If you have asked that question in therapy before, you are not alone. One of the first things people learn in therapy is to identify unhealthy, unwanted, or destructive habits (in psychodynamic therapy we usually refer to those as defenses) that usually play a role in creating the problems we come to therapy to solve.
A basic psychodynamic principle in the understanding of how the mind works, is the principle of internal psychological conflict (intrapsychic conflict). When Freud began his work with patients, he discovered that we are constantly experiencing impulses, feelings, or thoughts related to our instinctual drives that help satisfy our basic needs for survival. Initially, because we are born in a complete state of dependence, any thought, feeling, or action that causes unwanted separation or loss from our caretakers is experienced by the helpless baby as dangerous and catastrophic for survival, and a stress signal becomes activated leading to the experience of anxiety. With time, the child learns to avoid those feelings, thoughts or actions that could potentially lead to painful, uncomfortable feelings. The main way in which we learn to compromise the tension between our need to satisfy our most basic needs, and the protection of our early attachments, is through defenses. In this way, defenses, when applied successfully to a situation, protects us from anxiety but with at the cost of also losing sight of our initial feelings, thoughts or impulses, which become “repressed” and stay stored in the basement of our psyche (commonly referred as “the unconscious”).
For a great great representation of this concept, you can watch this clip from the movie Inside Out.
Our defenses evolve in complexity as we grow. Initially, the child only has a few defenses available due to the limitations imposed by normal cognitive development. Depending on the time in development where our “childhood catastrophe” occurs, and the defenses available (through modeling, exposure, cognitive ability and effectiveness) we tend to stick with a set of strategies for psychological and physical survival. Through frequent practice of the same strategy for coping with distress, theses defenses become automatic ways of responding to situations that remind us of similar painful experiences of the past. These automatic responses become stored in the form of “implicit memories” in region of our brain where learning happens slowly and lessons last longer.
In this way, our defenses tell a story from the past, but that we carry into our future, and that we end up over applying to situations that may triggered a memory of a past hurt or danger, but that in reality, in the present, does not constitute any real threat to our being.
We are consistently dealing with the demands of daily life through the use of defenses. Healthy use of defenses means that we have some flexibility in choosing the defenses, we have a wider repertoire of defenses, and that we are also able to assess reality and not to grossly misperceive a particular situation that creates emotional stress.
Our psychological problems and symptoms are created when we rely on a particular set of defenses to approach life stressors. Most of the time, we are not aware of the defenses that create our particular problem. Take for instance, a typical case of depression. Underneath the experience of depression, we usually find the defense of “turning anger towards the self.” Usually this is seen in the moment-to-moment therapy experience of a patient engaging in self-criticism, negative self-talk, self-rejection, or concrete acts of self-harm.
In therapy, you can learn to identify the set of defenses that are creating your symptoms or problem, prolonging your suffering, or causing your unhappiness (generally speaking, any feeling, thought or action that leads to decreased experience of anxiety, can be considered to have a “defensive/protective” role).
Being able to identify those is important because with time, you can learn to anticipate your impulse to engage in that defensive strategy when you are feeling anxious, and then, make a conscious choice to respond in a way that is more aligned with your life or relationship goals.
One tip that I usually share with my patients at the beginning of the treatment, is to begin noticing the urge to act their preferred defensive strategy. If they notice it, and can create a space before reacting, they can ask themselves, if I act in this way, will this bring me closer to what I want or would it create more distance or pain?
Because by the time we make it to therapy to learn to unlearn these habits, these defenses have become deeply ingrained in our brain functioning through the formation of neural pathways that optimize survival. For this reason, it takes time and practice to make changes. It can be frustrating not to see changes quickly, but rest assure that the opportunity that therapy brings to practice new strategies of relating that are healthier will eventually pay off.
Letting go of our familiar ways of dealing with our feelings, thoughts, needs, and impulses is not an easy task. There is a great deal of courage and vulnerability that is required to try something new. You are never required to change something that you do not want to change. If it is working for you, why giving up something that works out? Fortunately, most people come to therapy because they have come to realize that their current ways of dealing with life demands, is no longer working, and are willing and eager to try something new.