“Ouch”, says your ego as it a feels a burn, deliberate or otherwise. It’s funny how our modern access to the internet and people all over the world lead to a world of butt-hurt on internet comments sections. As an exercise in uncovering the various ways people can wriggle about when they feel they have been criticised it is fascinating.
Some men tend to get very aggressive from the get-go, personally attacking the people disagreeing with them, others fall into snobby intellectualism and suppose they are the expert on everything, some are blatantly sexist (go make me a sandwich). Women tend to be more oh-poor-me, morally superior and judgemental, you’ve just misunderstood me or repeat themselves over and over unable to let it go. We are socially conditioned to respond in certain ways when feeling wounded and defensive, some of these responses are gender specific, some are universal.
Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, set about categorising various ways in which people defend their egos, their sense of themselves as valuable and worthy people, when a threat to that sense of self-worth is detected. Some of these strategies are healthy and adaptive to getting on with people, some less so and some are downright appalling and cause serious damage to relations unless being used by a tantruming toddler.
I have toyed with the idea of creating a defence mechanism Bingo game to keep myself amused during any visits by the MIL. I could print myself out a card of various possible defensive behaviours and cross them off as the day wears on, extra points for stirring up contentious conversations which deliberately provoke defensive reactions. Then when she has exhausted her repertoire of maladaptive and obnoxious ways of responding I can leap out of my chair shouting “BINGO!” and she’ll look all confused and have no idea why I am wetting myself laughing. Ah yes, I have way to much time on my hands and end up plotting this sort of stuff.
Here are some defence mechanisms listed with the healthy, normal ones at the start and descending down four levels of Hell to the bizarre and psychotic at the end. How many does your disorder mother-in-law use in an average conversation? Which ones get pulled out most often, which are reserved for those moments when she is panicking and feels control is slipping by, which ones are used by your partner? Which ones do you adopt in response to your MIL? Could you use better ones?
Level IV – Mature defences
Found in emotionally healthy adults, socially adaptive and making use of feelings of control or an emphasis on finding pleasure or peace amidst distressing situations.
Acceptance – a person fully accepts reality without attempting to change it, protest or run away (Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference)
Altruism – service to others which feels good
Anticipation – realistically planning for future discomfort, i.e. preparing a plan for how to manage the MIL when she visits
Courage – ability and willingness to confront conflict, fear, pain, obstacles, uncertainty and despair.
Emotional self-regulation – responding to reality in a range of emotional ways which are socially acceptable, modifying the intensity, duration, type and mode of expression of feelings.
Emotional self-sufficiency – independence from the approval or validation of others, freeing yourself from feeling MIL has to like you.
Fantasy – using imagination and day dreaming to posit a more hopeful future (someone getting rejected for a job imagining the day they land their ideal position)
Forgiveness – letting go of resentment, indignation or anger aroused by a perceived offence and no longer demanding recompense or restitution after appropriate grieving and acknowledgement of the hurt.
Gratitude – feeling thankful for the range of people and events in one’s life who don’t cause problems.
Humility – full consideration of one’s own faults and attributes leading to a humble self opinion, you’re not perfect either.
Humour – expressing ideas and feelings in humorous ways to lessen distress.
Identification – modelling one’s self upon the character or behaviour of another (what would Jesus do?).
Mercy – compassionate action when in a powerful position. Believe it or not you are in a powerful position w.r.t. MIL, you control access to the grandchildren and ease of access to her adult child.
Mindfullness – staying conscious of oneself and environment in the present moment, suspending judgment, remaining open, curious and accepting. The opposite of this is dissociating or catastrophising.
Moderation – staying within reasonable limits, exercising self-restraint. Both with your own emotions and with what you are prepared to tolerate from MIL or spouse. This is about boundaries inside and out.
Patience – enduring a difficult or unpleasant circumstance for some time before reacting, God knows we’ve all done this to death!
Respect – willingness to show consideration or appreciation, a feeling of regard towards someone’s qualities, and actions and conduct which reflect that regard.
Sublimation – transforming distressing or unacceptable feelings into a more beneficial product or action, aggression into competitive sport, sexuality in dance, grief into art. Or this blog!
Supression – delaying temporarily an emotional response or need until a more suitable time, a mother squashing her own fear when a child falls from a tree to attend to the child. Not shouting at spouse for siding with their mother but waiting to express your annoyance later when she isn’t around.
Tolerance – deliberately allowing or permitting something which one disapproves of. Your in-laws way of doing Christmas lunch for example.
Level III – Neurotic Defences
Fairly common in adults. Help in the short term to deal with distress but unhelpful if used over the long term, disrupting relationships, work and socialising.
Displacement – shifting an uncomfortable emotion or impulse to a safer target (blaming MIL for all your relationship problems because it’s safer than facing how upset you are with your partner)
Dissociation – temporarily mentally separating from the distress, feeling emotionally numb, out of the body or otherwise not there in an distressing situation (it was like I was watching it happen from outside of myself)
Hypochondria – excessive worry about illness
Intellectualisation – focussing on the rational ideas and intellectual components of a situation so as to avoid the emotional distress, separating emotion from ideas
Isolation – separating out the emotional content of an event so the event can be spoken of in a dispassionate way (describing a grisly car accident with no emotional response).
Rationalisation – making excuses, convincing oneself that no harm was done as you had a good reason (but it wasn’t my intention to hurt so I’m not responsible).
Reaction formation – turning one unconscious and unacceptable thought or feeling into it’s exact opposite, behaving in the opposite way that you really want (a boy struggling with a strong attraction to a girl pulls her pigtails to upset her, you find yourself offering to take MIL on a shopping trip when you first realise how much you hate her).
Regression – temporarily acting in a more childish and dependent way (you totally suck and I hate you!).
Repression – moving a desire or thought that causes you anxiety as you fear punishment for it into the unconscious until you are no longer conscious of the thought or desire but some emotional memory of it lingers (feeling uncomfortable around a rarely seen family member but not remembering what first made you feel that way).
Undoing – trying to undo a threatening or unacceptable thought or feeling by consciously acting in the reverse way to atone or reduce one’s feelings of guilt (being nice to someone you had bad thoughts about).
Social comparison – looking to other people who are seen as worse off in order to distance oneself from similarities with that person/group and to make oneself feel better (well at least I’m not like that Jane Doe).
Withdrawl – avoiding or removing oneself from situations, places and events to stop being reminded of painful thoughts or feelings (I just can’t go back there after what happened). Not the same as planning to avoid situations where you know you will be verbally or emotionally abused (like with MIL), that is sensible.
OK let’s take a breather at this point, before it gets mad, bad and dangerous below. The mature and neurotic defences above are ways people adapt to the occasional awkward or distressing event. The word distressing in this psychoanalytical context doesn’t have to mean reduced to tears sobbing (although it could, loosing your beloved dog in an accident would provoke several of these defences) we could just be talking about how someone tries to play one-upmanship on you in a social conversation, or you became the butt of a joke at work. BUT and it’s a big but, we are not talking about adaptations and reactions to severe trauma or prolonged abusive scenarios. Nor are we talking about the quite sensible precautions which anyone should take to protect themselves from a known toxic person or situation.
I am not suggesting we should suddenly apply for the Sainthood and start serenely forgiving our MILs, volunteering at the local homeless shelter and practicing some New Age gratitude practice every morning in an effort to deal with her dysfunction. No no nopety nope. In fact behaving this way would be a defence mechanism, but not the mature ones listed above. This sort of behaviour is a mixture of denial, repression and fantasy. You do not have to forgive people, be endlessly patient or altruistic to be maturely dealing with someone difficult. You can use humour, anticipation and courage when dealing with her, or whatever. And no one expects you to respond with a “mature” defence each and every time. Notice how it says that neurotic defences are helpful in short term acute scenarios.
There is an insidious tendency in self-development books and blogs towards premature forgiveness and gratitude meditations as if it was healthy or even possible for someone to just put aside whatever has wounded them. This is nonsense and has its roots in a bastardisation of the ideas of the Law of Attraction. The healthiest thing to do when wounded is fully feel wounded and acknowledge what is going on inside you. Sit with it, feel it, breathe through it and past it. Premature forgiveness or ignoring hurt and replacing it in your mind with forced thoughts of your blessings is not going to allow you to move beyond those feelings. Grief, disappointment, anger and sadness are normal responses to abusive people. Once you have felt your feelings and fully respected them then you can choose how to respond.
The following two lists of ways to respond are not ones you would want to choose on a regular basis. Bet you’ll never guess where my MIL’s most commonly used reactions lie? Oh you did guess…yeah in these two lists.
Level II – Immature defences
All adults act in these ways occasionally. Habitually acting in these ways makes a person difficult to deal with and the person themselves will find reality difficult to cope with. Taken to an excessive level they are found in mental illnesses like severe depression and personality disorders.
Acting out – an unconscious desire or impulse turned into action which the person isn’t consciously in control of and is unaware of the emotion which triggered it, self-harm is an example (I don’t know why I did that!)
Autistic or Schizoid Fantasy – habitually retreating into fantasy and daydreaming as a way to resolve inner and outer conflicts. This includes retreating into role play and computer games, where the retreat includes non-communication and social isolation.
Idealization – putting someone on a pedestal (my mother is such a good person, she’d never do that)
Introjection – unconsciously taking the qualities and attributes of an idea or person fully into oneself because these qualities help deal with reality (finding yourself speaking with your mother’s voice saying the exact phrase she would say, adopting the behaviour of an aggressive peer thereby reducing threat to oneself. Very common between parents and children who absorb their values)
Passive Aggression – feelings of aggression towards another person expressed in indirect or passive ways (it was an honest mistake! I just forgot to post it)
Projection – attributing one’s own unacceptable and unwanted thoughts and feelings onto another person or group so that the other person/group actually seems to have those thoughts and feelings themselves (I saw you looking at him all flirtatiously – when you were eyeing up an attractive woman moments before). Includes prejudices like misogyny, racism and homophobia, jealousy, hyper vigilance to external dangers and injustice collecting (look at all the ways I’ve been wronged).
Somatization – transformation of uncomfortable feelings into actual physical sensations of pain, sickness and anxiety (I’m not upset about what my mother said, I just have a headache. I feel sick I am so nervous.)
Wishful thinking – acting as if the most pleasing outcome was guaranteed to happen while not paying due attention to facts (oh it’ll be fine – she’s been so much better the last few months).
Level I – Severely pathological defence mechanisms.
These defences are designed to distort and rearrange the external experiences the person is having so the person no longer has to cope with reality. The mind distorts reality into something easier for the person to deal with. These frequently appear irrational or insane to people observing them in adults but they occur as a normal stage of development in children.
Conversion or hysteria – mental or emotional distress transformed into a physical symptom like blindness, deafness, paralysis, numbness.
Delusional Projection – false beliefs about reality and the trustworthiness of people usually of a persecutory nature (e.g. so and so is out to get me, society has set it up so men like me always fail, its a conspiracy of feminazis and the Illumati, people cannot ever be trusted)
Denial – refusal to accept reality because it is too threatening (she is not leaving me), arguing that a threat to the ego doesn’t exist at all (you’re wrong, he is not cheating on me), refusing to see or accept unpleasant aspects of reality (my mother is not narcissistic) despite evidence to the contrary.
Distortion – a gross reshaping of reality to meet the ego’s needs (He didn’t leave me, I let him go because it was better for him, he has such a fragile mental state, I know I have hoarded 20,000 plastic bags but they will be useful one day)
Extreme projection – the blatant denial of a moral or character trait which is instead seen as a problem for some other person or group (Homosexuality is a disgusting sin, says the preacher who is secretly gay. Seen in children, one child holding a broken object points the finger at another and says “they did it!”)
Splitting – the unconscious splitting off of characteristics of a person or group into “good” and “bad” because the immature ego can’t hold the whole person/group in their mind in one go. Can also happen within a person who splits off the “good” from the “bad” parts of themselves as they are unable to hold a complete picture of themselves as having both polarities. One side of the polarity is then adopted as true and any evidence supporting the other side is rejected (The teacher can’t be praising me because I am a bad kid. Favouritism in children/grandchildren Little Johnny is an awful liar and thief, Little Jane is so precious and kind).
Well that’s rather a lot to take in all in one go! Do digest it at your own leisure. It certainly has given me a real insight into how well I am coping with certain situations as I can spot my own less helpful defences more readily now.
Dear old MIL does all of the pathological defences, I think now is the time for one of those more mature responses, a little humour maybe…