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Defensiveness in intrapsychic and interpersonal activities is a generally accepted concept among psychodynamic theorists, but a theoretically grounded classification of emotional control processes is needed. As a result of intensive case-by-case clinical and empirical studies, such a system was assembled. The system is organized by three major categories of processes that can regulate emotions. These are sets of mental operations that control 1) content of thought and communications, 2) form of thought and communications, and 3) person schemas that organize beliefs and interpersonal expressions. Each category of defensive control processes is linked to observable outcomes at intrapsychic and interpersonal levels. This classification system can be used to formulate how patterns of avoidance and distortion are formed.(The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research 1999; 8:213–224)
Defensive control of emotion is a classic psychodynamic concept and an element of case formulations. For decades, medical students and psychiatric residents have had to pass tests showing an ability to define traditional psychoanalytic defense mechanisms. Yet the concept is not fully accepted in nondynamic approaches, and defensive styles were not accepted, after controversy, as a part of the multiaxial diagnostic system in DSM-III1 and DSM-IV.2
One problem has been the theory of classification of defenses. A related problem has been the degree of reliability and validity of empirical variables related to the traditional definitions of defense mechanisms. A third problem has been divergence in schools of psychotherapy. The time is at hand for an integration and a revision of the theory of classification of defenses based on empirical evidence. This paper summarizes such a revision, and some of the evidence. It is intended as a teaching document.
Sigmund Freud and other early psychoanalysts developed names and definitions for defense mechanisms. Anna Freud3 offered an organization of her father's observations, yet inconsistencies of categorization remained.4–10 Some defense mechanisms were defined as simple units of mental processing and mental outcomes, as in repression of a single, specific wish. Other defense mechanisms were complex combinations of mental and social operations, as in identification with the aggressor. What is needed now is a better theory of classification, one that clearly relates processes to observable outcomes.
The earlier defense classification system evolved in the context of a psychoanalytic motivational theory that emphasized drives: the ego formed defenses to mediate between id urges and superego injunctions.11 Subsequent theory from cognitive sciences revised this view, replacing it with an information-processing approach. This modern view allows a shared theoretical language across disciplines and a redefinition of emotional control processes.12–14
The context for control of emotion is usually the processing of a difficult, emotionally challenging topic. An example is processing a piece of bad news from a stressor event, one that requires revision of prior knowledge, cognitive map, or schema. When a person gets bad news, it may be discordant with existing mental models. Such a mismatch between event interpretations and cognitive maps will activate negative emotions. These emotions in part function as motives to focus attention, fixing it on the problem of how to reconcile the incongruities between the bad news and existing schemas. With reconciliation, the person can reduce emotional alarms and shift attention to another topic.
Information processing helps the person shift from a state of mismatch to one of match, as illustrated in Figure 1. Figure 2 adds the element of emotion to the cognitive model of Figure 1. In addition to current emotional evocation, information processing evokes anticipation of where emotion might lead. One possibility is anticipation of entry into a dreaded state of mind with intense, out-of-control negative emotions. To avoid current or anticipated excessive emotional arousal, the person then increases control processes to regulate the flow of information by selective inhibitions and facilitations. This is a contemporary model of signal affects, like Freud's early formulation of signal anxiety.3, 11 The following case example provides an illustration.
Steve, a first-year surgical resident, was at a crucial level of training that would dictate his future career, and his goal was to become a great surgeon. The attending surgeon who had observed him told Steve that he had not met the required standards of judgment and skill for advancement in the residency training program. The new information—that he had only mediocre skills in a key area—was sharply discordant with Steve's goal. This mismatch threatened to produce intense shame. He anticipated entering a state of excessive humiliation and suicidal preoccupation.
Steve had had states of shame and despair in the past. He anticipated a repetition of such dreaded moods, and to avoid them he activated defensive control processes that inhibited his conscious contemplation of the recent deflating news, as illustrated in Figure 3.
Steve's defensive avoidance could be variously categorized. One way is to use the classic psychoanalytic terminology of defense mechanisms.3,6,15–17 If his inattention to the topic of his insufficient surgical skills was a conscious choice, then his acts would be called suppression. If it was an unconsciously chosen inhibition of an important topic, then it would be called repression. The defensive control processes classification to be presented16–20 uses one simple term, topic inhibition, to identify the basic process without getting into the difficult inference of the role of reflective consciousness in information processing.
Through topic inhibition, Steve affected the content of his attention. He could also have affected the form of his attention as well as its mental content. Instead of having a distressing visual fantasy of failing to receive his certificate of completion when other residents received theirs at the year-end ceremony, he could inhibit imagery. By being aware only of words predicting such a future, and not imagining the scene visually, he might reduce shame. Instead of an undermodulated state, Steve might maintain a well-modulated state while anticipating a tolerable degree of embarrassment.
By a third type of control, Steve could alter person schemas. He could change the relative activity of his various possible roles of self and his relationship models. Steve could inhibit conceptualizing himself as a degraded man and instead facilitate concepts of himself as a competent man performing well in an alternative career. Figure 4 illustrates how deciding to be an anesthesiologist shifted his state from a degraded to a competent self schema. Steve could also alter role schemas of his attending surgeon, by shifting from viewing him as an admired and competent mentor to viewing him as an incompetent judge.
Contemporary cognitive theory employs the concept of parallel processing. That is, multiple appraisals and revisions of information on the same topic can occur at the same time in different information-construction channels. Schemas (cognitive maps) can organize the construction of informational sets in each parallel processor. Supraordinate schemas help in fitting together the output of several processing channels. The fittings and choices may tend to accentuate one schema from the medley, leading to the working model that organizes a current state of mind.21–24
Organizing schemas influence the changing strengths of associational linkages among these networks of patterned meanings. The most complex of these organizing schemas are probably the schemas of self and others (person schemas). Like other cognitive maps, person schemas revise, smooth, integrate, and package information.25–27 Current motives are guided to suitable targets by plans and scripts for actions. Person schemas include transactional sequences that lead to anticipated consequences, as well as roles and values used in assigning blame and praise. Control processes are guided by anticipation of such outcomes as success, failure, esteem, or degradation; that is, anticipation involves both desired and dreaded states of mind. In this way, defensive control processes are placed within a motivational matrix.18–21
Three larger categories organize this classification. Some controls shift the content. Other control processes alter the form. Still other defensive control processes can shift person schemas. These three sets will be discussed in that order. For each set, control process outcomes will be described at two levels of observation: reflective awareness (which can be assessed by self-reports) and communication (which can be judged by clinical raters).
Contents of expressions can be selected by control processes that can alter 1) topics, 2) concepts, 3) the designation of importance of concepts, or 4) the threshold for disengaging attention from a topic.
Potential topics may be inhibited or facilitated relative to one another, leading to a shift in attention from one topic to another.28 Adaptively, shifting focus away from an unresolved topic can reduce emotion and ward off entry into a dreaded state of mind. Maladaptively, extended forgetting, disavowal, or denial can lead to a failure in coping.
Concepts are potential ideas and feelings to be used in contemplating a topic. These elements are activated from memory because of the strength of connections in complex networks of associational linkages. Priming can determine priorities for what concept is likely to be “next” in the expression or representation of a chain of concepts. Altering the next concept can change emotion.
A tightly linked chain of ideas is likely to be clear. Leaps and flights in linking concepts together can lead either to confusing chains or to new combinations that provide stunning and creative insights. Altering concepts can lead to both adaptive and maladaptive consequences.
A chain of ideas may appear to lead to a solution to a problem. Another chain can be formed that also appears to solve the problem. Reflective conscious awareness can compare the alternatives, and each chain is then weighed for relative probabilities of real success.
The significance of a chain can be exaggerated or minimized relative to an alternative. This shift in weights can lead to rational evaluations or irrational sliding of meanings. Distorted attitudes may be formed or important possibilities can be ignored.
Some patients in psychotherapy declare a topic concluded when the therapist believes it is not. The problematic topic, with its emotional conflicts, is interrupted. The habitual tendency noted is one of moving away from hard decisions. Personal dilemmas remain unresolved because of these short circuits.
Either by self-reports (from introspection) or by direct observation (e.g., of recorded communications), clinicians study the outcomes of defensive controls and infer the underlying processes. Most outcomes result from the combination of several control processes, but it is clarifying to give an example of a prime outcome for each category of process. These examples are provided in Table 1 as outcomes assessed on the basis of introspection-based self-reports, and in Table 2 as outcomes that observers can judge.
In our research in developing this classification, we examined how independent judges rated psychotherapy transcripts for different kinds of elaboration and dyselaboration of emotional ideas. The subcategories of dyselaboration in the manual used by judges followed the “Maladaptive Outcome” column of Table 2. The judgments of the raters were reliable, and the averaged category frequencies showed increased defensive-level outcomes during discourse on the patient's most conflictual and unresolved topics.29,30 In single-case studies, we found the results from this classification to be clearer than analyses of some portions of the data that were based on classical psychoanalytic defense mechanism categories.31
Emotion can be controlled by altering forms of thought. Several such processes include altering 1) mode of representation, 2) time span, 3) logic level, 4) level of action planning, and 5) arousal level.
People can shift the relative dominance of words, images, and somatic enactions in thought. People can have different states in which there is high or low translation of meaning between modes. Isolation of meaning in one mode, especially in the lexical mode, can reduce emotion, whereas increasing imagery may increase emotion. If vivid images occur without translation of the images into lexical meanings, the focal conscious experiences may seem like perceiving rather than recollecting. This can result in a sense of reliving a past experience, rather than having a memory or fantasy contemplation.
Time spans for contemplation can be set by intentions to limit an associational search for knowledge. Time spans can be set to encompass long or short periods or toward recollecting and imagining past or future. The remote or recent past, as well as the near or distant future, can be specifically focused on in setting an attentional frame. Emotional arousal can be limited by focusing attention tightly away from a time when bad things happened and might happen again.
Focusing consciousness on the very recent past and the very near future can help the person plan immediate action without being swamped by emotions about dire but distant futures. For example, when receiving news of a laboratory test that shows the presence of an unexpected cancer, a person can think of whom to tell right now, rather than think about what it will be like to have the disease exacerbate in the future. People can also reduce emotion by focusing on the remote past or by reliving a memory or fantasy in order to ignore current threats. At other times, threatened by the possibility of recalling traumatic memories, they keep the time frame of attention set for only right now and for what detailed actions they should perform next to keep themselves busy.
People can influence the rules of thought; they can shift from having tight, narrow rules for logically linking associations to making broad, creative, and even illogical associations. Some people blunt emotion caused by broad awareness by emphasis on plans that involve careful logic. Others who are distressed by a focus on planning may instead have a broad and glorious fantasy.
In restful repose, a person may have a mental set for contemplation without bodily action. On a basketball court, that person's mental set may intend swift reactive movements without the distraction of contemplation. In playing ball, action is at lightning speed; in playing chess, action is restrained until a move is fully thought through. Control processes can alter such setpoints for degree of thought and degree of concomitant motor activity. Defensively, a person can act too impulsively instead of thinking or, like Hamlet, ruminate to avoid taking action.
People seek stimuli, take drugs, meditate, or choose calming or arousing activities. Giddiness, avoidant sleeping, or sexual promiscuity are sometimes used to avoid serious issues. Both thrills and lethargies can reduce emotional threat.
Emotions can be changed by shifts in how self and others are viewed. People can change an internal working model of an actual social transaction by altering 1) self schema, 2) the schema for the other person, 3) role relationship models, 4) value schemas, and 5) executive-agency schemas.
Control of schemas of self can lead to shifts in roles and procedures for role-related behaviors. It can directly and indirectly alter the emotions that color a state of mind. By shifting roles within a repertoire, people can reduce the intensity of an unwanted emotion. One example is shifting to the role of indignant accuser from the role of weak victim. Getting angry provides escape from a dreaded state of fear.
In a similar manner, a person can shift the roles of others. Altering the role of the other person leads to different emotional interpretations, expectations, and plans. An individual may at first view the other person as a highly desirable companion and shudder at an anticipated rejection. A defensive shift in role for the other may change this emotional arousal. The other is viewed as ordinary, unworthy of intense pursuit. The anxious affects over feared rejection are quieted.
Role relationship models are an internal map for social transactions. In an important affiliation, a series of role relationship models develops. Of these different role relationship models, some may be desired, some feared, and others used as a compromise to avert dreaded states. When a wish/fear dilemma links desired to dreaded views of a relationship, the person can shift to a state organized by such compromise role relationship models.32
The compromise avoids the threat of the dreaded consequences of the desire. For example, a person may have an urge to flirt with a new acquaintance but fears the other would find the self deplorable. Anxious states of mind could occur: will the self be rejected? A compromise state of mind can be organized by a different role relationship model, one in which the self is self-sufficient and the other is viewed as only slightly interesting. The dilemma between excitement of intimacy and feared pain of rejection is reduced by a shift into the compromise view. The defensive shift says, in effect, “Oh, I was just conversing to pass time with you until I go on to something more interesting.” Unfortunately, the compromise seldom promotes real satisfaction.
An important conscious activity is judging actions. People use alternative sets of values to make these critical analyses. Different value schemas may be given different priorities in different states.
When they are in danger of blame, when emotions of shame and guilt threaten to demolish self-esteem, people can control distress by shifting values. For example, a patient lied to his best friend, saying he was not flirting with the friend's girlfriend. This lie made him feel guilty because telling the truth is of value. He then shifted to asserting that “love is war” and that in war deceit is part of “good strategy.” Similar rationalizations occurred in his business. As business agent, he sold a product containing pollutants because he was “just following orders” and was “loyal to the corporation.” In other states, he was furious about firms that committed such practices.
The executive agent is the person believed to be in charge of forming plans and instigating action. In different states of mind, an individual may vary in how a sense of executive agency influences decisions. In everyday life, the executive agent may be the “I” in a sense of identity. This executive agent may be shifted to something other than “I.” There are other leaders, the “we” of a family, friendship, work group.
Sometimes seeing “I” as an executive agent feels too impoverished, and one's mood deflates. The schema for who is executive may be shifted to an idealized other or larger group. De Gaulle said, “I am France.” Self-abnegation or a sense of merger with cosmic powers may occur. That can have adaptive or maladaptive consequences; morale may be restored as grand agents are assumed to be in charge, or grandiose delusions may be formed.
The classification presented in Tables 1–6 evolved through research efforts and discussions to develop a shared cognitive-psychodynamic language. These efforts began with careful case studies of patients in psychotherapy for stress response syndromes.18,21,33–35 Later, quantitative investigations of reliability and validity of the categories occurred.36,37 Because multiple observers can study and rate recordings, both quantitative and qualitative studies of interpersonal manifestations are likely to allow for tests of consensus and predictions. Judges did reliably score signs of defensive control, and these did locate the most conflictual topics in psychotherapy.30 Defensive organizations inferred as configurations of schemas were reliable as scored by independent raters,38 and independent formulation teams, blind to each other's inferences, arrived at similar configurations for the same case material.39,40 Additional empirical checks on this classification included separate studies of observer and self-report measures based on this classification system. Subjects reported on their own habitual control processes with highly significant levels of test-retest reliability over time, and observers agreed to a significant degree in independent rating of videotapes21 (Horowitz and Znoj, unpublished data).
Tables 1–6 presented the details of this classification of emotional control processes and are useful for detailed theory and research. A simplification is desirable for clinical teaching and practice, and the focus there should be on what is important to help a patient change. Accordingly, a list of common maladaptive avoidances and distortions appears as Table 7. From such a list, the clinician can develop techniques for modification of the maladaptive defensiveness.
The levels of observation listed in the tables lead to inferences about how ideational and interpersonal avoidances and distortions occur. Psychotherapists can then show a patient how to confront emotional and conflictual topics more directly.
This research was supported by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Swiss National Foundation.