Therapist's Cup · Today's Psyche

From Defense Mechanisms to Wise Mechanisms

Starting from the Start

I grew up understanding creativity as either drawing, painting and craft work that all children do or as the masterpieces ‘Monalisa’ or ‘Geetanjali’ that were a resultant of the passionate frenzy of creative geniuses. With this backdrop, when I met creativity in a completely new ‘avatar’ in my consulting room, it came as a huge surprise.

Client after client and session after session, I was amazed at the different defense mechanisms in operation. Many different clients honoured me with their world and honest sharing of how they used different emotional strategies to survive. As they would become aware of the different layers within them, a very intricate and complexly woven design or pattern would emerge. Very unlike the masterpieces celebrated in the world outside, these patterns were not only very distorted and dysfunctional at times but outright damaging to the clients.


While my training and theoretical understanding told me that I needed to help my clients break out of these defences and see them as problems that needed to be solved, I could not help myself from being spellbound by creativity at work!!! No one had told me during my training that one of the names of creativity in the therapeutic world was ‘defense mechanisms’!! I realised that in these weavings and patterns, it was creativity at work at the basic level of survival. It wasn’t creativity at its beautiful, magnificent, self-actualised level, right at the top of the Maslow’s hierarchy. Rather, it was the creativity that kicked in right at the bottom of the hierarchy, where a person was gasping for psychological air. Creativity by a person somehow holding on to the last step in continued fear that any moment he/she could fall off and everything would end. Many times, this existential fear would not even be in their awareness.  Obviously their creative expressions would look ugly, distorted and crazy. Where enough psychological oxygen wasn’t perceived as available for survival, where was the scope for any beautification?


But as they say, ‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’. As I started looking at defense mechanisms from renewed lenses of reverence and beauty, I shifted my understanding of them from ‘distorted survival strategies’ to ‘creative survival expressions’. As my relationship changed, I could help my clients see their defences as those beautifully and cleverly woven safety nets that they had uniquely designed for themselves. From being frustrated or scared or overwhelmed or helpless or angry towards their own dysfunctional patterns, they could shift to understanding them from a kind and empathic place. May be someday even marvel at their own genius in the art of surviving!!


So would begin the journey of facilitating my clients befriending their defences in the following 3 steps:


Distortion to Creativity: At step one, I encouraged my clients to look beneath the distortions. Try and understand their creativity at work. How had they woven their patterns? Which part was connected to which other part and how? What triggered a part or the whole of their pattern? What behaviours, actions and reactions were manifested when the pattern was activated? How differently they experienced themselves when any pattern was activated in them and when they were operating without any patterns? How a particular pattern or all of them put together created a safety net or a web for them?


Understanding Survival: Having understood the above in considerable details, as a second step I would then nudge my clients to look at the survival value of these patterns. Together we would explore their survival journey. How the years before therapy and surviving in this world had been like for them? What all different kinds of survival had needed to be taken care of, physical, emotional, financial, social and so on? Which of these survivals might have been at stake for them during their growing up history? What it might have been to experience that “If I don’t do something now, I will die”? Answers to these questions would invariably bring up a lot of emotional upheaval.


Strategies to Expressions: After the upheaval settled a little, we would together look at ‘strategies’ from the perspective of ‘expressions’. As the third step, I would facilitate their meeting the ‘hero’ called themselves. A hero, who at a very young age had taken a decision to survive. How that little person then, with his/her limited understanding of themselves, others and the world had decided to use all its life or creative energy to survive. Each of the strategies they might have chosen, behaviours, thoughts and actions was their little minds furiously at work. At the point where they might have felt, they could fall into an unending dark abyss any moment, never to return, they would have worked with the same frenzy as any genius artist, to design their safety net. Intricately woven with strands of their sometimes erroneous beliefs, fears, unmet needs and quick actions, the basic ingredients would have formed. Anything available for that child within or outside might have been used. In desperate times, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy stops mattering. The primary goal being, experiencing safety and security, judiciousness in the moment has no relevance.

Intelligent interconnections amongst these must have been formed in such a way that different patterns would have emerged. So many of these must have been tried and tested a million times to finally approve of the few most consistently reliable ones that gave immediate best results. And Lo behold, ‘Intrapsychic Masterpieces’ would be ready!!! These tried and tested masterpieces would always be at the command of the person. A safety net that would immediately open whenever they pressed their internal SOS button. That intricate safety net that was completely theirs and always at their command. It made me wonder how empowering it would have been for them to know that they have such a safety net. Whether they used it or not was secondary.


The Road to Wise Mechanisms

Tears: At the end of crossing these three steps over many sessions, most of my clients would be in tears. Tears of awe and respect around how they had survived. Tears of pain around all of it. Tears of joy when they could see their dysfunctional patterns as their childhood best friends and the role these best friends had played. Tears of a sense of liberation that came from a realisation that if they were the creators of their defences, they could rewrite a lot of things now. They could creatively survive differently now. With their grown up understanding of themselves, others and the world at large, they could weave new patterns. Patterns that were not only healthy but adaptable to situational demands. Patterns that they had awareness and conscious control of. Patterns that wouldn’t overpower them or hijack their conscious choice in any situation.


Loss: While on their healing journey of developing healthy sides, my clients would also experience a deep sense of loss. The realisation that it was time to say goodbye to an old friend or a bunch of them, often left them with a lot of grief and a void within. Yet they would know that it was time to let go. While the defense mechanisms had kicked in as necessary for survival, they had over a course of time turned toxic for them. They also knew that they did not need them anymore. Depending on the journey taken and their readiness, my clients would stop needing different defences at different points in time.


Panic: My clients went through the letting go process, with varied experiences – Sometimes with a lot of courage and steadfastness, sometimes with lot of turbulence, some would take a leap of faith but loose conviction in between, some would be organic. Every once in a while when the bridge towards new ways of being or behaving had yet not formed and older ways were let gone, clients would look at me in that panic stricken exasperation. At such times, the biggest authentic support I could offer them was a narration of my healing journey and struggles. I would say to them “Only when old books are removed from the cupboard, is there space for new ones to come in. Otherwise we keep reading the same old stuff and keep repeating the same old stories to ourselves”.

Eventually after a lot of patience and due time taken, clients would find their new balance and ground.


Rising Up: They would start ascending the Maslow’s hierarchy step by step. Basing their sense of safety and security tightly within their renewed and unique sense of identity, they would know deep within, that they had the internal wherewithal to deal with whatever comes to them in life. Slowly from there, they would move up the ladder of belonging. Owning up to all their different shades of grey and allowing all of who they were to belong to each other, a sense of integration would come in. Secure in their knowledge of who they were, their integrated identity would naturally help give and receive love. Relationships became two person spaces instead of an either/or where only one person could be visible at a time. Eventually their self-esteem started coming from their internal definitions of what was meaningful to them rather than societal norms. Finally, large parts of their lives became creative expressions of their uniqueness.


Termination: As time for termination would come, we would both know. It was with amazement that we would reflect on the journey covered. That twinkle in their eyes and the tentative surety with which my clients would admit, more to themselves than me “I don’t think I need therapy anymore”, would make my heart grow with joy. I knew that they had gotten in touch, in some magically consistent way, with their own internal reservoir. A reservoir of that creative natural intelligence bestowed to all of us, that tells us how to go about life. Additionally this time, the reservoir had gotten full of wisdom too. Wisdom that they had collected over the years of life lived. Wisdom that they may never have owned up to. A wisdom that would now go hand in hand with their natural creativity, guide them towards what was the best and most congruent for them.


Saying Bye: It was never easy for either them or me. But seeing their metamorphosis from the blind use of defense mechanisms to a choice of wise mechanisms, I knew that they would now have a life of growth, fulfilment, joy and authenticity. A life where nothing was really guaranteed but a life where they would always have themselves and this time in a wise way…


I end this write up with a deep sense of gratitude to all the clients who honoured me with with their reality and with a deep sense of satisfaction that I left them in good hands called ‘the creative themselves‘.





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