Socrates’ famous statement, “Know yourself”, was addressed to all of us and is, fortunately, out of our reach. Fortunately, because complete knowledge of that most complex phenomenon of nature – the human personality – would mean a stop to the the development of our collective intellect, in fact to progress altogether. And so the process of developing self-awareness is endless.
But this is only the philosophical aspect of the problem. As far as the psychological aspect is concerned, the impossibility of total self-awareness and even the impossibility of an awareness of the more significant stirrings of one’s soul is simply a necessary condition of normal existence.
Of all the infinite number of subjective personal values, there is one which towers above the rest, one which, paradoxically, slips past most people’s attention. This is the need for self-respect, a fairly high level of self-respect, and, in essence, the need to be at peace with ourselves. Only the preservation of self-respect, the image of oneself as a person of worth, who matches up to his own ideals, allows us to preserve fully-rounded behaviour and optimism in the face of setbacks and difficulties. It alone allows a high level of activity in conditions of uncertainty, i.e., in the conditions of everyday existence where uncertainty surrounds our most important, fateful decisions and steps: the decision about what we want to be in this life, who we want as our partner to share our future, how to act in situations where what we want conflicts with what we feel is our duty, and so on. A person who has lost his self-respect is in a permanent state of conflict with himself, denies himself and is in disagreement with himself, which leads very quickly either to disorganised patterns of behaviour or to depression, which makes any behaviour impossible.
In fact, each one of us always has enough grounds for an inner conflict of this kind. Furthermore, the more developed and complex a person’s spiritual organisation, the more frequent are the conflicting, mutually exclusive demands. Thus, we want success and acclaim, and that frequently leads to us feeling hostile towards potential rivals, towards people with more talent or expertise than us. But hostility like this, based as it is on envy, is demeaning for a person with high self-esteem who honestly believes that talent and expertise are worthy of respect and that he is lacking in these areas. In order for this internal conflict – in this case a clash between ‘undignified’ envy and self-respect – not to lead to breakdown and depression, a person uses a mechanism of psychological defence, a refined and subtle means to ward off lowered self-esteem.
The extent to which even the most intelligent and highly educated individuals are incapable of making an adequate evaluation of their own experiences and the real motives for their actions is amazing. Let me give just two examples, which seem to me very illuminating.
Several years ago an outstanding American psychologist, whose name is associated with a whole major trend in psychology, published an article about dreams. In it he described one of his own as an illustration. In the dream he was playing cards with friends, and he had a superb hand, all aces. However, as soon as he put the cards down on the table, they all, one after the other, turned into low value trash which his opponents could easily beat. Any specialist would find the meaning of this dream absolutely transparent: it signifies the profound inner uncertainty of the dreamer, his doubts as to the quality of his own ‘aces’. This interpretation is obvious, and it was confirmed by my own personal encounters with this person. He was genuinely talented and highly ambitious. Nevertheless, he was painfully vulnerable and lacking in self-confidence, while at the same time acutely jealous and deeply suspicious of other people’s ideas and success. There can be no doubt that he had absolutely no inclination to expose his complexes to the public gaze of the scientific community. There can also be no doubt that, as a well qualified specialist, he would have had no trouble explaining the real meaning of this transparent dream if he had been told it by somebody else. However, he remained totally blind to his own dream and commented as follows: “This dream reflects my passion for poker”.
My second example is also a dream, one also recalled by a professional psychologist. A colleague told me of a dream that had her very worried. In it she was a with a group of other colleagues walking along a big beach when she suddenly fell into a hole, which she described rather remarkably as a “deep sand-pit”. She couldn’t get out on her own. Her colleagues clustered around the lip of this “sand-pit” and stretched out their arms towards her, but she could not reach them. “What could this dream mean?”, she asked me anxiously. I could not, of course, tell her directly what it meant, but even if I had not already been aware of all her deep inner doubts about her professional competence and skills compared with her colleagues, I could have deduced it easily from that dream. Even from her use of the word “sand-pit”, which in her native Russian sounds almost identical to the word “career”. The significance of word-play in dreams is well-known from the work of the French psychologist Jacques Lacan.
Stanislaw Jerzy Lec was so right when he said: “Never tell anyone your dreams, just in case the psychoanalysts come to power!”
We know of more than twenty kinds of psychological defence that shield the personality from discrediting itself and the consciousness from undesirable knowledge. They can be divided into several groups, depending on their action mechanism. There are defences which block the access of information at the point of entry, which stop a person seeing or hearing things which might upset him or damage his self-esteem. If you are having a dispute with somebody that touches on aspects of morality which are important to him, and you notice that he appears not to hear your strongest arguments, which obviously demonstrate the weakness of his position, it means this defence mechanism has been triggered.
You might ask, how does a person manage not to hear precisely those things he ought not to?
After all, this implies that he knows in advance, as it were, what he needs to protect himself from. At first glance, we fall into a logical paradox. For some time there was no answer to this question. Then, thirty years ago, I proposed a solution, which may perhaps be incorrect, but which is at least elegant.
We often encounter a situation where neutral or slightly unpleasant information, which does not threaten self-esteem, is statistically likely to be followed by something completely unbearable. As a result of such prior training, neutral information acts as a signal and for a time raises the threshold of perception. For example, if we say to somebody, “Come on, I’ll prove you’re insincere (dishonest, jealous, petty, etc.)”, by using this kind of statement we are warning his system of psychological defence. He needs to be on the alert and it would be better to take prophylactic action by dropping out of the debate, at least for the time being. You should not be surprised if, after this, a part of your argumentation remains unheard. You have done everything you could to make sure this happens.
This system of perceptual defence (defence at the level of perception), like all defence systems, is often very elaborate and switches in at the least hint of possible unpleasant news. All the same, it is not very effective.
Firstly, it can fail if for some reason the warning information is absent or is not perceived. Then something that does threaten self-esteem enters the brain, is perceived, and then other defence mechanisms have to be brought into play.
Secondly, it can be over-sensitive, going onto the alert in response to something quite harmless, so that as a result a person misses a part of the information he needs.
Finally, under certain circumstances this type of defence can be a danger to physical health. There is a category of person which takes any suggestion that they are physically unwell very much to heart. It is as if they cannot allow themselves to be ill, they regard illness as a shameful weakness. For them, respect for themselves includes respect for their own organism. Illness for people like this is a kind of psychotrauma, a catastrophic failure of their perception of self. Perceptual defence stops these people noticing illness in their own organism and going to see the doctor in good time. When the symptoms do finally pierce the shield of the defence, it is often too late. There is a lot of evidence that women with this kind of defence often ignore the first signs of breast tumours. Doctors and laymen who are aware of this defence should pay special attention to any symptoms in patients or relatives who are disinclined to draw attention to their health and are generally ashamed of being ill.
Turning from the medical to the psychological aspect of the problem, if you find yourself talking to somebody who appears both ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’, do not be angry or reproach him for not paying attention, but consider whether your discussion may be damaging to his perception of self.
The next group of defence mechanisms is rationalisation. When applying these mechanisms, a person unwittingly and unconsciously substitutes the meaning of a perceived message with another which is less traumatic for himself, and which allows him to respond actively to the message. In this way, a jealous and aggressive individual when confronted with the success of a rival will tell himself that he is not jealous, it’s the others who envy him, and he is the one who needs protection from the unprovoked aggression of his rival. In such a defence, all means are good, because he is in fact an innocent victim whom the others want to humiliate or destroy. Attack is the best defence.
Ascribing one’s own characteristics to somebody else is called projection. This mechanism is to blame for many misunderstandings and insoluble conflicts, including inter-ethnic ones, where one nationality ascribes to another everything they don’t want to see in themselves. Evil, now embodied by another ethnic group, becomes the object of furious aggression, which is made all the more uncompromising the deeper its real roots lie in the darker recesses of the soul of the aggressor. It’s very convenient. You can fight your own defects in someone else without any pangs of conscience.
Rationalisation frequently takes on another character. A person may claim to fight in the name of a higher truth and justice. Fundamentally, though, we are dealing with the same hostility generated by the fear of recognizing oneself to be weaker and of less worth. Remember how in Pushkin’s Little Tragedy Salieri justified the attempt on Mozart’s life by the need to restore a higher justice. It is impossible to calculate the number of people supposedly motivated by self-sacrifice or unselfish zeal who are, in fact, struggling to preserve ‘face’ and whose actions are entirely selfish.
But we shouldn’t be too hasty. In these circumstances it would not be appropriate to blame people for the actions of their defence mechanisms. However, once you understand how they work, you can act to neutralise their negative effect to the benefit of yourself and your partner. Just remember, though: never try to damage somebody’s self-respect, because if you do, his defence mechanisms will make sure your assault boomerangs back on you with devastating force.
At times a rationalisation defence can play a truly positive role in allowing a person to adapt to a situation, lowering his level of emotional tension without hurt to himself or others. It’s like the fox in Krylov’s fable of The Fox And The Grapes. When she found she couldn’t reach the grapes, the vixen didn’t blame it on a lack of cunning or agility on her part, but convinced herself she hadn’t wanted the grapes in the first place. Devaluing an unattainable need like this is a very important component of defence, especially if an unreachable goal can be substituted by one that is achievable.
Another, absolutely decent, form of rationalisation is a transformation of behaviour, such as when a person does not follow his destructive urges, but begins to behave in a directly opposite way. A jealous individual, instead of giving free rein to his envy and providing himself convincing explanations for his hostility, begins to do everything possible to help his rival and give him ‘most favoured person’ status. By doing so, he rises above his rival in his own eyes, seeing himself as more noble, capable of making sacrifices for others, even if his efforts pass unnoticed. It is the opportunity to feel morally superior to a rival that is the real driving force behind this behaviour. All the same, would that all our rivals, especially our bosses, used this psychological defence, and felt themselves to be noble benefactors.
If all these mechanisms are not strong enough to give sufficient protection to the personality, a powerful, and at the same time destructive, mechanism of repression kicks in. With repression, unacceptable information reaches the brain, but is not transformed. The needs this information provokes are not realised in camouflaged form in behaviour and it is simply excluded from the consciousness. However, now lodged in the unconscious, this dangerous information does not lose its explosive power and provokes a vague, restless anxiety which appears both abstract and pointless. Such anxiety is the first step towards the formation of neurosis. Once the neurosis develops, it acquires in the person’s eyes a substitute explanation, a pseudo-explanation, and he begins to worry for no apparent reason about his health or to fear open or enclosed spaces, etc.
There are infinite possible pseudo-explanations for this anxiety, which has actually been provoked by the displacement of unacceptable information. Fortunately, more often than not it does not lead to neurosis, because with repression another very interesting mechanism of psychological defence comes into its own – dreaming. I began this chapter with dreams which illustrated a person’s inability to make complete sense of his own motives and problems. But dreams themselves play an important role in the life of the psyche. This, however, requires a separate chapter.