(Psychological Literacy)
Lecture 3: COPING TECHNIQUES (Mainly Foolish)
Adam Blatner, M.D.

(This is the third  lecture of this 6-lecture module on self-awareness that is part of a longer series on Psychological Literacy, offered to the Senior University Georgetown lifelong learning program, for its Fall 2009 program. Eventually, more of the series will be posted on this website. This third lecture is to be given on October 12, 2009)

This series of lectures will include: 1. An orientation to the process of self-awareness.    2. Motivations and Ideals         3. Wiser and More Foolish Coping Maneuvers        4. Body Cues, Temperament, and Other Subtle Perceptions     5. Social Connectedness and Preferences         6. Spiritual Self-Awareness, Meaning and Conclusion.

This lecture acknowledges that there are wiser ways to cope, and this requires a high degree of complexity. Essentially, it includes becoming aware of what's up, internally, externally, in the present moment and the likely future. Wise coping doesn't overly rely on the past---what solutions were devised centuries ago. There is some respect for learning what was done: Not everything you do must be created absolutely anew. We can use the past as a cultural conserve, a springboard for now. Often what is wisest is in fact to repeat pretty much what has been done before; but new technologies and situations occasionally make those solutions obsolete. Wisdom recognizes and discriminates when we should follow old rules and when we should dare to innovate.


What we will focus on in this lecture is the awareness of the rich variety of inner con-jobs, scams, self-deceptions, games you play with your mind. (On another webpage I list some of the more classically understood defense mechanisms or adjustive maneuvers, trying to explain them as if they were roles in a drama.)  It is normal to do this. First, it follows the tendencies of your brain and nervous system to take the easiest way out. Second, it follows the course established by your use of childish mental avoidance maneuvers that may still be operating in your personality. Two comments here: First, you don't HAVE to follow your tendencies. Part of maturation involves letting go of old tendencies and habits and establishing more consciously chosen new ones. It's not easy, habit building, but it is part of what growing up and then growing wiser involves. Second, everyone has residues of childish thinking, and more, you don't ever get completely rid of them. However, you can establish an awareness of when they're acting up and institute damage control or corrective action; and you can build up a predominance of healthier and more mature responses so that these residues of childish thinking have less power.

It begins, though, with just knowing what to look for---part of self-awareness. It begins with identifying the wiser and more foolish responses. I imagine a classroom in which the teacher says, "I'm stepping out for a moment, who wants to take over," and thirty hands shoot up---but the problem is that half of those kids, given half a chance, would use their temporary authority to goof off or make mischief.  The point of this image is that there are a number of coping responses or avoidant maneuvers ever-ready to take responsibility, to numb your mind, compartmentalize what's going on, to figure out some clever way of seeming to have it all, and so forth.

Psychoanalysts called these "defense mechanisms," as they were seen as ways the "ego" manages the conflicts between the "id" and the "superego." In simpler language, that means that the inner brat is in potential conflict with your inner police officer or conscience and the ego's job is to manage that. The trouble is that the ego---the operating system---makes use of techniques it picked up when it first started making these compromises---i.e., as a little kid. So unless you re-program your management function, the default mode may involve the repertoire of coping techniques you used as a little kid. Don't be surprised if you end up making foolish mistakes.

A slight digression that seems timely: In the early 1980s there was a television comedy series called "Sanford and Son," about this older, wiser father (played by the African-American comedian, Redd Fox) and a less-seasoned son. At one point, the father says to the son: "Kid, life is hard. It's even harder if you're stupid."  I about fell off my chair, he put it so succinctly: That is in a nutshell the point of this lecture series. About half or more of my practice as a psychiatrist back then involved not the problems of people's "chemical imbalances," but the fact that they were trying to cope with life using immature coping strategies and inadequate, ignorant, and in other ways foolish foundations of information or belief.  So correcting these errors won't make life easy, but it may help reduce the number of unnecessary pains and hurts that you experience and inflict on others because of not knowing any better way to deal with situations.


Before listing various coping techniques, let me re-state what was said last time. The best coping is conscious management, evaluating what's up, and what's needed, and responding accordingly. Often it involves not a major change so much as a modulation of how-much-ness. A little more this and less of that and it will be better---that's all it needed. But this requires some careful thinking, analysis, appraisal, a bit of attention, and responsibility. You might be mistaken, and then what?

First, when you know the game of the ART of living, you make it exploratory. You expect to over-shoot and under-shoot, and you use feedback to adjust again. But all this wisdom flies in the face of childish beliefs---and childish beliefs are often also reinforced by foolish adult cliche's such as, "do it right the first time." The associated unspoken idea is that you're blameworthy if you do not do so, are too stupid to do so. This idea that people can do things right the first time, right off the bat, is 93% untrue. Granted, there are a few things where you know the right answer. Two plus two is not 3.8993, nor is it 4.095.  For most other things, from estimating the amount of salt to put in a dish to how hard to throw the ball, there is a range of accuracy that often needs to be checked and adjusted. This is the essence of cybernetic theory, the recognition that feedback, adjustment, and reiteration is the way complex things get done. You need to give yourself this luxury of trying in an approximate way, not feeling ashamed if it doesn't work, and using the feedback to try again a little closer. You might need three or ten tries. You need to be patient with yourself---perhaps more patient than your parents or teachers were with you.


But humans secretly want it right, want it all, want it to work every time---and beyond that, want mommy to do it, and want it to be done so that they like it. It's okay to want these things, but the governing part of the self needs to gently and in a friendly way say "no" to the inner child. Things are in fact more complicated than that and often difficult. Now the inner child complex includes parts that are sweet and innocent and other parts that are, well, not so sweet---I call those parts the "inner brat." These parts aren't going to take no for an answer, and try to seduce you to believe that it can be easier. This is the core of the theme. All of these foolish coping techniques kick in because you used to think and fantasize and manipulate this way. All kids do, because it is normal for all kids to try out what they can get away with in hundreds of different ways.  Don't blame yourself for having these tendencies towards foolishness, but do take responsibility for cultivating a sort of spam or virus or bulls**t detector that notices when you're seducing yourself with simplistic ideas or subtle illusions. That's what today's talk is about. When you know these voices, so to speak, you can better answer them, manage them, cope with them.  Other terms for these include "adjustive maneuvers," "self-deceptions," and the like.

Interestingly, many of these draw on not just the cleverness of the childish mind, but also on examples provided by parents who may not be conscious that they're saying, in fact, "do what I say, not what I do." The general culture also feeds into the repertoire of the growing child, offering examples of how everyone is doing it regarding sex, buying things irresponsibly, committing violence, and so forth. There is a lot of advertising and political propaganda that also appeal to the childish workings of the mind---these are called "logical fallacies" in rhetoric (and rhetoric is the study of methods of persuasion---commercial and political).

Further Introductory Comments

The point to emphasize is that there are many ways the less conscious parts of the mind managed conflicts and disturbances within the system. The goal is to detect, identify, analyze and replace these with more conscious forms of management. You have taken on the more explicit role of inner executive, as discussed in the first lecture, and now we’re working on part of the many skills of that role, the part that deals with knowing what’s going on in this complex system of all the interacting parts of yourself.  The second lecture addressed many of the different motives: the more you know what they are, the more you can take them into account in your thinking, the better you can become conscious and therefore wiser. Let's look further at the set of psychological dynamics which act as avoidances of the need to more clearly confront whatever problem is up. The problem is that avoidance leads to the problem being driven underground, and more about how that works a little further on.

A funny anecdote: Redd Fox was an African American comedian of the 1970s, and in the early 1980s they had him playing the role of a junkyard owner, often in scenes with another man playing his young adult son. One line he used near the end of the run of this show, Stanford & Son, really summarized my thinking. He said, “Son, life is hard. It’s even harder if you’re stupid.”

Now stupid doesn’t mean unintelligent. Rather, it means acting as if what you knew or kept on your mind was sufficient. It means not feeling that you might want to get more evidence, more clarity in your thinking before jumping to a conclusion. In my mind, it means acting without the benefit of that inner self-manager.

One of the main ways people deceive themselves is to find a level of mental comfort that takes the edge off of the edge, the curious, the slightly restless and dissatisfied. This is interestingly enough also an aspect of childlike innocence. And a low level of pride—not wanting to feel dumb or feel ashamed—cuts this off. A school that values having “right answers” reinforces this, ironically.

Anyway, the key to self-awareness is to know that you have various motives that tend to go unconscious, and you also have various maneuvers that tend to cover that process up, that tend to deceive you. This is the point: The more you know what’s going on, the more you can cope. If you know the way certain germs work—like the idea that mosquitoes can carry malaria—you can take steps they didn’t know about a hundred and twenty years ago.

Knowing the Varieties of Self-Deception

Being a physician, even though I’m retired, I think in terms of examples associated with medicine, and I think of the forms of self-deception, defense mechanisms, adjustive maneuvers, and even interpersonal manipulations as being sort of the psycho-social equivalent of the different kinds of germs—not just bacteria, but also viruses, and those delivered by cough or by sexual contact or by flea bite. The point is that there’s a rich variety, and it’s good to know about the different kinds, just as it’s good to know how to recognize a variety of scams on the email, or con-jobs from various business offers, and so forth. Let’s talk, then about detecting the basic mistakes folks make.


On one hand, the mind cannot really or completely be compartmentalized. There are no physical barriers operating. On the other hand, people compartmentalize different activities, complexes of thought, concerns, feelings, and the like all the time. They act like something doesn’t exist or that it exists, but has nothing to do with other things when it clearly does.

The illusion that we can split off or compartmentalize certain ideas and feeling operates from an early age. It’s a matter of attention and self-hypnosis. The mind is far more clever and devious than most folks realize. (For example, in dreams, the mind can construct amazingly rich scenes and compelling events that could never be created by any conscious effort.)

Although this mind-compartmentalization is on one level an illusion, it is a successful group of maneuvers. In other words, although the mind is a field that is different from matter, and it doesn’t follow the same rules, many people don’t get that difference. (For example, some psychologists treat it as if it could be nailed down with some degree of precision, and this is mistaken.)

In spite of it not being so, there is a tendency to treat mental ideas and complexes as if they were things, toys. (But we need not give into our childish tendencies. Children also tend to treat nature or God as if that transcendent force were like our image of our parents. But tendencies can be resisted and more mature thinking introduced.). Nevertheless, a common subconscious tendency is to try to compartmentalize that which is not comfortable. This is the most common avoidance maneuver, with multiple variations.

There are two ways to do this, and you may have heard these terms, suppression and repression. They aren’t the same, though. Suppression is just turning your attention away from an uncomfortable topic, sort of put it in a mental closet. But feelings and images are not like things, they don’t respect boundaries, they leak. Now repression is sort of a re-doubled suppression—you compartmentalize the idea that you compartmentalized. A double whammy, a self-hypnotic form of self-deception. So, say, you can’t stand whatever it is you’re putting in the closet: In repression, you build a closet around the closet or in other ways double-whammy hypnotize yourself that there’s not closet.

To say it another way: Suppression is all right. It’s like straightening up your desk. You can retrieve what you’ve temporarily sequestered away. Repression is not okay, it is unconscious management, stuffing more stuff into the unconscious, sweeping stuff under the carpet. And then it is NOT easy to retrieve. It’s like one of those clever computer viruses that you can’t get rid of easily. Aside from not being able to retrieve what you’ve repressed, there’s another disadvantage: The mind is more permeable than we think, and whatever you’re trying to avoid—the feelings and images leak a bit, so you have to put another layer of avoidance—avoiding also what would even distantly remind you of what you’ve avoided. So in a way all this avoiding uses up psychological energy.

An interesting thing about repression is that it was pretty much the norm for much of civilization for much of history. To be able to look at the uncomfortable requires an infrastructure of coping strategies that most people don’t have and don’t know how to access. Only recently are we beginning to build up sub-cultures that can allow this greater degree of mental flexibility. (Democracy is also like this, interestingly: It requires a somewhat educated population and a willingness to play the game fairly. Many countries haven’t built this infrastructure.)

Anyway, repression is revealed by many of our elder relatives and lots of people today—they aren’t even ashamed to admit it. They say, “I don’t want to think about it. I pay no attention to such things. Better left alone. Don’t go there.” And in their world that response is okay, not a recipe for future disaster.

Now there is a bit of truth here, but also some error. To choose consciously and with some wisdom that it might be better to come away from certain thought patterns is wiser than getting hypnotized or caught up in them. So putting something in the virtual closet is not necessarily foolish. A person knows it’s there, knows where it is, can retrieve it. The knowledge that I’m going to die is okay, though I don’t want to dwell on it, because I try to make arrangements so that should this happen, I’ve covered my administrative bases. So this is suppression. I can retrieve the issue when I need it.

Contrast this with something that so offends or frightens my deep self that I create a scenario where I avoid the thinking, but because I haven’t consciously chosen to do this, and because this idea or feeling has an extra emotional charge, I pretend to myself that there’s no negative or vulnerable thought or feeling and what do you thin I did with it?  This is called repression, and what’s wrong here is that even if the situation changes and we want to change the policy it’s too bad because we don’t know that its buried and therefore don’t know how to retrieve it.

Little Tiny Avoidances

In addition to the big compartmentalizations there are tiny decouplings, such as:
   Me? I’m not even here.   The mind can do these tricks a bit. You can’t get away with it on the surface, though I remember trying one time when I was a kid, making a face so that other kids wouldn’t recognize that I was the kid who the previous day messed up—I don’t remember what, maybe peed in my pants.  Me, I’m not even me. That was some other person.  The technical term is dissociation.  My point is that folks can do this big time—which leads to the multiple personality disorder three faces of eve—and that’s kinda rare—but I have found that most folks do this a little pretty frequently:


I’m here okay, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters much. Existence is decoupled from relevance, caring. The technical term is Isolation of Affect.

I’m here, and I would care, if what’s happening were real. But it’s not real. The sense of reality is decoupled from life. De-realization.

Remember, the mind is open and can mix and match, using several of these in tandem, and also using these maneuvers just a little, just enough to generate a bit of cotton-wool padding around your mind, a buffer that softens the impact of harsh reality.

Denial is a bit stronger. It just isn’t so. It didn’t happen. It isn’t really happening. Another way to think of both denial and repression is that they are both attempts at rigid double compartmentalizations, they are both immature coping maneuvers, but while repression addresses inner thoughts and feelings, denial addresses external perceptions and realizations. Inner and outer, but both are avoidances that make it hard to cope with life realistically and flexibly  in the present moment.

(A modern executive might want to institute a creative new procedure. Denial and repression would be the equivalent of some middle level bureaucrat saying, "But it's not in the manual, so we can't use it." The executive controls his annoyance and points out that the manual was written thirty years ago before new technologies came upon the scene. That's sort of the problem with the old mind's habits of thought---they're rooted in the past. The goal is to cultivate the skills of mental flexibility and creativity.)

Getting Perspective

Now the next one requires some more conscious management: How do you weigh what’s happening?  Do you make a big deal of it or a little deal? This can be incredibly healing and wise or very self-sabotaging and foolish, and much depends on the context. Cognitive therapy helps you to bring some conscious re-evaluation of tendencies to —here’s a good word— “catastrophize”— meaning to say this is hopeless, terrible, I’ll never get over it, I’m worthless, a failure, and things like that. Most of the time this is part of the fantasy that if you can just make yourself hurt enough the pain will stand as punishment and magically you’ll be forgiven or it will be relieved. But if this mechanism kicks in by habit, as a carry over from a normal but immature phase kids go through in their thinking, well, it tends to get in your way rather than be constructive.

On the other hand, denial is not weighing the significance of negative consequences enough: Hey, you just got fired because of your drinking. That’s feedback. No it isn’t. I was fired because (some excuse gets made up.)  And my wife left me because of (some excuse.). That’s where denial doesn’t let you assess what’s really up. So it takes some balance and reality testing.

Reality testing is just that—you go out and ask people. As the character of Lucy does in the play, you take a survey of how crabby you really are.  Sensitive people think they’re worse than they are. Insensitive people tend not to check it out to find out how annoying they are. I make both mistakes at different times—but I try to counter it by checking it out and making corrections.

Some Other Avoidances:

Dissociation doesn’t have to be split personality—it can be subtle. The businessman can go to church and think of himself as a good religious person but... but business is business, and you have to be tough—if you aren’t a bit ruthless you’ll be a sucker, you’ll be taken advantage of. So ethical fudging doesn’t count as a sin, because they’re in different compartments.

I’m a good American and believe in all the right things—but I think the ACLU is foolish for trying to uphold the rights of people with whom I feel some more than mild contempt or disgust. Two different compartments. What does one have to do with the other?  The mind does this.

Speaking of that, another major avoidant technique is rationalization. That’s coming up with a reason that excuses or justifies the action that satisfies another not-so-conscious motive. Have you ever noticed that your own political leanings —or at least temptations to lean— tend to follow those policies best suited to your financial advantage? Is that just a coincidence or what?

People are often quite sincere in their own minds, because they also rationalize the rationalizations. It all seems true. As a paranoid schizophrenic patient said to me once, I know it’s a delusion, Doc, but it’s a true delusion!  We fool ourselves with some words and—and this is the key—certain formulas work.

Magical Assertion

Aside from compartmentalization is the magic of assertion. If I say it with feeling it will come true. You can fly, you can fly, you can fly... sings Peter Pan in Disney’s movie.

Some kids will lie to protect their sense of vulnerability and they don’t even know they’re doing it. I just heard on the radio 2 days ago from a judge or lawyer who is protesting the practice of lengthy adult-like interrogation of juveniles without corroboration of their forced confessions. It’s sort of like making what is called informed consent—but we’ve become more sensitive to the pressures on giving consent. Less assertive and educated people can be subtly coerced. So we can say things outside of knowing consciously they’re wrong.

Again there are many variations: One is called reaction formation. Whatever you’re feeling—just assert the opposite. Consciously done, this isn’t always foolish: I whistle a happy tune, while shivering in my shoes, .. In the King and I..     I’m not small, I’m so tall I can carry the world on my back!  I read the Hulk and I’m the Hulk! I’m superman. Identification and reaction formation.

To counter feelings of pride, open to an excessively humble demeanor. Aw shuck’s ma’am, twarn’t nothin. No problem. Again, a little of this can be diplomacy, tact, but lots of folks develop this self-deprecation as a habit, fearful that others will attack if there’s any edge of pride or self-assertion, and this, if unconsciously established, can lead to putting a figurative bushel basket over your light.

Counterphobic Responses

If any of you saw the Back to the Future series of movies, you’d see that the hero, Marty McFly, a teenager, was a pretty smart kid, with a tragic flaw. If someone dared him to do things and threatened by calling him “chicken,” he’d do things that were obviously foolhardy, and almost get creamed—or he would somewhat but not completely. The compulsion to prove you’re not afraid, weak, vulnerable, even when you are is neurotic. There are times to be brave and times not to be crazy pseudo-brave. But courage is only one, it’s also being cruel instead of feeling vulnerable.

Identification with the Aggressor is one such example, and was and still is quite prevalent as the basis for cruelty and abuse. I’m not the victim, I’m the strong one and I’ll prove it.

Undoing: Here again we can engage in a variety of maneuvers to magically generate the illusion that whatever happened didn’t happen. It’s sort of normal when one gets bad news: “No, I can’t believe it.” The problem is for those who won’t let it sink in. They go into denial: It’s just not happening. He isn’t dead. I’m not going to die. This is different from saying, I’m going to fight it, but I’ll also make sure I’ve written a will.

Or if you did something you regret: Undoing, done consciously, it’s called apology and engaging in the act of forgiveness, asking if you can take it over, etc.
    But there’s also the less conscious habit of ruminating: Woulda coulda shoulda, if I could only have done it differently I wouldn’t be in this fix. This is a kind of unconscious undoing---magically dwelling on the alternative. The healthy alternative is acceptance: That's not resignation, please note, but simply letting it in that what happened is real and to deal with it: Forget it, try to remedy it, clarify what can and cannot be realistically done.

Lots of our neighbors—hey, I did it a bit until I caught myself— if we only sold our stocks or whatever when prices were high, if we only acted the way we should have now that we know better, we should have seen it coming... etc.—beating yourself up, in the service of the following: At some level, this is living in a corrected past. You go back, reproach yourself, and then you get a chance to do it smart. See, it’s easy. Oops, it just doesn’t work in our present space-time continuum. But it works in the mind-world.

can also be an avoidance. Again there’s a balance. A certain amount of visualizing what you want, when coupled with getting on with doing what you need to do to get there, is optimal. Lots of folks don’t want to be disappointed so they don’t imagine enough, don’t fantasize, are afraid to dare to even want—because if you want, well, then your desire disqualifies you. The mind works this way! 

But realistically, it’s good to dare to imagine a positive future. On the other hand, there are a few who get a bit too lost in the what if’s and how it’s going to be and pay no attention to the how to get there.

Fantasy can be unrealistic too. Rich and famous? Sure! But I don’t want to put up with all the hassles: Money managers who rip you off; everyone wants a part of you; paparazzi everywhere and anything you do gets twisted by the tabloid journalists. No I want rich and famous without the downside.

A variation of fantasy is thinking things like: "There must be some way..."  That’s a great one. Can you hear your inner voices doing these numbers on you? They’re very, very common. It doesn’t make you terribly neurotic or crazy or anything. It’s just that your life will work a little better if you learn to recognize them for what they are and not give in to them. There must be some way.. Is more problematic when it appeals to the myth of the expert who if he is worth the bucks he’s charging must be omnipotent: There must be some way to get my husband to...    To get my sister, my mother, my daughter...    Why must there be some way?  That’s like saying there must be some way to stop people from dying. To ensure world peace. And if I can just keep saying it then it will happen. Generalities can be an avoidance of real wrestling. If I can just keep talking about the general what I want to happen, I don’t have to look at the reality that I have no clue as to how to get from here to there. 


This is a problem in our culture: Jesus noted it in that saying about taking the beam, the big ol’ hunk of wood, out of your own eye instead of pointing out the splinter in your neighbor’s eye. The reason I hit him is because he was mean. How was he mean? He didn’t want to play right? What was playing right? The way I wanted to play. So I hit him. I’m not mean, he is mean!

He started it. He looked at me wrong. We don’t want to admit to ourselves our less-worthy qualities, but we notice them so vividly in others—sometimes when they’re not even there. Someone I know tends to see others as “they’re just jealous,” but I know her to be herself pretty obviously envious of others.

Notice whenever you’re feeling judgmental, or annoyed and at least consider the possibility that there may be something in you that is getting its buttons pushed, something in you that you don’t want to admit to yourself. Carl Jung the psychiatrist, called this disowned complex of what you don’t want to notice in yourself the shadow, and he and others have noted that a major activity in personal development and maturation involves re-owning those elements. That doesn’t mean they have to dominate your behavior, but you advance to a point of recognizing that you’re not so pure and angelic that you don’t even have any less-than-worthy temptations, urges, thoughts.

When you know they’re there, you can take responsibility for managing them. Back to the metaphor of being a CEO of your company. So you’ve hired your dear nephew and given him responsibility. It is impossible to consider the idea that he may be the embezzler—but alas it turns out to be him. This kind of unwillingness to allow into consciousness what isn’t all that hard to recognize in others— that it might be true of you, too—causes a lot of troubles in the world.


The list above is not exhaustive. Get to know your adjustive maneuvers, the types of self-deception. (As I mentioned earlier, another list is elsewhere on this website.) Learn to substitute for them more rational coping strategies, management decisions. Next session we’ll discuss other forms of self-awareness.

By the way, have any of you visited the website papers? I welcome questions and suggestions.