The Defense Mechanism Most Toxic for Your Relationship

From the standpoint of avoiding anxiety, it can be hard to beat a good old, ordinary, defense mechanism. If you’re angry at an important person in your life, displacement will let you take your emotions out on a safer target, such as a small rock that you kick out of your way in the sidewalk. If there’s an expensive piece of jewelry that you can’t stop thinking about, but can’t afford, repression will help you shove it out of your consciousness. There are countless other ways that defense mechanisms, when used in moderation, can actually be very adaptive.

In your relationships, though, defense mechanisms can take an unfortunate turn if used in the wrong way. Your partner wouldn’t appreciate being the target of your displaced anger and might not like it if you “repressed” your putting off unpleasant chores around the house. However, above and beyond these less than optimal uses of defense mechanisms, one stands out as particularly toxic. In the defense mechanism of projection, you attribute your own unconscious anxieties and preoccupations onto another person. You then become, naturally enough, annoyed at that person for having those same emotions and thoughts that you reject in yourself.

New research on social perception shows that projection can turn what should be empathy into an unfeeling lack of concern if your partner is in trouble. A study on stress mindsets by Tel Aviv University’s Nili Ben-Avi and collaborators (2018) shows what happens when your own attitude toward stress makes you unsympathetic to a person who is clearly undergoing strain. In one type of stress mindset, or attitude toward the stressful events in your life, you find pressure to be exhilarating, and in the other, you find it to be debilitating. The Israeli researchers believe that the way you perceive stress in your life will, in turn, affect the way you perceive that of other people. If you’re of the belief that stress is good, you’ll regard it as silly complaining when it gets to your partner, who puts in long hours full of competing demands. If you regard stress as a frame of mind to be avoided at all costs, you’ll similarly feel that your overworked partner should find a different job or at least stay away from any work tasks in the evening and weekend hours.

Ben-Avi and colleagues take an experimental social psychological approach, meaning that they don’t truly speak of “defense mechanisms” as having that same set of unconscious drivers as do psychodynamically-oriented theorists. Nevertheless, the idea of “social projection” seems to fit the classic defense mechanism approach, as you can see from this definition: “when people try to evaluate targets’ thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, they often project their own corresponding states, thereby arriving at inaccurate social judgments” (p. 98). Believing that your partner feels the same way about stress as you do clearly fits into this definition of social projection.

The Israeli study showed that people high on the “stress-as-exhilirating” mindset were less likely to see a fictitious target in an online scenario as suffering from the negative effects of burnout, and to suffer ill effects on health. They also were less likely to believe that the target should stay home when ill (“presenteeism”). The way participants viewed stress also affected the way that they would make personnel decisions about the fictitious employee. If they felt that they personally thrived on stress, then they believed that employees who didn’t share this mindset shouldn’t be promoted, as they did not view the employee as potentially suffering from burnout.

An experimental manipulation that the authors conducted as part of their research involved priming participants into one of the two stress mindsets by having them think either about a time in their lives when they felt overworked or, conversely, when they felt energized. This method showed that your stress mindset can be malleable. People operating under a stress-is-enhancing mindset perceived the target as experiencing less strain and therefore as in need of less help. They also saw the target as more promotable at work. As the authors conclude, there is a dark side and a bright side regarding the interpersonal implications of the idea that stress is enhancing. The dark side is that if you believe stress is good for you, you’ll also believe it’s good for someone else and will offer less help to someone who seems to be on the verge of extreme burnout. On the bright side, though, perceiving another person as operating under high levels of stress may make you see that person as better able to handle stress and so you’ll give that person more responsibility (and maybe a promotion).

In terms of your relationships, though, the Israeli findings suggest that projection isn’t just a theoretical concept left over from the psychoanalyst’s couch. People judge others on the basis of their own preferences, self-assessments, and attitudes. As a result, it will be difficult for you to provide the kind of empathy that can help your partner feel supported and loved when work or family obligations make life particularly difficult.

To overcome the projection you may feel toward your partner, take a page from the Ben-Avi et al’s playbook and try to recall the last time you felt the way you believe your partner to be feeling. Perhaps your partner seems overly sensitive to a mutual friend’s somewhat unfortunately sarcastic jokes. If you have a tendency toward the cynical, your partner’s sensitivity may seem to be too extreme. Try to recall a time when you were the target of a similarly unfortunately comment. That teasing really did hurt you. Just remembering that incident may allow you to see the world from your partner’s own eyes. This exercise might also help you see that you’re not quite as resistant to teasing as you thought you were.

Happiness in long-term relationships depends in many ways on being able to overcome your own tendency to impose your wishes onto your partner. Projection can prevent that open-minded understanding that helps foster true communication with your partner. A simple self-check can help you avoid the projection trap and, in the process, help your relationship become that much more fulfilling.

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