serve us. And while we can feel remorse for how these strategies might have hurt us or others, we can actually be grateful for the ways they saved us in the past. From a place of self-compassion and self-acceptance, we gain an increasing sense of our own goodness, and the courage to look further at other pieces of ourselves that might feel undesirable to us.
Can you talk about how you see this kind of self-exploration playing out on a larger scale?
Wilhelm Reich, one of the pioneers of body psychotherapy, emphasized the importance of examining unconscious negativity. Reich believed that if our hidden layers of negativity were not claimed and explored, that healing and evolution was not possible. This is also true for us collectively—as communities and systems.
When we make the conscious choice to examine our negativity and negative intentions, we are more apt to take responsibility for the impact they have. We are also better able to see beyond others’ negative intentions more clearly. We can stay connected, even in the face of another person’s self-will, pride, and fear.
“How would things be different if we took responsibility for our part, if we trusted in the goodness of our opinion and that of a differing opinion—or if we were able to humble ourselves enough to listen and understand each other?”
This couldn’t be more relevant than in our current political climate, which is filled with cynicism and self-righteousness. Embedded in these behaviors are the forms of resistance discussed here: Cynicism, meaning we don’t trust in the good intentions of others = fear. Self-righteousness, meaning we deem ourselves better than the other = pride. There is also hypocrisy at work—the negative intention here says, “I will not give up my idealized self-image. I will blame and judge you and ignore the reality and responsibility of my own behavior.”
Imagine how different our political dialogue would be if we understood how our negative intentions feed the collective energy and consciousness. How would things be different if we took responsibility for our part, if we trusted in the goodness of our opinion and that of a differing opinion—or if we were able to humble ourselves enough to listen and understand each other?
I am not suggesting that we don’t resist movements that obstruct truth and justice, nor am I saying we should not hold people accountable. I am saying that the whole is the sum of its parts—and the way we show up individually in the world has a cumulative effect on the collective consciousness, and becomes embodied in the form of our systems and institutions, which in turn reflect our individual and collective struggles. Plato called this the anthropological principle; if we understand it to be true, we can’t help but examine ourselves. In some ways it becomes our civic duty.
Therapist Aimee Falchuk, MPH, MEd, CCEP is the founder of The Falchuk Group and Core Boston where she has a private practice. Aimee is also an emergency services clinician, and facilitates workshops around the country. Follow her on Facebook by joining Core Boston, which includes discussion topics and information on upcoming workshops and lectures.