Going Through Life with an Emotional Flat Line Except for Anger
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
Sigmund Freud said, “The ego expels whatever within itself becomes a source of displeasure.” A defense mechanism is a habitual behavior that distorts reality to suppress thoughts and emotions that might bring up ego threat. Defense mechanisms function in life to help us deal with stress. However, the defenses keep people from being real and living life to the fullest. Repression is a defense mechanism first described by Sigmund Freud, as a way that people keep unpleasant memories out of their conscious mind.
Repression is a compensatory style that deals with threat and stress by blocking unpleasant emotional experiences that might bring up anxiety, distress and vulnerability. Being split off from feelings is called alexithymia. Repressors have a chronic inaccessible filter that keeps them from experiencing the world through their emotions. They feel attacked and then distance and isolate from others when they are stressed. They avoid talking about and rehashing unpleasant experiences as this adds to their stress. They become emotionally inaccessible to others when they feel the problem has been solved by their solution of dismissing it. They are conflict avoidant and cannot tolerate working things out to the satisfaction of their partner. They often deny that there is a problem and have a lack of insight about how their distancing bothers others.
Repressors have one emotion – from A to A. They can feel and express anger. Anger is a substitute emotion for the hurt and disappointment they might feel. Anger takes them out of the emotional flat line and becomes their dominant emotion. They are stressed by having to deal with others on an emotional level and change the subject or evade the issue to keep people who are upset from bothering them. They tend to be more aggressive and have a higher belief in themselves than most people. On the positive side, Repressors are often less neurotic than those who express their feelings easier. As they value the intellect, they can see events objectively without pesky emotions clouding up the issue.
Research show that repressors remember fewer negative experiences from childhood. By minimizing the unhappy events, they distort reality and can even believe they had a happy childhood when they did not. The research literature suggests that they protect themselves from discomfort by superficially taking in negative events. They spend less time processing unpleasant new events and have the ability to dismiss them. This defense allows them to experience unpleasant emotions less frequently than emotionally intense people. The research says that people who cannot feel the more vulnerable emotions do not form associations between negative experiences and internal arousal such as anxiety. They need repeated trials to link a negative experience with negative emotions. The research literature suggests that repressors have a lack of emotional links in the brain that tie negative emotions to experiences.
People who repress their feelings view themselves as “thinkers” and proudly use their intellect to process information. Talking and problem solving take preference over feelings. They can be highly analytical like Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise. They often intellectualize which is trying to explain emotionally painful feelings through thought. Sometimes they feel superior over people who are more emotional and dismiss this style of dealing with stress. Often they put people down who are emotional. They just don’t “get” feelings and talking things out!
Since they do not process their own emotions, they don’t have a clue when it comes to understanding emotions in others. They are lacking in empathy and cannot put themselves is others’ emotional shoes.
They do the worst with partners who are highly emotional and insist on sharing feelings and who try to make the Repressor responsible for their anxiety that remains when there is no clear-cut solution to the problem. They do best in relationships with a partner who leaves them alone and who does not insist on their engaging in continual emotional discussion. They do best of all with a partner who does not need immediate closure on problems and has the ability to sweep conflict under the rug, however that rarely happens as they more likely to choose partners who are in touch with their feelings.
Opposites do attract! Remember each style is just a defense mechanism to deal with stress. Emotional pursuers and emotional distancers are drawn to each other and thus the great comedy and drama of life begins! Some people who repress their emotions do learn across a lifetime and start to “wake up” to feelings as they grow older.
Projection–First Cast the Mote Out of Thine Own Eye!
Projection is another defense mechanism described by Freud. Defense mechanisms are always unconscious and people are unaware that they have them. People often see their own attitudes and behavior as “normal” and overestimate the worst in others. People who project see others as bad while excusing the same traits in themselves. They often assume a “False Consensus Effect” which is believing that others perceive things the way they do. We all have a bit of projection in us, but some people have the need to blame others big time, thus obstructing their own growth and learning.
Projection is a common coping pattern where a person gets upset with a trait in someone else that he also has but cannot own. People who project their anger on another person suppress the knowledge that they have the same trait. They are highly sensitized to the unwanted behaviors in others and transfer their horror and anger at their own unwanted inner trait to an outside person. Much of their internal thought or words during an argument is focused on blaming the other person.
People who project blame often feel a hidden stigma and shame at possessing a disgraceful personality trait so they “project” or transfer anger on others to distract themselves from knowing the truth about their own self. They become so highly sensitized to the presence of their unwanted traits that it interferes with their social informational processing. So they don’t see reality as it is and then operate out of their misperceptions. How do you know if you are projecting your anger on others? Being preoccupied and judgmental about others’ behavior is projection. If you spot it, you got it!
Another form of projection is to transfer the arrows and slings of life onto “bad luck” or “fate.” People who project often have other defenses such as Over-generalized Thinking, which is the habit of making statements that emphasize that things are always that way. Examples of this type of thinking are: “He never considers my opinion. You always put me down. She always tells me what to do. I have to do all the work. I never get a break. Why can’t you ever get it right? and, “I can’t stand it. I can’t take anymore.” Over-generalization language uses words like “never, always, should and everybody or nobody.”
People who blame others frequently have a habit of focusing on right and wrong. They dwell on perceived injustices. They often say, “It’s not fair!” and dwell on the negative keeping themselves in misery as they hold grudges. Keeping score of slights from others and dwelling on them creates a climate of hurt and suspicion. Focusing on unfairness keeps you caught in anger, resentment and grudges. (Hey, life frequently is unfair, but focusing on it only makes you more miserable!)
People who blame others or situations without taking responsibility for their contribution to the problem never get the sense of satisfaction of growth. By refusing to see their own errors, they lose the opportunity to change the very aspects of themselves that keep them stuck. Studying personality dynamics is one way of bringing these unconscious defense mechanisms into the conscious mind. Becoming more aware of yourself and learning about how you affect others is part of the task of being a mature individual.