Perspective on Trauma

Building Perspective on Trauma, Loss, Attachment, Familial Pain, and Moving Forward


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The Psychology of Defense

A possible Scenario: Dean walked a now familiar path, often lying without conscious thought or ability to care about long-term consequences. He proclaimed complete honesty in the moment. “I would never do something like that. I am offended that you would even think that of me”.  Anna, questioning what she believed, once again acquiesced. 

As always the above is a fictitious scenario utilized to expand understanding within relatable context. Please note, there is no judgement regarding any part of the scenario. The relationship between Anna and Dean could be any relationship and the dishonesty about any topic. To better understand psychological defense we will focus on both Dean and Anna’s need to deny reality. In truth, whether conscious or not,  defense is born out of many experiences. For the sake of this scenario, our backstory includes a young Dean growing as an only child in a home with a domineering, critical, and dismissive father. Dean’s mother much like Anna learned to question her reality as she bumped up against irrefutable truths about who her husband was. Enjoying the perks of his success she (Dean’s mother) stayed and began to live her own separate life. She would later be discarded for a younger version of herself. This occurred when Dean was a freshman in college.

Anna grew in a home with parents who worked hard in their respective careers, who held a strong faith, and expected their children to behave well and do the right things in life. Anna’s father traveled for work and Anna was primarily cared for by her mother. Anna’s mother , a school teacher, was a kind person who went through the motions of parenthood without much connection to herself or her children. Anna the middle sibling of three sisters found her solace in reading. Daydreaming her way through childhood and adolescence, Anna met Dean during that freshman year in college.

Today, Dean is denying Anna’s confrontation around infidelity. She has found another string of text messages from yet another woman. Dean claims this is a work colleague who is obsessed with him and whom he feels sorry for. His denial holds an accusation of Anna for believing he would engage in such behavior. In reality Dean is engaging in this behavior and has since he began dating Anna 4 years earlier.

The questions we might hold include (among many) Why is Dean lying? Why is he unfaithful? Why does he not seem to care about Anna? Why does he stay in the relationship with Anna?  Why is Anna not seeing the truth? Why does Anna stay in the relationship with Dean? Why does she not seem to care about herself?

In truth the answers to these questions could be many. Dean may be unfaithful because he came of age in a home where his over bearing father and willingly oblivious mother (due to their own histories) were preoccupied with their own pain/need and both missed and dismissed Dean’s needs. They likely missed many cues for interaction; leaving their son ill equipped for reciprocal relationship. Many things may have been hidden (or just not acknowledged) and Dean’s pleas for connection may have been met by his father’s criticism (never being quite enough). As he grew, he may have become more aware of the unspoken truths regarding his father’s behaviors and his mother’s willingness to simply (or complexly) not see in spite of mistreatment. Left with no genuine connection from either parent and innate need for connection he found this could occur (at a tolerable level) in short lived affairs. Affairs where he could feel wanted and held in the same familiar secrecy in which he grew. He needed and wanted stability. He needed but could not tolerate intimate sustained connection. It was to threatening. It meant navigating reality, (the realness of connection with another who wanted the same from him.) He had no roadmap for this. Nor did he have a roadmap for being safely seen. He was only met with criticism or dismissal. He had only a deep unmet need that was momentarily filled by connections he could tolerate.

Dean needed and wanted Anna to stay. He wanted her to keep him in spite of his infidelity or because of his infidelity. This was his roadmap. A deeply neurobiological (complex and automatic) set of behaviors in response to feelings around connection. Infidelity. secrecy, and lying were now habitual behaviors within this process. The process of his innate (neurobiologically driven) need to be seen and loved.

Anna who had a relatively normal (and in some ways) uneventful childhood, was also driven by the innate need to connect. A need to be seen, heard, and accepted in relationship. Her parents were kind, hard working, and also dismissive. They too missed their daughter’s cues for connection. They were proud of her and her sisters. They were physically present but not truly connected to their children’s emotions and experiences. Anna learned (at a young age) to make them proud. She excelled at academics, was a part of many clubs, was a cheerleader in high-school, and always tried to do the right thing. She learned that when she did the right thing, or excelled in activity her parents were proud. She felt loved, seen and heard (connected). In reality, though her parents were well intended, there was no one to help her with difficult emotions. Her parents always said the words “it will be alright”, never truly giving her a framework for managing complex feelings.

When Anna was 5 years of age, her maternal grandmother (who she and her sisters had spent many days with) passed away. Anna was deeply sad, as were her sister’s and parents-(especially her mom it seemed).  Anna saw and felt sadness and pain all around her. She heard words from her parents. Words that said, “it will be alright Grandma’s in heaven. We don’t have to be sad, God will take care of her now”.  Anna was told the same thing, at age 9, when her childhood puppy (Buddy) passed away. No need to feel (what you naturally feel and need resolve for) “it will be alright-Buddy’s in a better place”.  When she was 12 she almost won the school spelling competition, missing it by one word. She was deeply sad and disappointed in herself. It always felt so good when mom and dad would say “good job, were proud of you”. This never lasted long, but it was something! In those moments Anna felt loved. She always knew mom and dad loved her but they paid closer attention (for a brief moment before returning to regular life) in those moments. She heard, “it’s okay -you will study harder and do it next time. No need to feel sad”. These were sentiments Anna heard over and over in any situation in which she did feel emotion. She learned to push feelings away, to not quite believe her experience. She felt something ~ but mom and dad said not to worry, that it would be okay, try harder, faith will take care or this. This was Anna’s roadmap. Again, a deeply ingrained set of behaviors took shape in response to emotion/avoidance of emotion.

When Dean lies to Anna, or is in another affair, she relies on what she believes to be true. She denies her pain and her reality. She turns to trying harder, doing the right thing, and believing it will all be ok if she is better. She stays and tries harder believing that if she succeeds she will feel loved. This is what she learned throughout her life. She felt loved in those brief moments of acknowledgement for being good. She now tries to be good enough for Dean.

In many ways Anna and Dean were programmed to be in the relationship they are today.  And though it is a fictitious one , it is one that provides an example of how psychological defense is born and how it can take form.

Perspective: Psychological defense is born out of pain and the need to avoid this pain. In childhood we learn to connect with our parents (whom we deeply need) in any form our parents can tolerate. We learn about ourselves, others, and how to navigate future relationships within these early relationships.

Dean learned he felt loved within the context of brief affairs. If we expanded his story, we would see his experience of connection was criticism and never living up to the standards of his father. He would take the interaction that contained criticism to the alternative of no connection with his father. He saw that his mother stayed no matter what. This must be what you do when you love someone. You stay and people stay with you. If they really love you -they stay no matter what you do. He needed Anna to stay and in some ways he needed her to be in heightened emotion (which felt like disappointment of criticism) to feel connection.

Anna, was taught to deny her experience and to believe it would be ok. She learned her worth was in the accolades she received when she was  good or made her parents proud. In the beginning of her relationship with Dean, she felt incredibly lucky and loved. He saw her beauty and talents, he had told her so. Now, she rarely heard this. She believed she had to work harder, to deny her reality (literally convincing herself that the affairs weren’t occurring) and working to improve herself to win Dean’s approval. She believed the problem lay inside her.

Both Anna and Dean have unmet need from their childhoods. Need that has been masked and layered to an almost unrecognizable degree. At its root, in its very beginning, it was longing  for connection. A genuinely innate need that all children (all people) have. When need goes unmet it grows into defense. Defense that is as tangled, deep, and individual as the person and circumstances in which it was born.

At its core defense is generational, multilayered, and often necessary for psychological survival in childhood. Creating awareness of defense, in this writer’s opinion, is as necessary to recovery as its construction was to survival in childhood. The path to healing lays (in large part) within this discovery process. It is hard and painful work, but work that can help the Anna’s and Dean’s of this world to live more aware and eventually more peacefully and genuinely.

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