Resilience, Defenses, and Case Progress

This article originally appeared in the TIR Association Newsletter

Resilience, the ability to respond creatively to a variety of life situations, has a lot to do with quality of life. Defenses, those mental or emotional structures and mechanisms we set up to protect ourselves from danger, can lead to rigidity and lack of resilience. Defense mechanisms get a bad name for this resulting lack of flexibility, but it is more useful to understand human defenses as a form of resilience in the first place.

Defense mechanisms erected in the midst of traumatic experience keep the person from being overwhelmed. This idea is starting to gain favor in some circles in the mental health world. The ability to dissociate, for instance, to “be somewhere else” mentally may be what allows a traumatized child to carry on in otherwise impossible circumstances. Unconsciousness is the last defense in an overwhelming experience. People often court degrees of unconsciousness using drugs or alcohol when daily life itself seems too hard to face up to.

In person-centered work, because we are operating within the worldview of the client, we are never judging or trying to break down the person’s defenses. As we know, traumatic experience tends to stick or fixate things. The defense mechanism that “worked” – in the sense that the person did survive the experience – gets further cemented in, the oftener it is called into play. That mechanism starts to affect every day life, decreasing one’s ability to respond creatively to the environment. The great thing is that Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR) and related techniques act effectively to allow the client to unstick these things within a person-centered context.

We might imagine a scale of resilience parallel with the Emotional Scale. As someone’s chronic emotional level goes down, ego strength diminishes and heavier defenses are needed to help the person to feel reasonably safe. As this person moves up the Emotional Scale and consolidates their gains, ego strength improves. As a result of removing emotional charge, having end points, and reordering their mental environment, the viewer (client) gains more certainly in ability to face difficult experiences successfully. As ego strength improves, fewer defenses are needed and resilience increases.

At the mid to lower reaches of this resilience scale, people cannot comfortably view their own defenses. It’s too scary and unsettling. If their defenses are pointed out or challenged, they may erect further layers to protect and defend them. Let us note that defenses do not need to be “working” in any real life sense to be strongly held on to and protected. This is why in the subject of Applied Metapsychology, we work in a person-centered way. Working within the client’s worldview allows someone to deconstruct their own defenses when ready, after the trauma that holds them in place is peeled away.

Even though we can see the adaptive sense of building defenses, solidification of layers of defenses over time make a person less flexible, less mobile, and less able to perceive and adapt to the surrounding world. This leads to a lack of connection with people, causing more frequent upsets and the building up of more emotional charge. Below some theoretical point on the scale one tends to stack up more charge and more defenses. A fairly resilient person hit hard enough and often enough, slides down the scale. Having had the experience of the freedom of true resilience however, one is more likely to be able to start moving back up again.

Such things as education, life experience and positive relationships can help someone to increase ego strength of course. Sometimes a transformative life experience such as a severe illness or the death of a loved one can suddenly break down someone’s defenses, leaving the person more open, more flexible and more able to love. On the other hand, the same sort of experience may have the opposite effect in another person, who responds to the same sort of experience with heightened resistance and heavier defenses.

Any sort of effective work done to resolve trauma, past upsets and confusions, or to promote personal growth, that is done in a safe (ideally person-centered) environment is generally the most efficient way for a viewer to get more flexible, to see and let go of some defenses while holding onto others, and to continue on up the scale. Near the top of this scale one is highly resilient and able to learn from experience, tending to release charge faster than building it up. At this point defenses, once seen, are easily released.

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