How we see things really matters. And how we label behaviors is important, too. Knowledge is power. But to be fully empowered you have to understand what’s really going on and how to appropriately interpret and label various behaviors. Today’s article is the last in a series on commonly misunderstood and misused psychological terms (see also: Acting Out and Other Commonly Misused Psychology Terms and Commonly Misused Psychology Terms – Part 2), a series designed to dispel some all-too-prevalent misconceptions, many of which have even been fostered by well-intended but under-informed or careless mental health professionals. Here are some other terms that are frequently misunderstood and misused by lay persons and professionals alike:
- Denial – Genuine denial – the classic “defense mechanism” – is a completely unconscious automatic protection the human mind provides against the conscious experience of something too emotionally painful to bear. I’ve written about this in depth before (see for example: Traditional Therapy Biases and Denial and also my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance). Now, deliberately insisting you haven’t done something you know you’ve done or refusing to acknowledge a reality you know is true is NOT denial. It’s simply lying. And unlike denial, most lying is conscious, deliberate, and tactical (i.e. it serves a practical purpose). People lie primarily to get something they want that they don’t think they can come by honestly or to avoid something they dread but believe will happen if they tell the truth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard folks (especially professionals) say that someone was “in denial” when that person was simply lying. It’s hard to foster good accountability and responsibility for behavior when these two concepts are confused .
- Rationalization – Again, this is an unconscious “defense mechanism.” And it’s an internal process. It’s when we’ve let ourselves believe it’s okay to do something our better judgment or our conscience tells us we probably shouldn’t be doing. It’s not offering up excuses for behavior we know is wrong but want to justify either to maintain a positive image or to manipulate another person. It’s important to distinguish excuse-making and other manipulative attempts to justify bad behavior from rationalization.
- Addiction – Addictions are very real and serious conditions that most of the time develop quite insidiously (i.e. slowly, incrementally, and without conscious awareness). And to be rightfully regarded as addicted, one has to have developed the kind of tolerance to a substance or entity that leads to true dependency upon it to function normally. One also has to experience painful withdrawal symptoms when trying to cease the activity. Abuse is neither dependence nor addiction. And habitual misconduct (e.g., serial philandering, frequent financial, social, etc. irresponsibility) is not necessarily evidence of or an outgrowth of addiction. All too many times these days, folks use the term addiction far too casually. And a questionable industry of sorts has sprung up trying to conceptualize and treat all types of habitual, irresponsible behavior patterns as addictions.
- Defensive – When someone comes at you with tactics when they think you’re onto their game or have they’re number, they’re usually not being “defensive” (this is an outgrowth of traditional psychology notions that most behavior is unconscious and people unconsciously mount certain defenses when they’re anxious or feel threatened in some way) at all. Rather, they’re on the offensive, and the tactics they display are the weapons they prefer to use to get you to back down, back off, see things their way, etc. It’s their way to manipulate and control you while attempting to preserve a more benign image. Not seeing their moves as primarily offensive in character automatically puts you in a position of disadvantage because even though you unconsciously and rightfully go on the defensive yourself, you misjudge the character of the person (and their behavior) who’s trying to get the better of you.
- Needs – Just because a person wants something doesn’t mean they really need it. And many times, what character disturbed folks want is the last thing they need to function more responsibly in life. Therapists inexperienced in working with disturbed characters are notorious for confusing their clients’ wants and needs.
- Self-esteem – In In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, The Judas Syndrome and numerous articles (see, for example: Merit, Virtue, and Character ) I go to great lengths to explain what self-esteem really is, how it’s developed, and how it differs from self-respect and appropriate self-regard. I’m also one only a handful of clinicians that long ago recognized that it’s possible for someone to have too much (and, therefore, unhealthy) self-esteem.
- Splitting – Splitting is a very primitive and again unconscious defense mechanism in which a person mentally splits a single mental construct that has both positive and negative attributes into two or more separate realities because the negative aspects of the reality simply cannot be embraced. Classic examples of this are separating one’s mental image of an abusive parent who’s capable of showing kindness at times into the perceptions of “good daddy” and “bad daddy” or “nice mommy” and “evil mommy.” In its most extreme form splitting can involve separating out even parts of one’s own personality that simply can’t be integrated without great anxiety or pain (This is the case in the rare condition known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Splitting is also the principle coping mechanism of the poorly integrated and fractured personalities we call Borderline Personalities). A child dividing one parent against the other as a strategy to get something they want or one marital partner forming alliances with a child against the other parent is NOT splitting, although this term is often used even by therapists to describe such actions (I’ve written about this before (see: Understanding Splitting as a Psychological Term).
- Symptoms – Symptoms are what people report as problems that could possibly indicate the presence of disease. Signs are observable manifestations of an illness that a trained professional can spot as a more reliable indicator of the type of condition that exists. Symptoms are often an unreliable indicator of the nature of someone’s condition. A person can do their best to describe a pain or feeling and still not convey very well what’s going on. And a person with a character disturbance will often deliberately misrepresent what they sense or feel for manipulative purposes. When dealing with character impaired people it’s important to pay less attention to what they complain about or present as problems (i.e. the symptoms they report) and more attention to the signs they display that bespeak the nature and extent of their character dysfunction.
- Projection – This is often confused with the tactic of blaming others. Projection is again an unconscious defense mechanism. When a person projects, they attribute intentions and motivations to others they find far too anxiety-evoking or painful to acknowledge that they harbor themselves. Deliberately finding scapegoats or blaming others when things go wrong or to take the heat off oneself, preserve one’s image, and manipulate others is not projection. It’s simply blaming, and it’s both a major way of avoiding responsibility and a manipulative control tactic.
- Paranoia – This is when your brain is not working correctly and you believe things that have absolutely no foundation in reality. True paranoia most often involves delusions (most commonly of either grandeur or persecution), which are beliefs held with conviction that are patently absurd. Delusions occur in people whose brains are not working properly and who have lost the ability to think rationally and to know what’s real and what isn’t. Paranoia is not the same as harboring mistrust, especially rational mistrust based on past history. Being constantly wary of your serial philandering spouse and being on edge every time they show evasiveness or fail to honestly account for their whereabouts or actions is NOT paranoia. It’s just being reasonably apprehensive that your trust might well be being betrayed again.
Hopefully, the things discussed in this and the past two articles will clarify some issues and help empower folks struggling better understand their situations. Next week’s article will introduce a new series. And on my Character Matters program this Sunday night at 7 pm EDT, I’ll have a lot to say about the kind of character self-revelation Donald Sterling displayed in some recent TV interviews. There’s much to learn there with respect to the nature of character disturbance and especially the pathological thinking patterns common to some personality types.