Saturday, May 21, 2011

People Who Deny Reality

We all create certain safe and predictable ways of dealing with the world that involve some slanting of reality. In order to cope with life, and make it more tolerable, we may distort, embellish or ignore certain aspects of our environment, our feelings, or our memories. There are things we just don't want to deal with because they are too painful, we fear them, or because we may get overwhelmed by such information. 

Why do people distort reality while awake? The answer is to shield the ego from disturbing information. This is a desirable and useful feature of human adaptation. When such a mechanism fails, the normal psychic boundaries, which maintain the integrity of the ego, collapse, and so does the personality of the individual. The result is often a breakdown in the form of psychosis or severe mental disturbance, such as schizophrenia. In a way, the unconscious is at the forefront of the schizophrenic's reality. 
The use of psychic defenses is a normal strategy for coping with daily life. We use rationalizations to explain why we lost our job (our boss was intimidated by our abilities), or why we were nasty with our children (they deserved it). We will interpret something our spouse said to suit our needs without really listening to what they meant. We will deflect criticism of ourselves by getting testy and criticizing the person responsible. In all these cases we are not being honest with ourselves. Hopefully, we will eventually have insights about why we block reality, and what we fear to confront. 

At what point is mental blocking a neurotic reaction? The answer has to do with how extremely a person detaches from reality because they feel threatened by it. The more threatening the world seems, the more anxiety they experience, and the more extreme their strategies to avoid dealing with it. Reality blocking can be considered neurotic when (a) the perception of reality is so distorted that it negatively influences one's daily functioning; (b) the person closes off to insights about themselves; and (c) they have unrealistic conceptions and expectations of others to the point where their relationships are harmed. 

How does the mind deal with anything that is too fearful to confront? The mind is ingenious in this respect. Often times a person is not aware that they are actually distorting reality (it would defeat the purpose if they were). The manipulations of reality are usually subtle. A person can cling to an illusory world, perhaps for their entire lifetime, yet remain oblivious to the fact that their alternate portrayal of reality has no basis in truth, but is a result of their fear and insecurity. This is a frightening prospect, but many neurotics die ignorant of their attempts to block repressed conflicts and fears. 

The defense mechanisms of the ego are remarkably resistant to conflicting information from reality-based sources. Every once in a while these psychic defenses are pierced by circumstances beyond the person's control, and the truth leaks into their consciousness. The person may then go into a psychological crisis, become hugely upset, experience anxiety, anger or shame as these feelings well to the surface. But these reactions are usually temporary, as the ego quickly redeploys and assumes a defensive posture.
In some cases, however, the truth will penetrate deeper, and the psychic walls will come crashing down. The result might be what is popularly known as a "nervous breakdown"; the ego will experience too much anxiety to function properly. Without these walls the person is vulnerable and "naked" to attack. The fractured ego will have to reassemble itself, but this time perhaps in a more reality-based fashion. Many people become more integrated after such a breakdown, and more in touch with their previously repressed feelings.

Situations that are particularly threatening will result in the ego feeling more vulnerable, and the defenses becoming more rigid. The personality may seem unreasonable or inflexible. This is a difficult aspect to grasp. Friends and family may shake their heads, and wonder, why doesn't this person get it when I tell them the truth about themselves: that they are causing others pain, that they are attracting to themselves everything they seek to avoid, or that they are selfish even though they think they are generous and noble? The fact is that such revelations will damage the self-concept of such people, whose self-esteem is usually fragile to begin with. These people just can't handle the truth. 

This should not be difficult to understand. We can easily see faults in others, but it is much more difficult to face any unpleasantness in ourselves. We can be critical of others, dissect their personalities, offer advice about how they should change. But we may have a blind spot about our own deficiencies. How open are we to the reflections of others? Usually when the source is more benign we will tend to be more accepting. But there are some things we will refuse to face no matter what the source of information is. 

Ego defenses are employed at different levels. A physical defense happens when you physically avoid the threatening object. Physical displacement is effective when you avoid people or places you find threatening. You may not call a friend who criticized you a few days ago; or avoid interacting with a work colleague because they make you feel inadequate. More extremely you may withdraw from the world, become a hermit, because you cannot deal with society's demands.
Some people simply run away from the world. They become loners. It is a lot safer not to deal with other personalities. One doesn't get challenged or tweaked. More importantly, one minimizes the chances of getting rejected or hurt. 
Emotional ego defenses are subtler than physical defenses. These include:
(1) Repression: Pushing back emotions that are unacceptable to your ego. Blocking or denial of emotions such as anger, fear, frustration or dislike; or even love and compassion. 
(2) Reaction-Formation: Reacting in ways opposite to what you really feel. For instance, you may feel resentment toward your child, but smother them with affection instead. 
(3) Projection: Attributing unacceptable feelings to others, when in fact you feel these yourself. 
(4) Displacement: Reacting in a certain way to someone, usually a safe target, when in fact you have such feelings about someone else. 
(5) Regression: Experiencing feelings of an earlier developmental stage, and not responding to situations in an adult and responsible way. 

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