I’ve been posting on psychology terms and concepts that are familiar to many but are nevertheless often either misunderstood or misused, even by mental health professionals (See also: Misunderstood and Misused Psychology Terms – Part 1, Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition, Misunderstood Psychology Terms – Pt 2: Personality & Character, and Misused Terms Pt 3: Defensive, Dissociation, Dependence, Denial). In today’s article, I’d like to expand a bit on the discussion about the “four D’s” (defensive, dissociation, dependence, and denial) mentioned in last week’s post as well as introduce some other important terms and concepts the series will address. Getting it straight with respect to important concepts can make all the difference the world when someone is trying to analyze a problem situation and deal with it effectively.
Last week I mentioned how disadvantaging it can be to view a person as being “defensive,” when they’re really on the attack. It’s equally disadvantaging to assume that most people aggress only when they feel threatened or provoked in some way (a notion long promoted by traditional psychology paradigms). And while most folks recognize that aggression can be born of anger as well as fear, many find it hard to imagine why someone would either become angry or be inclined to aggress if they weren’t actually afraid of something or didn’t feel victimized in some way. But assuming that aggressors always come from an insecure or fearful place has been the undoing of many in abusive relationships.
I once consulted to an organization in which there was a mid-level manager who quickly took charge of any situation she was faced with and generally did well for her company. But she also struck fear into the hearts of those who dared question or oppose her. Many a co-worker experienced premature “burnout” working with or for her. One of her supervisors remarked to me that he knew she must be “a frightened, insecure child underneath,” and he therefore coached others that the “psychological secret” to getting along with her was to be both non-threatening and reassuring. But this woman was every bit the ruthless albeit covert power seeker I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing. And she was driven neither by fear nor insecurity but rather an insatiable appetite (more accurately, lust) for power and control. There are those among us who are by nature dominance-seeking to an unhealthy extreme. Such folks crave the power position, and not because they fear being victimized if they allow themselves to be vulnerable but because they innately abhor taking on a subordinate or submissive role. They create problems in relationships (at work and within marriages) because they simply won’t allow themselves to back down, back off, or concede, even if doing so in the short run would help them emerge victorious in the long run. They’re often prematurely and unnecessarily combative as opposed to defensive in their interpersonal relations. And not only do they not aggress primarily out of fear but they also aggress when they’re not even angry at times. This is the phenomenon known as instrumental (alternately: predatory) aggression, which I describe in Character Disturbance in some detail. Some aggressors wage war purely for the purpose of securing something, and often conduct the fight in such a stealthy manner that the victim doesn’t even know they’ve been in a battle until they’re already defeated (For more on this topic see: Understanding Predatory Aggressors).
Callous disregard for others and for important social norms, in its many destructive forms, is sometimes perceived erroneously as an example of dissociation. It can also be erroneously perceived as attention deficiency or even unconscious behavior. Stanton Samenow was among the first to note that many disturbed characters pay attention to the things to which they want to pay attention and “selectively” filter out of their awareness those things that don’t particularly matter to them. As I sometimes put it: “It’s not that they’re unaware, it’s that they just don’t particularly care.” How your behavior impacts others has to matter to you if you’re going to be particularly mindful of it. And many disturbed characters among us simply don’t care enough about the things we want them to care about to pay much attention to them. While they seem oblivious and even detached at times, most of the time they simply don’t care to be mindful. And their lack of mindfulness is a conscious, deliberate choice, whereas dissociation is an unconscious mental defense against unbearable emotional pain. They’re too dedicated to fulfilling their own selfish desires to care much about how others might be impacted.
There’s another phenomenon frequently confused with dissociation: compartmentalization. Individuals with psychopathic traits come in two main varieties: those with a markedly deficient or totally absent capacity for human empathy, and those who have some empathy capacity but also have a special capacity to wall-off or “compartmentalize” any emotion when they’re in a predatory behavior mode (i.e., when they intend to victimize). And mistaking compartmentalization for dissociation is one of the main reasons why some folks fail to recognize the warning signs of psychopathy (For more on psychopathy and compartmentalization see: Psychopathy and Sociopathy, Malignant Narcissism: At the Core of Psychopathy, and Psychopathy 101).
Just as deliberate disregard is not dissociation, deliberate distortion is not the same as denial (Use the search feature to access the many articles I’ve posted on the topic of denial). A person in a true state of denial is dealing with an emotional reality so painful that primitive unconscious mechanisms kick in to prevent their conscious mind from experiencing it. Denial is not the same as stubbornly refusing to admit the obvious. It’s also not the same as kidding yourself about the truth of things. In short, denial is not conscious lying but rather unconscious protection agains unbearable pain. Now a person can make a habit of deceiving and distorting. But that doesn’t mean they’re in denial or can’t readily recognize the truth. It just means they’re not of a mind to acknowledge what they know to be true unless someone holds their feet to the fire.
Next week I’ll be talking about the concepts of addiction (and discussing further the related concepts of dependency and co-dependency), trauma and post-traumatic stress, anxiety and anxiety disorders, and self-esteem. And the week after next I’ll be discussing depression and bipolar illness.
As is fitting for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Sunday’s Character Matters program will focus on the emerging science of happiness and I’ll discuss the mounting evidence for the power of gratitude to positively shape our character and promote a sense of well-being. Comments, questions, and other contributions are, as always, most welcome (Phone in at (718) 717-8296).
Many thanks to those of you who, after reading my latest collaboration with Jill Dahl in the Huffington Post, and subsequently discovering my books as well as this blog and its many articles on how to better understand and deal with the disturbed characters in your life, took the time to write me personally and express appreciation. The validation truly means a lot.