Psychotherapy is for “Crazy People” – or is it?
Although many of Sigmund Freud’s theoretical ideas have since been debunked or altered in significant ways since his lifetime, one the ideas of his that I find still relevant today is the idea of defense mechanisms. I say this because I see them emerge all the time in my psychological practice. Defense mechanisms operate at an unconscious level and help ward off unpleasant feelings (i.e. anxiety) for the individual. Freud’s original list included such defenses as projection, regression, displacement, and denial. (More have been added since his time!) It’s important to note that even healthy people use different defenses throughout life. For instance, sublimation can be useful. Sublimation is turning an uncomfortable feeling into something acceptable – like turning aggression into boxing or marathon training. It can be an adaptive response to an uncomfortable feeling. A defense mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. For example, an individual who experiences social anxiety may avoid so many social situations that her/his ability to engage in normal adult behavior becomes compromised. Perhaps the individual has dreams and goals for his/her life but can never take the steps toward their fruition, leaving them feeling stuck and depressed. One of the defense mechanisms I most often see is that of Withdrawal – or what I like to call avoidance. Withdrawal entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, and interactions to avoid being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings. The common stigma attached to psychotherapy is that it’s for “crazy folks.” Or that it’s an endeavor only to be pursued for “weak” people. On the contrary, pursuing and committing to the process of psychotherapy actually takes a lot of courage and has consistently been shown to result in greater psychological health and more contented human beings. Believing that therapy is only for weak or crazy people is actually a perfect example of a defense mechanism – it’s finding a very creative way to avoid an uncomfortable situation BECAUSE of the difficult feelings that can emerge with authentic self-reflection. Once an individual begins therapy, it’s also not uncommon to see missed or cancelled sessions (always for VERY good reasons, mind you!) or discussing safe topics and avoiding the more difficult ones. The human being is very creative and often committed to avoiding the very thing that needs to be addressed. Hopefully, with the assistance of a safe and genuine psychologist, people can overcome humanity’s natural tendency toward avoidance and face their pain (or difficult feelings), allowing themselves to experience greater freedom and healing.