Attitudes and Defenses

This is a paper written a long time ago [1990s] for reflection after experiential learning classes  – just want a record of it so putting it up here for now.

Emotional Education: Some thoughts on Attitudes and Defenses

Emotional Education is about (i) becoming aware of what is happening in our emotional process and also (ii) learning how to influence this happening even though most of it is unconscious.

All sorts of interactions have both conscious and unconscious aspects. The unconscious occurs first, before conscious awareness. Also, the unconscious does not have a rational sense of time, place or contradiction. Anything goes. Two ordinary ideas help our conscious observation of emotion and feeling.

Rapport               The degree of emotional contact between people

Here-and-now     Unconscious communication expresses the present emotional state (however far in the past the roots of this state may lie, or however much in desires for the future)

Rapport – (or atmosphere) can be full of feeling, different and strong feeling/s, very nearly empty/ without feeling. The word “trust” can be very significant in relation to rapport. Pay attention to it, and notice when you do not notice rapport or do not want to notice it.

To understand “Here-and-Now” observe how often when we talk (or think etc.) we are sometimes emotionally in “There and Now” (that is stuff/events happening elsewhere) or “There and Then” (stuff that has already happened somewhere). The unconscious acts “Here-and-Now”.

Rapport and Here-and-Now are connected, and consequences like trust, degree of anxiety, etc. follow depending on the kind of attention paid to them.

Whatever people are doing, they are influenced by the quality of the intra and interpersonal relationship(s) which arise, e.g. by the creation of rapport or an appropriate use of authority, respect, etc. depending on the kind of relationships and roles. [Think of examples – doctor-patient, parent-child, friendship, partners, teacher-student, server-customer, financial adviser-client… the list is long…]

In one area of psychodynamic thought, “object relations theory”, a person’s need to relate to others is taken to be central. The term “object-relationship” refers to unconscious activity, where a person processes a store of feelings about others, like an emotional program. These unconscious activities, ‘the inner world of object-relations’ are usually based on those who were important in early childhood, but are more like caricatures of people in particular emotional states, than rounded recognisable pictures. They are “part-objects”. For example, in inner world, a person could feel that a woman who is strong is also angry, or that a woman who is kind cannot be strong, nor ever be angry, even though a real mother might have been able to be both gentle/kind and strong/firm sometimes and either one or the other at other times. A child’s early perception is of emotions present, not an awareness of the whole context, nor a rounded recognition of why or how the mother (or father, other) has these feelings at this moment.

Later, relationships are influenced by unconscious associations that evoke particular part-objects. Say someone has an inner world with “caricatures” such as above, he/she might find it very difficult to trust a female boss (or doctor or teacher), and also might be completely unable to realise that his/her daughter (seen as ‘gentle’) is angry about something real, so she is wrongly labelled “upset” or “childish”.

Some particular object-relationships within people are painfully intense. These are kept out of awareness by splitting and defense. These hostile words describe part of normal development. The supposition is that life/reality is just too complex, especially in babyhood when each person has yet to develop the pre-concepts and concepts for sense-making, so we rely on non-verbal and body communication. Intense discomfort is coped with by diluting, filtering or disposing of some feeling. Ordinary good-enough caring can ‘catch’ the feeling, recognise it and hopefully return it in a manageable form, that is, no longer too intense, something from which the reality of the world can be learned.

However, relationships do not stop being complex, or uncomfortable, and people continue to use defenses that have become automatic rather than useful. These can be visible, especially to others. Developing emotional awareness, and knowledge about emotional process, whether of self or other, can create helpful change and lessen defensiveness in relationships. Examples of common defenses are:

Denial:  Disowning of feelings which are either unacceptably intense, or labelled ‘bad’, or produce too much confusion and anxiety, or all of these.

Projection:  Ascribing feelings or motives to others, i.e. experiencing others as angry, or accusatory, or jealous, etc., when it is too painful to accept these feelings in oneself.

Displacement:  Using feelings which belong to one situation in a different context, for example being angry with one’s family when the cause of the anger lies in a work situation.

Manipulation:  Using the feelings of others to satisfy one’s own need, usually without appreciation of the effects on another, as in ’emotional blackmail’ or ‘double bind’. This often covers hidden desperation about being needy and/or being rejected (needs having been rejected before) and creates a vicious circle.

There are many types of defense. Combinations of defenses entangled with those of others also make it difficult to avoid being drawn into particular kinds of relationships from time to time, for example:

Collusion: where the defense of one person matches with another (e.g. one takes an authoritarian role, the other passively obeys, while both avoid mental pain in the real problem faced)

Health Warning: When a defense is seen, some compassion for the reason for it is needed, otherwise the other is left with the original unmanageable emotional difficulty, made worse by feeling accused, exposed or intruded upon. The result will be greater ‘defensiveness’, increased rigidity, not what is wanted. Pointing out a defense does not ‘catch’ the feeling and return it in a manageable way. It is cruel.

To reduce defensiveness in a safe atmosphere, and do no harm, three attitudes are worth practicing:

Genuineness (awareness of self)

It is sometimes, though not always, easier to see defensiveness in others than in oneself.  To be genuine, and engage in relationships authentically, it is important to regularly reflect on one’s own feelings, notice how and when one became aware of them, and become curious about why the person or context evoked that particular feeling. It is particularly important to notice mixed feelings or those one does not like having, or thinks are ‘wrong’ to have, and acknowledge these conflicts. There is no right or wrong about feelings; one has them. [The action taken in response to a feeling might be wrong.]

By becoming self-aware, relationships with others become more authentic and less a performance. Also, ‘be genuine’ applies only to oneself. It is not possible to demand that someone else is genuine though it becomes more likely when they meet genuineness in you. And, do not demand it of yourself, just practice.

Acceptance (awareness of various parts of self and others)

Feelings, attitudes and personal characteristics, both physical and mental, have to be accepted because they are so at least for now [they may change]. This is easier to say than to do, as, first assumptions are made both about self and others, so you might not know what the actual feeling, attitude or characteristic is. Also, if what it is, or what you assume it is, is something you do not like, which makes you anxious or uncomfortable, you can mentally block the discomfort.  However, accepting can be practiced.  It applies both to yourself and to others. Acceptance does not mean “agree with”, it means you realise that this view or attitude or feeling exists and is held by the person. It does not avoid any responsibility you have to let someone you accept know when, how or what you disagree with.

One way to practice is to allow yourself to think about personal characteristics, e.g. impatience, kindness, and divide them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.  Then try to find a way in which the ‘bad’ characteristic can be linked with something good, which doesn’t change it, but makes it more bearable, e.g. an impatient person might also be spontaneous or energetic. Similarly, find the downside to the ‘good’ characteristics.

Acceptance needs lateral thinking.  You are opening your mind to wider images of people or groups and respecting them as individuals, not labelling or categorising.

Empathy (awareness of the other)

This is recognising what it feels like to be other person.  It is not necessarily about how you would feel if the same things were happening to you, because you are not them; you might have the same feelings, you might not. It is more like being in their skin, than in their shoes. Empathy is achieved by listening and observing attentively and picking up the clues, both those which are obvious and those from tones, atmosphere and body language. It is gathering information. You can check the information, but do that in an accepting way, as if you are aggressive or intrusive, the feelings will change in reaction to you.

Being empathic is sometimes called knowing the other’s ‘frame of reference’.  Should you want the other to move to your frame (often with good reason) and you have some idea of theirs, you are much more likely to find a way from the one frame to the other, if you convey and make use of your empathy.

There is considerable confusion about ’empathy’, especially the assumption that it means being ‘nice to people’.  For example, to treat a disruptive bully with softness and ‘would you like to talk about your worries’ is not empathic, neither is retaliation with more force than he uses.  A bully is making others fear or be angry; is not owning fear in himself, not letting himself feel weak; he is ‘projecting’.  His need may be for security without retaliation.  To consistently watch him and firmly stop him is empathic.

Genuineness, acceptance and empathy are aspects of reflective activity, or mindfulness. They do not replace regular communication. They are like peripheral vision when driving a car. Of course knowing where you are going and watching the route in front is how you drive a car. Reflection makes connections with the other people on the road, and reflective activity improves all our journeys. In literature concerning psychoanalysis, object relations, defensiveness, etc. the concepts can sound involved and difficult. However, everyone has been living with feelings, defenses and relationships throughout their life and knows a great deal about them already. Practising genuineness, acceptance and empathy increases awareness and enables the psychodynamic notion of using “counter-transference” which leads to change in our inner world.

Acknowledgement: Genuineness, acceptance and empathy as described here are my version of the ‘core conditions’ of person-centred counselling, considered in the light of psychodynamic theory of human living and growing. [See for example Carl Rogers (1961) On Becoming a Person, and Margot Waddell (2002) Inside Lives.] I have found these ideas especially useful in non-therapeutic contexts, such as occur within organisations and a variety of groups. I am responsible for this version, which I believe is accessible from observation in daily life. Emotional Education is more like human relations consultancy than therapy or counselling. Or, it seems to me that Emotional Education offers a way in, and enables flourishing, while complex or difficult ideas are not simplistically reduced.

 

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