I’ve posted several articles on mental health terms that are frequently misused such as passive-aggression, acting-out, and denial. These terms are misused equally by professionals and lay persons. Their misuse has become so common that it’s possible they might never be used appropriately again. This is an unfortunate fact that can have several unintended, negative consequences both in real life and in counseling. A most noteworthy negative consequence is perpetuating a great deal of confusion about what kinds of behaviors are best characterized as offensive vs. defensive. Many of the behaviors we have commonly come to view as “defense mechanisms” are, more accurately, offensive power tactics. And the fact that these offensive maneuvers are not seen for what they are is a big reason people allow themselves to be manipulated by them.
There is a difference between an offense and a defense. Similarly, there’s a marked difference between behavior that is best described as “defensive” in character versus behavior more accurately described as offensive or combative. I became aware of just how important it is to frame events accurately when doing the early research for my book In Sheep’s Clothing. A woman came to see me for counseling who was having problems with her young daughter. She described a long list of behaviors her daughter exhibited whenever she didn’t get her way, but interestingly described her daughter as being overly “defensive” whenever she tried to address these behaviors. She described similar problems with her ex-husband. It became clear to me that this woman had no idea of the difference between an offense and a defense. But what appeared even more insidious were the factors that contributed to this false perception, most of which had to do with her understanding of traditional psychology principles that had filtered into common awareness over the years and had become fairly well accepted. Her case was so intriguing, that I eventually included a vignette based on it in the book. Further, her later testimonial that changing her “framing” of events was pivotal to her claiming an entirely new and empowered life for herself provided a substantial impetus for much of my future work.
In my book, I call the mother “Jenny” and her daughter, “Amanda.” The problems centered around all sorts of unruly behaviors that Amanda was exhibiting. Any time that Jenny would bring up issues related to Amanda’s behavior, Amanda would say things like “You hate me!” or “You never have anything good to say about me.”
When Jenny would try to impose some consequences, Amanda would say things like “Now I suppose you’re going take away stuff and be mean to me again like you always are,” and do things like slam her door and kick things. In the end, Jenny would end up caving-in and relenting. She felt so bad. In her mind, Amanda must have felt unfairly “attacked” and “mistreated” and was responding “defensively.” She bought into the notion from classical psychology that everyone is dealing with issues of “insecurity” and potential “threats” to their self image and engages in various “defensive” strategies to deal with those perceived threats. What’s worse, as a result, she saw herself as the victimizer — the cruel, heartless tyrant adding insult to the injury her daughter was already feeling every time she tried to intervene.
Now, it just so happens that young Amanda was already showing signs of significant character disturbance. She was already quite a skilled fighter and bully. And she was well aware that her mother’s high degree of sensitivity made her very vulnerable to feeling like the bad guy if you intimidated her strongly enough. So, over the years Amanda had honed a virtual arsenal of overt and covert aggressive tactics designed to bring her mother (who is supposed to be the limit-setter and force to be contended with) to submission.
Jenny eventually came to see Amanda’s behavior for what it really was and also realized how similar it was to the behavior of her ex-husband who was emotionally abusive to her for much of their marriage. She eventually made two commitments to herself that she never reneged on. She promised herself to see things as they truly are as opposed to how she either wanted them to be or was told they should be. She also promised herself to never again turn over power in her life that she rightfully needed to protect herself. Her entire life changed as a result, and her story was a source of inspiration for me in my work.
One of the main things that Jenny realized is that there is a considerable difference between an offense and a defense, although, for a lot of reasons, the difference is sometimes hard to distinguish. Both modes of behavior can involve the use of force or aggression. But the principal distinguishing characteristic is that an offense involves the use of energy to secure a goal and to remove potential obstacles to that goal. Sometimes, that means fighting hard enough to bring an adversary (real or imagined) to submission. A defense primarily involves expending just enough energy to ward off an attack or to prevent injury. Even when we use the terms “offense” and “defense” in sports, the use is still somewhat incorrect in that the only “injury” the team on “defense” wants to prevent is the possibility that the “offensive” team might secure their goal (scoring). So really, in such situations what we have is an offense and counter-offense. But the main point is this: Jenny had a hard time seeing Amanda as a person on the offensive. Instead of viewing Amanda’s behavior as combative, she saw it as “defensive.” This made it easier for her to mistakenly see herself as the victimizer instead of the victim, which set her up for abuse and defeat. And the sweeping over-generalizations about the nature of human behavior and the motivations for it that emanate from traditional psychology paradigms help set her up for the false perceptions that put her in a one-down position in the first place.
By the way, for those interested, “Amanda” is a different person these days, too. She actually did need a firm hand to guide and correct her. She was on a very bad course and was shaping up to be the kind of disturbed character I describe in my book Character Disturbance. She’s a very different person today but only because the issues that had to be addressed with her were in fact addressed over many years and with a much firmer and steadier resolve on Jenny’s part. Amanda did not “tame” easily, either. And she is still a “spirited” woman. But she’s not the disordered character she could have become.