Updated: Oct 4, 2022
It's Not the Crime, It's the Coverup
I’ve been revisiting what I understand about defense mechanisms, those reactive behaviors/strategies that we come up with to protect our tenderest selves. As Rainer Maria Rilke describes it, “Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure.”
The word “trigger” is thrown around a lot these days, and I think that’s a good thing in the sense that awareness is being increased of any circumstance that generates a “knee jerk” response. When you’re aware of your own discomfort or distress, you can take steps to deconstruct its origins and change how you respond. And “charity begins at home” so to speak, because whatever triggers you is your opportunity to grow in self understanding and care. Whereas before you might have asked, “Why do they act this way/do this thing” that causes me suffering, a new query can be raised: “Why do I react this way to this thing happening?” Approached in this way, it gives the individual dignity and agency in their own lives.
Our discomfiture is a feature of a working psyche, not a bug. Strong emotion is a “check engine light,” an invitation to take a deeper look at what is causing us to lose our shit. In Jungian terms, a “complex” is a strong feeling + a defense against that feeling. Hence the title of this piece. A strong feeling (the crime) is only compounded by the defense mechanism ( the cover up.) Our antiquated defense strategies, usually formulated at a very early age end up having a much greater blast radius than what a given situation calls for.
For instance, if our caregivers were unable to provide a safe container and soothing for an early experience of a strong emotion like rage, we would construct a toddler’s level of self-defense to perceived threats. Have you seen a toddler’s stress response? Doesn’t look much different than what we see happening with some random 50 year old melting down at Target.
Or if we had no succor or reassurance for our sadness at being rejected, a small child who manages this overwhelming emotion with a “go to” strategy of working overtime to get attention and earn affection, can manifest codependency as an adult.
Partnering with a caring therapist to clear the minefields of defensiveness is a wonderful thing to do for yourself. I know what it’s done and continues to do for my own life and I sincerely wish it for you as well. Deepak Chopra (I know, I know!) said this wise thing: “In each of us lies the prisoner, the jailer, and the hero that sets us free.”