In the Fifties when I was young, I came across a list of psychological defenses. My mother was taking psych classes for a teaching degree, so it may have been in one of her texts, but my father, who took a bad head injury in 1948, was also buying mental health books to try to understand himself. So, of course, you can see why my main psychological defense was learning about things, esp. by reading in a private and solitary manner.
But I could have used a little guidance with this list, which shocked me deeply. I thought that being defensive was bad, so I thought the list was of things to NOT do because in the Fifties all the emphasis was on controlling oneself, being virtuous, conforming. According to this list, I was so defensive that I must be very wicked. I was evading justice, defying society, etc. And no wonder that I wasn’t dating because who would be attracted to a narcissistic, grandiose, rationalizing, denying, displacing, oblivious, attacking red-headed teenager anyway?
When my marriage/relationship (which was, I thought, an excellent defensive strategy since I was marrying someone older, wiser, and more powerful person than myself and would be under his wing) cracked and crumbled, I went to a shrink. I told him all sorts of things and he said I was like a terrier who had a bone buried at the edge of the yard and spent all her time barking on the other side of the yard so he wouldn’t find my bone. I didn’t even know what the bone might be. (A tendency towards self-destruction.)
It was decades before I got to seminary, aged forty, and the counselor running a group for future ministers complained that I had NO defenses! Now THIS was a crime! Double-bind time. I fell apart. Another kinder group of the same kind told me I had borderline personality disorder because I didn’t choose and defend a stable identity. Then the Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor began to rip me and the other students up for his own defense, and I had had it. The hell with defenselessness. I went on the attack. And won.
A defense is a defense. I finally got it through my head that a defense is not evil. Defenses are necessary, even vital, and one cannot lower them until in a safe place, which is often a small comfortable room with a trusted individual. Or maybe in bed with a lover. Certainly it’s not safe to have no defenses when writing, because writing IS a defense and a good one! A strategy. That’s the whole secret to defenses: strategy. Of course, it’s a good idea to look for places that don’t demand elaborate defenses because they take too much energy. The best defense of all is a life-goal so absorbing and passionate that a little collateral damage means nothing.
Of course, it’s also risky. People will figure out that they can affect you by attacking your life-goal. The strange thing about defenses is that they are two-edged, because they reveal what they are defending, even as you bark as hard as you can on the other side of the yard. Narcissism reveals a lack of confidence in one’s own center. Rationalizing reveals an emotional attachment that is needed maybe a little too much. Accusing others shows a fear of being accused.
In the end the best defense is knowing oneself so as to find constructive compensations for the needs and desires that might require defenses. Sometimes no defense is needed after all. Sometimes the knowledge is painful. I remember preaching once and saying, “I always wanted to be a ballet dancer, but was not equipped for it.” The congregation laughed and I was hurt. Was it my fault my body is stiff, heavy and droopy? It was a while before I realized that the REAL problem was my inability to bite down on something and give it the narrow obsessive attention to control that is the key to something as formal as ballet. But then I thought of Isadora Duncan, who said nonsense to all that courtly rigidity and went nearly naked into self-expression. A role model! (Red-headed, too. And a little self-destructive.) I did some practicing with some window curtains where no one could see me. And then a little defiant lawn-dancing at a UU summer conference where we were all drunk on lack of sleep.
Because our society is managed so much by stigma and the consequences (and then circling back causes) of stigmas like poverty or criminalization or drugs or illnesses are so lethal and produce so much suffering, the need for defenses is higher than ever. Alongside commodification, the legalization of defensiveness is at industrial levels. And it turns out that even that is bought by the rich and eroded for the poor. A court-appointed public defender is supposed to protect the impoverished and bewildered. One is discouraged from defending oneself. But the rich can buy the connections and trading chips they need to evade jails. Up to a point. And public defenders don’t make the big bucks so they are not jobs sought out by the high-scoring law students. Up to a point.
Many believe that power, status, wealth, college degrees, family connections will protect them. A good enough insurance policy and enough really skillful doctors and you won’t even die. But there is no defense against death. Some believe that if they are humble enough, quiet enough, offend no one and occupy as little space as possible, they will be safe. But there is no defense against life. It will come and get you. Life is a process, a negotiation, a magnet drawing through you through time.
The strategies that really work are the ones that allow the extended hand, the joyful moment, and participation in the sensory adventures that we call the arts, if not as a creator then as an appreciator. Because that’s what human brains can and should do as they draw all the world’s sensations and patterns into themselves, making of them an identity that is a negotiation, a dance, a reciprocity. Keep moving. Those are strategic defenses.
But there are no guarantees. There will be agony, there may be long gray stretches of numbness, emptiness, and all that other stuff. In every era people sell snake oil, recipes for surefire cures and salvations. Printing lists of defenses. Not that they aren’t useful for strategies. If you google you’ll find “top ten” lists and theories about what makes them necessary (aggression, sex, loving your mother too much). Test your strategies as you go. If they work, fine. If not, go dig a hole and bury them. Or, hey! Why not just dig right on out of that yard to a larger world !!