If you’ve ever been in an escalating argument, you’ll always notice how it becomes a “meta-argument” about unrelated things that are not really the point. The dialogue gets further and further away from the main thing, until you’re both screaming out your lungs and throwing appliances at the ceiling. Arguments, in hindsight, often look embarrassing, full of cringe and regret and wreckage like an irreversible radioactive wasteland.
When conflict comes around, everything feels like it’s at stake: your value, your truth, your work, your very life. So understandably, we resort to self-preserving mechanisms to scratch and claw for our very lives. Here are a few defense mechanisms that get us stuck, and how we can get un-stuck.
1) Rationalization. Justifying your behavior with illogical reasoning, i.e. excuse-making.
This is the easiest defense, because with enough volume and flexing, it almost works. It’s a mental jujitsu to justify your position by grasping at tangential straws. You’ve heard conditional rationalizations like, “If you had just apologized / had said it earlier / had let me know, then I would’ve—” which arbitrarily moves the goal-post to an unattainable threshold. Or you’ve heard the Sour Grapes rationalization: “It wouldn’t have worked anyway / you don’t listen anyway / he (or she) was a pig anyway.” Sometimes excuses are actually valid and they deserve a hearing, but rationalization tricks us into thinking we’ve discovered the real issue, when it’s really burying it. The only way to crawl through this one is to refuse all excuses and hold yourself accountable with actual reasons.
2) Projecting. Presuming about others what you actually have in yourself.
C.S. Lewis said it best: “And the more we have it ourselves, the more we dislike it in others.” Between counselors, I’ve heard this called “projectile vomiting.” We so easily shackle others with the very fault we have in ourselves. Often it’s because we read into others with the only framework that we know; e.g. if you’re lazy, you’re quick to see laziness in others. Or we’re vicariously making up for our own shortcomings by magnifying someone else’s flaws. I’ve seen this happen in almost comedic fashion when someone learns a few tricks in psychology and suddenly becomes pseudo-mentalist-Sherlock. I’ve found that we’re most blind to projecting, since it mostly arises from our own schemas about the world. But projecting almost always says more about you than the other person. The way through is to question yourself, “Is this their stuff? Or is it my stuff? Their work? Or my work?”
3) Blame-Shifting. Attributing accountability on anyone and everything else.
“You made me do it. I was late because of traffic, they were late because they’re rude. If it wasn’t for my family / this city / my boss, then—” It’s also called kicking the dog or passing the buck, when you keep pointing fingers up and down the hierarchy. That’s how politics go awry; that’s how dichotomous, hostile camps are formed. It can overlap with displacement, when your emotions about one thing get thrown on someone else. And a sort of reverse-blame might be self-victimization, which exploits the empathy of others to enable our destructive behaviors. Of course, it’s true that there’s usually enough blame to go around, and sometimes you didn’t really ask for the pain you got (which can lead to unhealthy self-blame for things outside your control). But we’re all tempted into cycles of blame that stunt our growth. Blame is easy; responsibility is painful. Ownership of our part is the only way to examine where we got it wrong, and to make true change from an accurate picture of that reality.
4) Diminishing / Minimization. Dismissing, hand-waving, or reductive mockery.
“It’s not that big of a deal.” A lack of empathy always leads to a suffocating contempt for someone else’s situation. This callous neglect has led to a sort of blind secrecy on social media. We turn away from the things that don’t personally affect us. Empathy requires entering the head-space of another, to treat their wounds seriously, to treat the situation as if it is happening to you.
5) Deflection. Turning attention away, usually to avoid self-awareness.
“Well what-about-you?” or “That’s how I’ve been feeling!” Since it’s difficult to confront the truth about ourselves, we quickly resort to holding up a mirror at the other person to deflect the issue back at them. It can also overlap with denial or suppression. This not only avoids the original issue, but it’s always laughably bad, obvious timing to pick on the other person when the issue brought up was your own. Deflection also uses false analogies, in which we draw comparisons (usually by a straw-man) to win a point, which has little relevance to the current matter. Fortunately, deflections are easy to point out and root out. Of all defense mechanisms, they’re nothing but fruit flies. Don’t get caught by them. And use the mirror on yourself.
6) Value Judgment / Moralizing. Measuring a person’s inherent value as inferior, especially when their preferences or personalities are different than yours.
The way you think is not how things are. Can I say that again? The way you think is not how things are. It’s simply how you think. Your personality and preferences are not the barometer by which the world turns. I struggle with this one the most; I’m always tempted to mold someone into my own image. Even when there are healthy standards to abide by, it becomes a problem when we grade someone’s value based on how well they’ve caught up to them. And surprise!—we rationalize or blame-shift or deflect when we ourselves don’t measure to our own standards. To truly understand another person requires knowing the whole story, and not just a tiny slice of their life.
7) Gas-lighting / Manipulating. Constantly changing a standard with arbitrary goal-posts, to keep someone second-guessing.
This term was made famous by the 1938 play-turned-movie Gas Light, in which the main character is manipulated to doubt her own memory and perception until she’s driven insane (the abuser keeps messing with the gaslights and telling her that the lights haven’t changed). Brené Brown gives a great example, when a gaslighter says, “I didn’t know you were so sensitive,” to make you question if you’re genuinely hurt or just being a “crybaby.” The opposite is also true: you can easily say you’re offended by everything, which keeps people on edge about what they say around you. Gaslighting can be really difficult to spot, as it’s constantly shifting on the manipulator’s whims. I avoid gaslighters at all costs, but more than that, I try to catch myself when I’m tempted to get my way.
8) Persuasive Anger / Imposing Threat. Using intimidation for gain.
In the bargaining model of anger and depression, we often intimidate others to achieve our goals, in order to avoid helplessness and depression. This is a double-edged sword: not only do we harm others with our anger, but we’re constantly tiptoeing at the edge of depression when we don’t get results. Both our methods and motivations needs to change so we’re not trapped in a cycle of rage and despair.
9) Score-keeping. Keeping a mental tally of perceived rights and wrongs to establish a higher moral ground.
No one wins at score-keeping, not the score-keeper or those who we put into our debt. This is probably the number one problem I’ve seen with marriages, businesses, roommates, and institutions. There’s a continual dredging up of the past, both little things and large which we’ve claimed to forgiven, to shut down dialogue by staying one right ahead. We build a “historical anchor” for all past offenses until the ship goes around in circles. It’s why we always circle the same drain of the same arguments. You can hear it in unequivocal language, those extreme conditional qualifiers like “You always” and “You never …!” While the past certainly has weight on the present, it helps no one if it’s used unproductively or as a “gotcha.” Each day, as much as possible, the scoreboard has to be reset to a fair ground, if there’s to be hope of movement and momentum. We don’t have to forget what happened, but it can be forged for something better.