Primitive defense mechanisms to cope with an impaired self


defense mechanisimSplitting and projection are common primitive defense mechanisms that are used to cope with an impaired sense of self. They can cause someone to react impulsively in relationships, based on distorted judgments caused by misinterpreting the actions of others. Splitting causes the individual to have a distorted perception of themselves and others. Often, a person does not know whether their feelings are caused by others or belong within themselves. Individuals with a fragmented self will use primitive defense mechanisms to protect against intolerable feelings within themselves, often caused by past loved ones in childhood.

Are you constantly angry at your partner for how you feel? Are they really responsible for how you feel, or could you be using primitive defensive mechanisms to cope with a fragmented sense of self? Offering relationship therapy I see many individuals who feel rejected, unloved or angry over and over again, in every relationship. Primitive defences are a way to protect against underlying feelings of self-loathing that get triggered, so the partner becomes bad, uncaring and mean, instead. Individuals with an impaired self or personality disorder often project their feelings outside of themselves, to regulate their emotions, often having patterns of unstable relationships.

How can primitive defense mechanisms distort the way we relate to ourselves and others?

During splitting, a person can feel good in a relationship and then suddenly want to end their relationship. One moment we might feel good about ourselves and the next moment we might feel unworthy or unlovable. We cannot see the good and bad, at the same time, within ourselves and others. It is often seen as black or white thinking, seeing a person as good or bad, feeling good or bad. Not seeing the shades in-between. A fragmented sense of self is when the individual only see the good qualities and not the bad, or sees all of the bad and not the good qualities. Splitting occurs when others are perceived as either all good or bad, and when we see ourselves as good or bad.

A healthy sense of self is when an individual can see both good and bad aspects together at the same time, within themselves and others. So, the boyfriend who is loving (good), is also the boyfriend who may have some negative habits (bad).

In therapy, a client may tell me that she met a great guy in one session, then two weeks later he is described as an awful, selfish and uncaring guy, who treats her badly. When one sees all of the good qualities in someone, they often deny the bad traits in a person.  When they see the bad aspects of a person, they are forgetting about all of the good aspects about them. Many of the people that I see in my practice end a relationship when they’re splitting, because they see the partner as all bad.

Splitting defends against underlying bad feelings within ourselves or feelings that stem from our past caregivers, by projecting these feeling onto our partner. For instance, we see our lover as the person who rejects us, instead of our mother, when we are triggered. We blame our relationship for causing us to feel a particular way, instead of addressing these feelings within ourselves or past relationships.

A person who does not call straight after a date might be perceived to be uncaring and rejecting, when in fact this may not be the case at all. The more we put our past wounds onto others, we repeat the pattern of feeling rejected. It is harder to acknowledge where these feelings come from, because they are painful and therefore we defend, by discharging them onto others to protect against feeling worthless or unwanted.

In splitting, individuals can feel bad about themselves, when they split off the good aspects of themselves and project them onto others. They may see the good aspects of a partner, by denying the bad aspects about them. This can protect against feelings of rejection, by only seeing the good aspects in a partner, ignoring the abusive aspects. They can therefore feel unworthy and hold onto destructive relationships to feel better about themselves.

defense mechanismsA person can switch from seeing the good in others, and then see them as bad. Usually, an event will trigger feelings that get projected because they are too overwhelming. One minute you love someone and then something happens that reminds you of the bad things that you’ve put up with but had ignored. You want to leave the relationship until they are gone and then you want them back, because you miss all the good aspects that you’ve forgotten about. When you take them back, you’re reminded of the things you didn’t like about them.

A female can feel good in a relationship with a man because he seems very interested, seeing the good aspects about him. She may ignore the warning signs that he is having affairs. In splitting the bad aspects of a partner can be overlooked to preserve the good aspects of that person. This primitive defense mechanism occurs when individuals are longing to feel good enough or loved, escaping bad feelings or feelings of abandonment from their past.

These defensive coping mechanisms distort the way we see ourselves and others, often impacting how we relate to others. The more we see others as good, we escape the feelings of abandonment, hoping that a relationship will assist to feel better within ourselves, by defending against the bad feelings.

Overcome defensive coping mechanisms and obtain a healthy sense of self.

Splitting can feel impulsive or irrational, rather than logical or reasonable. Sometimes there is no real evidence that supports the feeling, but the feeling can be so overwhelming, when your partner triggers you. It is important to know the difference between being triggered or being treated badly. Here is a checklist to work out if you are splitting:

  • Do you frequently switch between feeling good, then feeling bad about your relationship?  How much of these feeling is towards your partner and how much belongs to your past? Once we separate what belongs to us and what belongs to others, we can be clearer about how to deal with our relationships
  • Do you want to end the relationship instantaneously, forgetting the good parts? If the feeling fluctuates, it is often the result of splitting.
  • Does it feel like you are getting rid uncomfortable feelings by breaking up, in the heat of the moment, rather than making an informed decision about the relationship?
  • Are your feelings disproportionate to the situation? Are you reacting to discharge unwanted feelings so you feel better? Do you then realise that your reaction did not really fit the situation?

The origins of splitting

primitive defense mechanismsSplitting is a defense mechanism to avoid painful feelings; it protected us from getting hurt as children. In order to maintain the positive image of the parent, the bad memories are denied (splitting). There are times when the split is not repaired, due to mistreatment, where there are not enough good childhood experiences that become integrated into the psychic structure, so the bad memories remain buried. These bad feelings get split off, become internalised in our ‘self’ and ‘other’ representations and are re-experienced in our later relationships, distorting how we see ourselves and loved ones. These feelings become projected onto the partner, who is often accused of treating them a particular way, reliving the same feelings over and over again until they are worked through in therapy.

Splitting occurs when our past feelings that remain repressed are triggered and get played out in our present relationships. Individuals with borderline personality traits use splitting as the main defence that splits off bad feelings, as an attempt to feel good about themselves. They often feel attracted to the luring charm of narcissists.

Sometimes we can unconsciously hold on to the parent who hurt us, by seeking abusive or unavailable partners to remain attached to the parent. By idealising the abusive partner, we deny the abuse to uphold the positive image of them – repeating this pattern of accepting abuse in the hope of feeling loved. Splitting can also cause a person to feel loved, but ignore the signs of abuse.

Melbourne’s Counselling services can assist those who use primitive defence mechanisms to integrate the split, by reprocessing disavowed feelings so that they become reintegrated into the psyche, forming a more integrated and cohesive sense of self. A healthy sense of self allows the person to see themselves and others more clearly.

Nancy Carbone has a M Soc Sc (Couns) and provides personal counselling and Couple’s Therapy. If you want to overcome defensive patterns of behaviour contact us on 0449 861147. You can sign up on our  newsletter for more tips and advice on relationships.

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