For an introduction to defence mechanisms in counselling and psychotherapy, please read earlier posts in this series. If you're familiar with these ideas, or have already read earlier posts, please read this post about the defence mechanism of acting out.
Compared to some of the more subtle or slippery defence mechanisms that we've discussed, such as projection, acting out is generally fairly easy to recognise. In fact, usually when people act out, it is with fairly extreme behaviours that are difficult not to notice! Acting out involves behaving in an extreme way as an alternative to feeling and tolerating an uncomfortable emotion.
Common examples include people who act out by cutting themselves, to avoid overwhelming feelings, or to avoid a feeling of numbness. (People also cut for other reasons, but acting out is commonly part of the dynamics of cutting.) Another example is that of a person who hits their partner, rather than feel and tolerate anger, powerlessness, or shame.
Acting out is a defence mechanism that a counsellor or psychotherapist will often, in one way or another, help their clients to change, simply because acting out can cause a lot of suffering both to the client and to those around them.
As with other defence mechanisms that are easily noticed and potentially destructive, acting out can bring with it a lot of shame. The normally polite person who acted out by drunk dialing their boss and abusing them will feel mortified the next day, and will probably find it very difficult to get help from a therapist. It is important that the therapist does not avoid talking about the destructive behaviour (because it really is a problem that needs to be dealt with), but it is also important that the therapist conveys a lack of judgement or condemnation.
Given that most of us at times resort to the defence of acting out, and given that often the acting out will be something we later regret, what helps? One of the most common things that helps with acting out is learning to use words rather than actions to express our feelings. This may sound simple, but often it's not.
To use words to express our feelings we need to first be able to identify what we're feeling. Learning to identify what we are feeling can be difficult. It may help to have a therapist who can express what we might be feeling, so that we can decide if that fits or not, and we can learn the language to fit the emotion from how the therapist has been talking to us.
Perhaps we know what we're feeling, but don't feel confident about expressing it. A psychotherapist or a counsellor may help with this by helping us to find clear and assertive language, or to deal with the fear of how others might respond to our expression of feeling.
So, to summarise the above, therapists can help us with acting out by helping us to use words rather than actions to express ourselves. However, this may not be the most important approach for everyone. Some people know what they're feeling, and how to find words to express this, but when under stress find it difficult to avoid acting out anyway. Such people may find a DBT program helpful, particularly skills such as mindfulness that help regulate impulsivity and the intensity of the emotion that is at risk of being acted out.
Through mindfulness practice we let go of the impulse to judge or analyse or act on thoughts and feelings. We do this in mindfulness each moment, when we notice our distracting thoughts or feelings, and bring our attention back to whatever we're focusing on, whether it be our breath, body sensations, a view out the window, or a piece of music. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing the impulsivity even of violent and impulsive offenders, so it clearly really does work.
Not only can mindfulness help us to not impulsively act out an overwhelming feeling, but we also find that through accepting rather than judging our emotions, we begin to feel soothed and the painful emotion reduces in intensity. There are many styles of psychotherapy and counselling that integrate mindfulness into the therapeutic process, including DBT, ACT, and MBCBT.
Some people seem to fear that through learning to regulate their emotions rather than act them out, they will lose the dramatic or creative aspects of their personality that they value. My experience is the opposite. I have found that through doing this personal work people boost their creative or dramatic potential by being able to add a degree of measured skillfulness and control to the spontaneity that they so value.
So, if you're thinking about changing your habit of acting out, you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose. That said, you may need to learn to assert yourself more, because it is possible that your habit of acting out developed because that's what worked to get people to understand that you needed help.
So far in this series of posts on defence mechanisms we've covered the defence mechanisms of withdrawal and sublimation, and we've talked a little bit about how this relates to the counselling or psychotherapy process. For background, read prior posts. Otherwise, please read on for today's post on the defence mechanism of projection.
In popular culture in the West today, most of us have a basic understanding of the concept of projection. When faced with an impulse within ourselves that we see as unacceptable, we may project it out on to the other. This allows us to perceive the other as having that impulse, and thereby relieves ourselves of the conflict we feel over having an unacceptable impulse.
Whereas the defence of withdrawal, depending on severity, may range from unhealthy to fairly healthy, and sublimation is generally a healthy defence mechanism, projection is generally understood as a somewhat or very unhealthy defence mechanism. Projection has the capacity to significantly distort our view of reality, and our capacity to relate to others. Many counsellors or psychotherapists will try to help their clients to project less, and sometimes to instead adopt more healthy defence mechanisms. An example of this is someone who has become familiar with their tendency to project, and is able to reflectively question the truth or falsehood of their projection based on the facts of the present situation. This would be an example of replacing the defence of projection with the generally more healthy defence of intellectualisation.
Some defences are used heavily by particular personality types. Projection is a good example of this. People with paranoid personality styles frequently project, in particular they project their anger and sense of judgement or hostility on to others. The paranoid person's tendency to vigilantly scan for any sign of untrustworthiness in others, and tendency to interpret facts in line with their projections, can make them very hard to establish intimate and trusting relationships with. On the other hand, a paranoid person is so sensitive and vigilant to signs of untrustworthiness in the other, that they can be excellent when this is an asset, such as in detective work or other jobs involving detecting fraud.
Another example of projection at work is in the case of bullying, in which the bully projects their own feared sense of vulnerability onto another, and then persecutes that other person. It can be useful for the bully and the bullied alike to understand what is being projected, and to not get tricked into missing the strength of the person being bullied, and the vulnerability of the bully.
As a psychotherapist, I often notice my clients projecting things on to me. (Though it is important to remind myself that often there is a grain of truth in a projection, so that I don't disown my own imperfections!) Usually, a client who projects something on to me will also project that same thing on to others, and that is usually part of the cause of the problem for which they sought therapy. Depending on the situation as a therapist I might help my client to see the inaccuracy of their projection, or, I might instead help my client to explore the full extent of this projection that might be harder for them to learn about in another context outside of the therapy room.
It is not uncommon for clients in therapy to project boredom, judgement, criticism, or anger on to their therapists. By naming these perceptions to a therapist who is confident in working with projections, you may be able to significantly benefit your own therapeutic work. Sometimes people also project positive aspects of themselves such as generosity and competence on to others, because it may be disturbing to recognise these qualities in ourselves if we have a strong self image to the contrary. Though projecting our positive qualities on to others may not seem as problematic as projecting our negative qualities, it may have a negative impact on our self-esteem.
I've noticed that the recent tipping of the beautiful Christchurch weather into rain, wind, and grey skies has had an effect on my mood. I find myself feeling slightly more serious, a bit more withdrawn, and a little bit somber. (You don't have to worry about me though - I'm not getting depressed, and as a therapist, I'd know!)
We all know weather affects our mood, but interestingly, I rarely meet people who are angry at the weather. We don't tend to look up at the sky and shake our fists in anger at it, even when the weather really has ruined our day or our plans. I think we don't get angry at the weather because we don't personalise it. There's just no point getting angry and geared up to fight the weather, because it really is hard to convince ourselves that the rain is coming down out of a sense of spite and malice or intent to personally hurt us. It's just laughable. This makes bad weather generally a nuisance, but nothing more than that, because we don't add an extra layer of suffering through getting angry and getting into conflict with the weather.
What if we could similarly avoid unnecessary suffering in our relationships? Actually, it is possible. By talking through in therapy our rationale for our anger, we can familiarize ourselves with it, and then often let it go. For instance, if I get angry at my partner, and realise that a belief that reinforces that is that my partner takes me for granted and exploits me, then in therapy I can really examine that. Are there other possible explanations for his or her behaviour, explanations that may move us towards compassion rather than anger? Or, on the other hand, maybe my explanation that my partner exploits me is actually correct, but, will I be better served by examining my own complicit patterns of naivete?
Through therapy we can develop the capacity for emotional balance, in which we may be affected by the storms of our life, but do not become pulled into fighting ourselves and others unnecessarily.