I think it is important that I go over with you the four psychological defense mechanisms of denial, suppression, repression and projection. It is highly likely that, if what you are going to be working on in this program involves early childhood wounding, that you have employed one or more of them at some time in your life — and probably still do. We all do. It’s part of being human.
Now, in case you’re wondering, let me reassure you that these mechanisms are not bad. Without such defense mechanisms to help us through difficult emotional times, we probably never would have survived. They are always especially helpful during childhood when we don’t have the skills to process emotional pain.
So, let me go through them with you. Let’s do denial first.
Denial is to suspend belief in something even in the face of obvious evidence that it is real. You will see this when someone is suddenly in shock, like when learning of someone’s sudden death. You’ll hear people say things like, “It can’t be.” “I don’t believe it.” “It’s not possible.” “No, this is not happening.”
We go into denial like this when we are flooded with too much emotional information. We can’t cope with it, so in order to avoid overload, we deny it’s even happening. It’s a really important safety valve. Without it, we might collapse.
It occurs in childhood too, of course. Let’s say, a child who loves her daddy and yet sees him beat her mother when he was drunk may deny that he ever hit her mother. In that case, it would be her only way to deal with the emotional conflict she would be feeling between her love for him and her fear of his violence.
The thing with denial, though, is that it is meant to provide short-term relief, not long-term. It helps us to come to a point where we can let the truth sink in and to where we can begin to process the pain consciously. Denial may last a few minutes, a few hours, days, or weeks, but not years. That’s when it becomes pathological and needs to be busted. If denial becomes too firmly established, repression might take over.
Now let’s look at repression. Repression occurs when we bury our feelings, unpleasant thoughts, or memories so deep down in our subconscious mind that we have absolutely no awareness of them being there. It’s as if we never had them. If challenged about them, we would vehemently deny that we have them. Memories of sexual abuse in early childhood are often repressed in this way. It’s the only way the child has of dealing with the pain — the perfect defense, actually.
However, let me give you a warning here: If the repressed memory, thought or feeling does suddenly come to the surface at some later date, and unexpectedly, it can be very traumatizing. It’s not that you just have the memory — you do have that, but you also experience the emotions attached to the memory.
Now, there’s a chance that this might happen to you during this program, so you do need to be prepared for it in case it does. If it does, and it is too much for you to handle, then please do reach out for some coaching to help you through. We really don’t want you to stop once you have started, so some coaching would help. However, if it gets really bad, then you might need to get some help from a psychotherapist — preferably one who is familiar with Radical Forgiveness.
Suppression is quite different from repression in the sense that we haven’t buried the thoughts, feelings, and memories out of our awareness altogether, but we have done our best to stuff them down so we don’t have to deal with them. It’s like we know that they are there, but we pretend that they are not. We try to fool ourselves and everyone else, but we are vaguely aware of the game we are playing. This is like saying, “Everything’s just fine,” but really you know that you’re hurting.
This is not so potentially traumatizing as repression, but trying to keep it down does lead to an awful lot of stress and internal conflict. Another way this comes out is when our body is screaming something to us, but we suppress the message and go against what our body is telling us.
Projection is the mother of all defense mechanisms. I mentioned earlier that we deal with unpleasant feelings, thoughts, and memories by repressing them. That all becomes part of what Carl Jung called our shadow, the dark side of us that we would rather keep hidden, especially the parts that we would be ashamed of. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but if some of that repressed shadow material should get triggered in some way, so that it begins to come back to conscious awareness, that’s when we panic.
There’s no way we want to be confronted by that stuff. That’s when we will find someone to project that part of our shadow onto so we can fool ourselves into thinking that we don’t have it. Instead of being “in here” it is now “out there” in someone else. Phew! Now we can get all self-righteous and attack them for being that.
So, if you find yourself being critical of someone, especially if you become very self-righteous about it, that’s how you will know that you are projecting that part of you that you despise onto that person. If you spot it, you got it. The good news is that once you see that, you need only realize that you are looking in the mirror and give thanks to the person for giving you an opportunity to love that part of yourself. In other words, do a Radical Forgiveness worksheet on them.
There is another defense mechanism that you won’t see in psychology books, but it is often spoken about. And that is where it is said people have learned to leave their bodies as a way to escape the pain of physical and sexual abuse. Now, I don’t know whether it is just another way of speaking about suppression and repression, but it does nevertheless seem to be something different and valid as a defense mechanism in its own right. The idea is that that soul departs the body at least partially while the abuse is occurring so as not to feel the pain.
Again the problem comes later in life when, out of habit, that strategy is employed whenever something unpleasant happens, especially something of a physical nature. Used that way, it becomes a way to avoid life — especially emotional pain. The best way to counteract that is to do things that ground you, especially if you feel yourself going out. Some deep breathing will help too. And simply make a determination to stay in your body. Life is an in-body experience, so there’s no point going out all the time.
OK, so those are the main defense mechanisms you need to know about. We will be referencing them again because they do figure quite strongly in the Radical Forgiveness process. In fact, our healing depends on our willingness to let go of our need to deny and suppress our feelings, learn to love what is in our shadow and then finally to take back our projections.
Thanks for listening.