“My parent was controlling.” How we develop Defense Mechanisms (Part I)

"Musical Gems" by Mimi Stuart ©
Live the Life you Desire

It is surprising how many of the “choices” we make are not by choice at all. We are frequently driven by unconscious forces. These responses were programmed out of necessity when as children we were trying to get our needs met.

Generally, people experience their parents as either too engulfing or indifferent. Depending on their personality, children of a strong parent who is engulfing/controlling/hovering tend to develop one of the following belief systems:

1. The compliant person believes “I should be sweet, self-sacrificing, and saintly.”
2. The aggressive person says “I should be powerful, recognized, and a winner.”
3. The withdrawing person believes “I should be independent, aloof, and perfect.”

1. Compliance: While accommodation is sometimes appropriate, it is not okay when it becomes reflexive and automatic. An emotional chameleon ceases to have personal integrity. In extreme cases, compliant people feel they have no will of their own. They become totally dependent on what others think, expect and want of them. This can lead to harm of oneself and others.

2. Power Complex: Assertive behavior is an attempt to try to get control. We need to be self-empowered. But when power becomes one-sided or unconscious, it becomes aggressive and problematic. In the extreme you get the sociopath who must be in total control and disregards the welfare of others. Dictators exhibit the power complex in the extreme.

3. Avoidance: The withdrawing person steps away from anything threatening, and suppresses reflection about difficult issues. This is sometimes a wise move, but not when it is done without conscious choice or in every situation. Whenever there is avoidance, the unconscious perceives that the Other is a large and powerful force and that he or she is not. In extreme cases, a person may become disconnected from reality or even dissociative.

Why bother figuring out what anxiety-management systems we use? The moment we become aware of our automatic psychological reflexes, we open up the opportunity to make genuine choices. Ask yourself what these responses cause you to do and prevent you from doing? Where are you stuck?

With awareness of our unconscious belief systems, we can thoughtfully choose whether to comply, withdraw, or assert ourselves, among other possible responses, depending on the situation, rather than having the same knee-jerk reaction in every situation. When we start responding differently, we can transform our old patterns to new adventures of our choosing.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

Read “My parent didn’t care about me.” How we develop Defense Mechanisms (Part II)

Read “She’s just like my mother! — so weak!” “He’s just like my father — so controlling!”

Reference and recommended reading and seminars: James Hollis, PhD, Author and Senior Jungian Analyst

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