Sunday, June 19, 2011

Defenses

In psychology, the term "defense" or "defense mechanism" refers to the various forms of character armor that people put on to deal with painful or distressing emotions.  Not all defense mechanisms or degrees of defense mechanisms are bad, but psychologists recognize that they can and often do become "pathological," meaning that they overtake a person's life and significantly inhibit their function, relationships, and potential.

Some defense mechanisms include: repression, emotional withdrawal, lashing out, projection, the nervous "nice guy," people-pleasing, etc.  Take the example of a man who, as a boy, was constantly criticized and rejected by his parents for not being "good enough."  He grew up into adulthood as compliant, people-pleasing, and self-loathing.  Is that the real him?  No.  Those are his defenses, constructed to avoid dealing with his rage and pain and keep people (and himself) out, as he the real self off to an inner prison.  And look at how well they do him?  They do him in, that's it.
It is understandable why a person would defer to defense mechanisms almost as a knee-jerk reaction to severe trauma.  It hurts!  In a world full of sin, where everyone wants to be their own god to some degree and have their cake and eat it, too, we are going to betray one another.  And even where there is no betrayal there is still death, which comes to all of us.  But the more I see these defense mechanisms at work in my life, the more I am sure of a few things.

First, I am sure that I have a lot of things to work through inside -a lot of grieving and a lot of facing some very painful things.  If the size of the wall I have constructed is an indication of the magnitude of what I have avoided and buried, then it is massive -and I know it is.

Second, I am sure that defense mechanisms show us the human need to cope with life on our own.  Many defense mechanisms are a way to control something or prevent something or avoid something.  Defense mechanisms are easily learned, too.  Some of us grow up in families where nobody connects on a one-to-one feeling level, because feelings are considered taboo.  And we wonder why we grow up neurotic?

Third, I am sure that these walls we construct to protect us invariably become our coffin.  This, to me, is a very Biblical idea.  We were not meant to cope with life apart from God.  We were not meant to try to seize control of life.  We were made to trust God with mystery and live from moment to moment in His care.  We were made to involve Him in our pain, especially in our pain.  Easier said than done, but the mystery of "Does God care?" is answered in the cross.

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