Katja Laurien

Inspiring your spiritual journey

Seeing Through Illusions: Defense Mechanisms

5. July 2020 • Katja Laurien

The past months I’ve gone through an emotionally very turbulent period. This was not the first roller coaster I’d been through, but the fact that I couldn’t really pinpoint the problem, made it very confusing to me. I didn’t really understand what was going one with me, but I wisely decided to switch off my brain and just watch my thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Thanks to my dedicated meditation practice, it was not that difficult to stay in the observing mode. I watched the storm pass by and after the storm had settled down, suddenly I had so much more clarity. The storm kept coming back and I kept repeating the same thing and over time I continued seeing the world so much clearer and I started seeing through some basic illusion. On an intellectual level I had been aware already of most of the illusions, but now for the first time I could actually experience parts of the truth. It was as if the emotional storm had made the truth trickle down from my head to my heart…

As I mentioned, I had no idea what exactly was going on, except that not trying to control my emotions had an incredible effect. Right when the storms were starting to get less frequent and less intense, I suddenly pulled out a book from my mother’s book shelf which seemed to explain exactly what I was going through. The book is called “Illusions - How to escape the labyrinth of destructive emotions” by Dutch psychologist Ingeborg Bosch. In the book she describes the Past Reality Integration (PRI) Therapy which I had obviously applied partially to myself without knowing. Even though I was not going through the heavy emotions anymore, it was great to understand what I had gone through, so I can share my experience with you, which in turn could help you bust through some illusions!

Obviously, the process is long and therefore I won’t squeeze all into one post, but divide it into different parts. This post is about the very first step: understanding and recognizing your defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms have a bad reputation, understandably. Without our defense mechanisms it would be a lot easier to connect with ourselves and others. We would be much freer, would enjoy more intimacy, joy, courage and strength in our lives. But in order to really let go of our defense mechanisms we first have to understand and befriend them. Just like always in life, you can’t expect to transform anything if you can’t first really understand and accept it.

First of all, it’s very important to understand that defense mechanisms did have a function in our childhood. As children we were exposed to many harmful and potentially dangerous situations which our little brains couldn’t really handle at that point. The survival of children is so dependent on their caretakers, even the smallest unfulfilled need can feel life-threatening to them. Therefore, they need to develop defense mechanisms in order to deal with the difficulties in life. It’s important to note that every person has these stuck memories which lead to unhelpful defense mechanisms, not only people from dysfunctional families. The least bit of violence or neglect can be a tremendous threat to a child who is so extremely dependent. So, no matter how loving and caring your parents have been, chances are big they were human, so they made “mistakes”.

Whenever a child is confronted with a perceived danger, it feels dependent and helpless. Not getting its needs met feels life threatening and in order to push away the pain, it’s left with no other option but building defense mechanisms. These are built by splitting the consciousness in two parts: one in which the painful truth that the needs of the child can’t be met, is stored away. Feeling this pain of the unfulfilled need (which basically equals death) is too dangerous to the child. Instead, it’s safer to suppresses the emotion in order to not feel the pain. To make sure that the painful emotion and the threat of survival, stays hidden and locked away, the child forms a different “truth” in which it simply denies the painful truth. This is where the fabrication of illusions come into play.

These mechanisms are actually life saving for kids, but destructive for adults since they are not dependent anymore on the mercy of others for their needs fulfillment. Unfortunately, most of us stay, unknowingly, stuck in our child-consciousness, believing in the illusions which causes us pain, drama and despair. In order to reveal these illusions, we need to get to the core of the illusion, which is the painful truth of our unmet childhood needs, the part we had stored away in order to never see it again…

According to Ingeborg Bosch, we develop five ways to keep up the illusion (the defense mechanisms) which are spread over three layers: fear, primary defense, false hope, false power and denial of needs. We all use all mechanisms to a certain extent, though we have “preferred” mechanisms which characterize our personality. In this post, I describe the different defenses, so you can start to understand and uncover them, which is the very first step if you want to break through the illusions and start living a life in peace.

Fear

Fear is the natural response to a threatening situation and is mostly felt on a physiological level (heart palpitations, sweat outbreaks, diarrhea etc.). A very young child will feel fear first as it comes automatically and doesn’t require any cognitive processes. Obviously, fear is very natural and life saving in some circumstances, which is why I want to point out that fear is only a defense mechanism in situations in which there’s no acute danger. But unfortunately, most of the times we feel fear in situations in which the magnitude of the threat is being enlarged and we oftentimes even know it. We all know how anxious we can become when speaking or performing in front of an audience, even though we don’t run the risk of not surviving the performance. Nevertheless, we’re in the grip of fear, unable to handle the situation in a mature way. How come?

The reason we seem to be stuck in the irrational fear is because we’re holding on to an illusion. Obviously, we’re confusing our present day situation with a past experience in which our needs weren’t met. By wanting to run away from the current situation, we subconsciously wish to run away from the past experience, as if this could save us from the pain we experienced back then. Fear has a component of hope: when we’re afraid we release stress hormones which support an attempt to escape. So, when we’re using fear as a defense mechanism, it’s like hoping to escape a situation which is impossible to escape as it has already happened. It’s already a fact in the past and there’s no way you’ll ever turn back the time in the future. That’s simply an illusion.

As I mentioned, fear is the first mechanism a child will use in order to avoid the painful truth (by thinking it can escape from it) and it’s also the last defense we will “go through” as adults in order to get to our core wound. It’s good to know that being able to feel fear is actually a good sign, as you don’t have to work through many layers of rationalizations which have been used to tuck away the painful emotion as far away as possible. But make sure to not confuse your fear with your old painful emotion. The aspect of hope inherent in fear will never allow you to have peace with the past, as you’ll continue hoping for your unfulfilled need to be met and therefore keep holding on the illusion. You can only heal if you accept that this need wasn’t met and it doesn’t have to be met, as you don’t rely on it anymore.

Primary Defense

Once the child has developed a certain sense of self at around 18 months, it will start to avoid the painful truth with the first cognitive defense which represents the first defense layer: the primary defense. When the child is in a situation in which its needs are not met, it will come to the conclusion that it has to do it by itself which obviously is impossible. The child will perceive itself as “incompetent” and therefore will start to belief that something is wrong with him or her.

The idea that the child is faulty in some way or another can be grouped in three different categories:

  • Feeling flawed: “I’m bad”, “I’m worthless”, “I’m ashamed for who I am”, etc.
  • Feeling guilty: “I always ruin everything”, “It’s always my fault”, etc.
  • Feeling incapable: “I can’t do it”, “It’s too much for me”, etc.

People who are stuck in the defense mechanism often suffer from depression, feelings of heaviness, passivity, apathy etc. The big illusion we’re struggling with as adults, is that we think our feelings have anything to do with the situations or capabilities we’re experiencing in the presence, not realizing that these feelings refer to how we felt as helpless, defenseless, and, yes indeed, incapable children. Our subconscious wrongly assumes that allowing this pain to surface would still endanger our lives. In order to break through this illusion, we need to embody the knowledge that these feelings are old and that we are capable, worthy and most of all save. Even in some instances in which we’re incapable or flawed, our survival is not at risk anymore.

False Hope

Fortunately, children don’t stop building defense mechanisms at the level of the primary defense. Otherwise, this world would be full of people living in depression and apathy, not really getting anywhere. Thank God, we have developed a second defense layer which saves us from going under in the primary defense.

False hope is one of those defense mechanisms in the second layer. This layer is built whenever a child sees a chance of getting his needs met if only he does its best. Obviously, this is an illusion, because no child on this world will ever have all it’s needs met, no matter how hard it tries. A typical thought for someone using this defense mechanism is: If only I…then….

In a way this mechanism feels a bit better, because next to feeling down and unworthy, you are also at times very enthusiastic and full of energy whenever you have a plan how to get your needs met. This euphoria is paired with a great sense of urgency. Whatever you are chasing, needs to be met right here, right now, otherwise you will “die”. Once again, this urgency made sense in the mind of a child, who doesn’t have a sense of time and seriously runs the chance of dying without getting its needs met, but this is not the case for adults.

This is the mechanism behind people-pleasers and perfectionist which in a way can have its benefit, but can be very destructive when the person is subconsciously wanting to fulfill an unmet need of the past. This need will never be met (nor will all current needs ever consistently be met by sheer effort), so the people inevitably fail at a certain point. Every time they seem to reach their goal, it falls apart after all or they don’t get the desired feeling once they attain their goal.

Just think of the hopeful feeling you have when you’re in love. This time you’re going to do everything right. You’re going to be the best possible version of yourself. Finally, your unmet need of being loved and cared for is going to be fulfilled. Well, there’s a reason this hope is called false hope, sooner or later your “plan” will fail and you’ll be left where you started: drained, disillusioned and desperate. How much do you have to do until you finally reach your goal? This is often the moment you’ll either choose to leave the relationship in search for another “saviour” or you’ll give up hope and settle for it, pretending not to “need” anything. This is another mechanism which I’ll discuss later on.

But let’s stay with the false hope. I know this defense mechanism very well, it’s because of this mechanism that I started to walk the spiritual path. I was in a relationship in which I was emotionally very dependent and I hoped if only I could “fix” myself, I could finally get the love I had hoped for. Apart from that, I also used this mechanism to run away from the fact that I might find out that I’m “not enough”. Throughout my teenage years, I had been fighting with a low self-esteem and I hoped that the spiritual path would release me from feeling this pain of self rejection. In case you recognize yourself in the same pattern, take note that there’s nothing wrong with attaining self love and reaching higher states of consciousness, but don’t use spirituality in order to serve an illusion. Spirituality is not there to reach certain goals, other than becoming conscious of who you really are (which is a person who doesn’t need to have specific needs fulfilled in order to be happy).

Having this hope and continuously thinking you found a new solution to your problem, makes it very difficult to let go of this mechanism. In some ways it has probably helped you to some degree, it has alleviated your pain for a bit, so letting go of this mechanism almost feels like surrendering yourself to a certain death (or failure). You might start to wonder how your needs will ever be met if you don’t give it your all. Therefore, you must first realize that your needs in the present are already met (You’re alive right now, aren’t you?) and it’s safe to let go of wanting to get your old needs met. When you’re confronted with real life-or-death situations, you’ll know how to handle quick enough. You probably won’t even have the time to create false hope and pour all your time and energy in an endeavour that’s doomed right from the start.

False Power

False power is on the same layer as false hope, but this time the false belief is turned around, always revolving around some judgement about someone else: If only you…then…. When we use this defense mechanism we want to control others in order to make sure our needs are met. In order to make sure people will change their behaviour and will help us meet our needs, we exert “power” often expressed in anger, dominance, criticism etc.

False power has three characteristics:

  • Some judgement about others: “They are wrong”, “He is incapable”…
  • The linking of these judgmental thoughts to angry emotions which vary from light irritation to fury.
  • These emotions are linked to either feeling victimized or feeling superior to others.

When you recognize yourself in this defense mechanism (who doesn’t?!), be aware that expressing your anger is probably only going to add to the illusion. First of all, you believe you have the right to express your anger in a destructive way. Secondly, you also actually belief you have some control over the situation by expressing your anger. In most cases, however, your anger is not going to help the situation in any way. It’s better to swallow the anger for starters and just feel what it does to you. You should act only once you can see the other with compassion and you don’t feel any urgency to get your message across.

Just like with false hope, false power did indeed get some of our needs met, but has always created discord on the other end of the stick. The difficulty of seeing through this illusion is our feeling of righteousness. After all, the feeling of letting go of our being right, feels like we’ll never get our needs met. Translated with our child brain this equals “death” again! Just like with false hope, it’s important to surrender. On both levels, people are in a state of hyperarousal, thinking they can manage or achieve getting their needs met in some way or another. Letting go of this control is daunting and painful, but needed if you don’t wish to continue living in an illusion.

Denial of Needs

When a child gives up the hope of control on a subconscious level, it forms the next layer: the denial of needs. This happens when the child sees no way of escaping or controlling the situation anymore. Hoping is too painful, controlling too exhausting, so it sees no other option than completely blocking the need. In some cases, this defense has also been stimulated by parents who praise their children for not being needy and being as “invisible” as possible. The child therefore starts to get the notion that having needs and emotions are a “bad” thing, so it’s better not having any.

This defense mechanism is the furthest away from the original pain, as the wish to fulfill this old need is not even felt anymore. Therefore, this is also the most difficult defense mechanism to treat. Most people won’t even recognize they have a problem or are missing anything. To the contrary, people with this defense mechanism might even come across very calm, content, even enlightened.

This is why this mechanism is perfect for spiritual bypassers: They claim (and seriously do believe!) that their life is perfect just the way it is, they are in complete harmony with life and themselves, they accept everything that happens without any resistance and they never feel any urgency to change anything in their lives. Their non-attachment to needs and lack of negative emotions almost makes them look like saints, so how do we see the difference between a real saint and a person who is in denial of needs?

The clue is to not pay attention what is but to what is not. Most people who are denying their needs lack strong emotions, depth, passion, creativity, intimacy, inspiration, true engagement etc. They seem to be living from their heads, not from their hearts, which makes them appear to lack “life force”. In situations in which other people would be highly emotional, they downplay the event with some form of rationalization: “It’s not that bad”, “I will survive”, “C’est la vie”,…Even positive emotions are not felt. The person often uses rationalizations like: “I can’t tell you how good it was, as I don’t like to make comparisons. It simply was the way it was. There’s no huge difference between good and bad.” Having a preference or liking something could eventually lead to having a desire or need…Obviously, they are highly rational, as they have had to rationalize their whole life why they don’t need to have their needs fulfilled. Not minding whether or not their needs would be met was part of their survival mechanism.

Furthermore, these people also like to procrastinate and avoid certain tasks or goals. Since everything is “okay” and there’s never a real hurry, why not wait until tomorrow? (Or next week? Next month? Maybe just never do it…) Their apparent contentment is also reflected in their inability to make decisions or have preferences. They are “content” with everything, so they often leave making decisions to other people: “I don’t care, you can choose. I’m fine with everything.”

Oftentimes, the suppression of the emotions will lead to forgetfulness. After all, our memory works best for events which have an emotional impact on us. We need emotions in order to release stress hormones which help us remember an event, which helps us retrieve the level of “safety” or “danger” of a certain situation (this is not the case in highly traumatic events, which leads to the opposite). But if we never release true emotions in an event, we care little about it, we don’t even save this event, as we send our brain the message: “unimportant, no need to save.”

Another characteristic of denial of needs, is the fact the person also seems to be disconnected from the body. This disconnection does not only lead to a low arousal level (“No stress”, “All is fine”, “Why hurry?”), but also to a numbness to bodily feelings. They seem to be insensitive to what’s happening inside their bodies. Oftentimes, they will have a high pain threshold or have difficulties sensing the boundaries of their bodies which can make them clumsy (they often bump into things, let things fall out of their hands etc.).

As I mentioned, this is the most difficult defense mechanism to work with, not only because it’s so “far away” from the original wound, but also because this mechanism is so highly unconscious. The people sincerely feel that they are content and “happy” and see no need in changing their situation. Most of the times, these will go into therapy because someone in their surroundings urges them to do so. Fortunately, most people are not completely disconnected to their emotions which can be their saviours. Once they experience negative emotions which they can’t seem to handle or that keep returning and they can’t find a plausible rationalization for, there is hope for them. In the end, having emotions and healthy needs are essential for a happy and fulfilled life.

Before you start thinking that you definitely not deny your needs, because you’re very emotional: Think twice. I’m a very emotional person, but I have also found some situations in my life in which I have definitely suppressed my needs. As I mentioned, we all use these defense mechanisms to a certain extent and chances are big you’re also using this one. Pay special attention to which area in your life you downplay the significance of it or pretend everything is fine, even though you know it’s suboptimal.

I hope by now you have some more understanding on how we build our defense mechanisms, what their function has been and how to make us believe in illusions. In the next post, I’ll describe how you get closer to understanding where wounds came from which will help you to start uncovering your illusions. Until then, enjoy your self-observation!