Adam Blatner, M.D.

(July 30, 2002)

One of the most powerful theoretical concepts of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theory and practice is that of the "defense mechanisms." The challenge is to really appreciate the way these avoidance maneuvers work, and how pervasive they are. I want to suggest that drama therapists and psychodramatists should be able to appreciate these by thinking of them as inner voices. Imagine a part of the psyche that operates as a clever inner protector, one who acts as a mediator so that the sense of self doesn't feel overwhelmed with shame, fear, guilt, or other negative emotion.

 With my background in psychodrama and role theory, I find these maneuvers are best understood if thought of as living voices, that would say, according to the name of the "defense mechanism, the following:

But some of the more pervasive and subtle ones include the following: Also, recognize that a number of these can work in concert, sometimes amplifying their effectiveness, occasionally introducing elements of inner conflict. I imagine them as a group of about twenty little gremlins, oh, say, eight inches tall, who mumble loudly under the blanket of consciousness, whispering these kinds of phrases all the times. They do this in everyone, more or less, along with subtle worries, doubts, what ifs, if onlys, and the like.

The problem is to get past this platoon of "buffers," which were hired on as an entourage that protects the sense of being really there–which for most people is a state of existential vulnerability.

There are linguistic avoidances that also generate slight distance. For example, this is in part what  Japanese courtesy is about, or the tendency to say, "One thinks,... or Perhaps you..." rather than "I" messages, owning your own preference, desire, opinion, etc.

We must note that there are numerous slight avoidance maneuvers, gentler yet more pervasive cousins of the more classical "defense mechanisms." (See more about this below.) These serve to buffer people's feelings of vulnerability.

 For example, the use of the word, "just..." is often a way of distancing from a clear and direct assertion. The word "only" is like that, too. They act as if to say that one's thoughts or feelings should not be perceived as arrogant or demanding, yet in fact they save to disempower the speaker or misdirect the intent of the communication.

The subjunctive tense–I "would" like, I'd like, might, maybe, would you?-- etc., all diffuse the energy of directness.

The excessive use of the word "like..." is also a semantic buffer, as if being "like" something isn't as offensive, inaccurate, or in other ways more affirmative or specific, and therefore vulnerable. The problem with these linguistic diluting maneuvers, when habitually used, serve to numb and cloud the thinking and feeling functions.

Just talking in generalities is a useful sub-type of rationalization. When doing therapy, or even consulting with professionals, I often have to remind people to be specific. Professionals can be seductive in their use of psychological jargon, which subtly assumes that I know what they're talking about. I need to remind myself that most of these terms are general enough so that I cannot say with confidence, just from the words being used, exactly what behavior is being described.

Another avoidance mechanism is just speaking softly, mumbling. This is an expression of the inner belief that, somehow, if the words aren't heard, then they don't really count.  The need to speak clearly, and to be heard, and to know that one is heard, also makes the process of self-expression in drama a more vivid experience.

These are some hints of what to watch out for, in yourself as well as those you are seeking to help. By recognizing these little mental games as avoidances, you can renew your intention to become more clear and explicit, to get in touch with your own feelings and attitudes. The more you can face them clearly, the better you can revise them so as to be more useful in your life.

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