Misused Terms Pt 3: Defensive, Dissociation, Dependence, Denial

While gathering clinical data for my first book In Sheep’s Clothing, I came across several examples of folks who were on the receiving end of abusive, manipulative behavior but simply couldn’t see the underlying aggression involved, even though their gut told them they were under attack.  What’s worse, many times they’d made “interpretations” about the behaviors that bothered them – interpretations they’d sometimes bought into after they were advanced by qualified professionals – that only reinforced the doubts they already had about their gut hunches.  One of the main purposes of the book, therefore, became to call attention to how frequently people “fight,” and to make clear what distinguishes a slickly crafted “offense” from a defense. Understanding certain terms and concepts correctly is often the key to dealing with problem situations effectively, and the current series of articles (See also:  Misunderstood and Misused Psychology Terms – Part 1, Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition, and Misunderstood Psychology Terms – Pt 2: Personality & Character) seeks to clarify some of the more commonly known concepts and terms that are frequently misunderstood or misapplied.

A woman who was having difficulty with her teenage daughter (As always, details and potentially identifying information in this vignette have been altered to ensure anonymity) once sought me out for counsel.  The girl had been having problems at school for some time, both for failing to complete assignments (She’d been assessed as not laboring under a learning handicap or motivational deficits secondary to depression, etc.) and for showing disrespect to teachers.  She’d also recently been suspended for a physical altercation with one of her peers. The mother tried to talk to her several times about her concerns, but complained that whenever she tried to address important but “sensitive” topics, her daughter would “get so defensive” that a meaningful conversation became impossible. The girl had been to several counselors before, including the school counselor, and both parents had participated in family sessions, so the mother was very familiar with psychological “jargon.” She knew her daughter was probably “insecure,” underneath it all because she hadn’t yet developed good social coping skills and probably had “low self-esteem” as the result of her academic failures.  She also believe her daughter was far too “dependent” on her and others who were always going the extra mile to help her out, especially academically (Some teachers suggested the academic issues were less about ability and more about “attitude”).  And because she never seemed to accept any of the guidance everyone gently tried to afford her, they knew she must be “in deep denial” about the nature of her problems. The cold, hard facts were probably too painful to bear and potentially toxic to her already impaired sense of self-worth.  All this only seemed to make sense because the parents couldn’t imagine why else their daughter would behave the way she did.  Both feared their daughter would simply withdraw even further than she already had if they said too much or pressed too hard. She’d already seemed quite “detached” from her family and friends and displayed complete “obliviousness” to her behavior. The mother reported that when you’d confront her about something she’d done, she’d act like she had no idea what you were talking about or make you question whether you even remembered things correctly.  One therapist suggested this might be more than just a lack of awareness but rather a type of “dissociation” – a very primitive defense against the unacceptable, so the mother was worried that confronting her too hard or coming down on her too harshly with discipline might “push her over the edge.” 

Having scheduled three family visits as for assessment purposes, I got the chance to see the dynamics between mom, dad and daughter “in action.”  What I observed was that as soon as either parent called any attention whatsoever to a behavior of concern, their daughter went quickly on the attack:  “There you go again, making a big deal out of nothing (minimizing)! You know the teachers have it in for me (blaming) and you never (lying by exaggerating) hear my side.  I’m always getting singled out (playing the victim, and again, exaggerating) for stuff everyone else does (generalizing, justifying, exaggerating) and you never take up for me (shaming, guilting, playing the victim, and again, lying by distortion and exaggeration). And what you said about me cussing out Ms. Blakely, well that never even happened!  I was just trying to explain something (minimizing, lying by omission) to her and she wouldn’t listen (playing the victim again) like always.  Maybe I muttered something under my breath once (minimizing, lying by distortion, trying to escape responsibility on a “technicality”) because she made me so mad (blaming), but I did not cuss her out. Besides, everyone says ‘bitch’ sometimes!”  Mom looked straight at me and said: “See what I mean, she gets so defensive!  I don’t even think she realizes what she’s saying sometimes, or what the problem is.  I don’t know how to get through to her or make her understand what we and her teachers are trying to tell her. I try to get her to see, but when I try to get a point across, I’m afraid she just can’t hear it.”

For a long time it was assumed that everyone struggled with significant social fears and tenuous self-esteem. It was therefore natural to further assume that any perceived criticism would only invite a person to unconsciously mount “defenses” against what they regarded as attacks on their already impaired and fragile self-image.  And while such scenarios can and do still occur, they’re nowhere near as common as they once were.  As the title of my second book asserts, we now live in an age of more rampant Character Disturbance. And if we’re going to understand and deal effectively with folks of impaired character, we have to be able to tell when they’re engaged in combat and trying to get the better of us as opposed to “defending” themselves. But to do so we first have to rid ourselves of the long-held but erroneous notion that people only fight when they feel “threatened” in some way (i.e. the old notion that what looks like an offense is really a defense).

Using various tactics to throw others on the defensive (and get them to back down or back off) is not being defensive.  It’s simply fighting in a less than obvious but nonetheless effective way.  That’s the heart of manipulation.  And using others or exploiting their willingness to do things you’re not willing (as opposed to truly unable) to do is not dependence.  Emotional dependence arises out of a true sense of inadequacy that begets on over-reliance on those perceived as stronger and more capable. And dependent individuals, by definition, in feeling incapable, are generally not only quite grateful for the support they manage to secure but also in that gratitude are often overly submissive (as opposed to combative) to those upon whom they depend.  In the example above, “dependent” is not a term that would rightfully apply to the daughter, although it fits the parents fairly nicely.  And although there’s a temptation to see “codependence” at work here (more accurately, “mutual” or inter-dependence, with the parents possibly dependent on the daughter’s approval and validation and the daughter being so-called dependent on them for the duties she neglects), in reality there’s only abuse and responsibility-evasion on the part of the daughter heaped upon the only truly dependent parties (the parents), abuse perpetrated by a very independently-oriented and skilled manipulator.

Now “denial” is not at work here either.  I’ve written extensively about what denial is and isn’t (See, for example:  Denial – What It Is and Isn’t, Denial – Manipulation Tactic 4, and Traditional Therapy Biases and “Denial”).  Nor is the daughter’s apparent “obliviousness” to reality of the concerns expressed by others evidence of “dissociation” on her part.  This is a young woman who knows exactly what’s going on, what’s being asked of her, and how to get others to back down and back off while carrying on as she wishes.  While she might frequently lie to herself as well as to others, and while she may be virtually at war with expectations placed upon her, that’s neither denial nor dissociation.  And as for why she would do such things if she weren’t really lacking in self-esteem underneath it all, it would take another article to list all the possibilities, not the least of which might include longstanding attitudes of entitlement, grandiosity (in the face of the apparent success of her manipulative strategy), egocentrism, and lack of empathy (i.e. concern for the impact of her behavior on others).

There’s a lot more to say about the four “Ds” discussed today and next week’s post will expand on these issues considerably.

This Sunday’s Character Matters will be a re-broadcast of an earlier program, so no phone calls can be accepted.  But I want to extend a special invitation for all to tune in the Sunday after Thanksgiving for a special program on the psychology of gratitude (the perfect entitlement “antidote”).


37 thoughts on “Misused Terms Pt 3: Defensive, Dissociation, Dependence, Denial

  1. Dr. Simon,
    I have been told recently that when a person is involving himself in his “addiction”, the feelings/impact on the ‘victims’ is essentially removed from his mind (while his focus is on the addictive behaviour). Is this another version of ‘dissociation’ you refer to here? Or is this a real aspect of addiction?

    1. RS, It is an aspect of genuine addiction (recent studies attest firmly to how rare the phenomenon of genuine addiction is as compared to patterns of habitual abuse) but while it is a reflection of how all-consuming and attention-narrowing (so that the person is both “oblivious” to and inattentive to other important things in their life, it is not an example of dissociation.

  2. Dr. Simon,

    I an only say that every post of your closes in further on this sickness of our society. I was married to a CD individual for almost 30 years and you keep unearthing and spelling out in simple factual language what the real problem is with these twisted, selfish people. I have a library full of the top psychiatrists studies of these people and you have shown the light of day on these criminals and I as many others (Miller, Shengold etc..)keep deferring to their past. Excuse my language but it is all plain BS on the part of the top professionals in the field to assert any other answer then the simplicity that you have presented.

    You were really on a roll in this article, I can’t wait for the next one. I think all of your comments should be put in book form because its all so easy instead of all the psychobabble dribble that gives these people and out so more guilt and responsibility is laid on the victim and societies shoulders. I am all for exposing these sick individuals and taking the pressure off me being labeled a co-dependent and such instead of being embraced as an empathetic person that was just used and taken advantage of. I do believe that us victims need to be made aware of all the intentional tactics these people use.

    God bless you Dr. Simon for all you given to society. You and Scott Peck could had written a profound book. You are by far the best source of information I have found. I actually gave your books to court officials because they were so taken in by the tactics used by these people.

    I found an excellent book called Emotional Prisoner by Jose Villegas that echo’s your writing’s.


      1. I too would love to thank you, Dr. Simon. Also, I want you to know, that I try as much, as I can, to bring your writings to the attention of bloggers on various sites.

    1. Aloha Jaycee,

      I fully agree with you!! You have expressed how I have always felt about these selfish individuals who take advantage of kind hearted people.
      I am currently working in a group home and I am/was a target as well as others who resides in this home of an individual who totally manipulative and down right evil.
      They have removed former staff and now I have been removed from the home due to all the lies this individual spouts off to management. All because I will not allow this individual to manipulate me. I have set boundaries and they Hate this!
      Numerous broken contracts for behavioral problems and policed called on this individual and yet they refuse to discharge this individual from the group home; because individual threatens to sue the non profit.
      Non profit doe not want this on record of being sued (told by management). So they keep staff and residents at the mercy of this individual.
      Ooo and staff is constantly reminded by management that “remember its the mental illness is why this behavior is happening”,
      Dr. Simon, I truly THANK YOU TOO!! For I was married to a Narc and you helped me unravel the evil web that he has spun on my life. I truly felt I was raped as a whole human being and reading your materials has helped me understand that these individual are just plain evil.

  3. Dr Simon, self-esteem and self-respect have been handled many times. However, has self-esteem been confused for unwillingness to bear discomfort or boredom? I think that’s a good contrast to handle, one that hasn’t had as much attention. In “Serious abusers and psychology’s failure to understand them” you even stated that sadists can be very miserable when they don’t have anyone to torment. Could that be confused for low self-esteem? Are there any such connections made?

    1. Hi J, in my opinion, the two are not really related. Self esteem being how you think about yourself, self respect how your treat yourself. The reason they are miserable if they don’t have anyone to torment (some of them) is because they need constant stimulation and the thrill of the chase, competition, victory and the subjugation of others. Without constant stimulation they are just flat out bored.If you can imagine yourself without the ability to see things three dimensionally……..like when you look across the room? everything just being flat and dead? That is what I think is part of their problem or make up. They just can’t engage with life and people the way “normal” people do so they need things to be super charged. Personally i don’t know if it is torment they are looking for but more like entertainment.
      There is some kind of realization lurking below the surface of my awareness. It’s kind of like the missing link but the elements involved are very slippery to grasp let alone get all in one place to put the puzzle together. But if you had no true inner personal self, imagine how boring life would be.

    2. That makes sense.

      I have a vague memory of some text that said constant trill seeking to be a sign of poor self-esteem. Well, no more than poor self-discipline is a sign of poor self-esteem.

      1. To me J, poor self discipline is a lack of self respect. I had very little self discipline when i was younger and it seems that self discipline breeds self respect and vise a versa.
        In a way, it is all kind of tied together…..self esteem, self respect, self discipline……kind of like different facets of the same stone. I think that with someone like Spathtard, “anything goes when the whistle blows” and the shame of his behavior is transferred onto others. Again, it’s a hard thing to describe….a fleeting realization that never quite materializes but captures your attention like a very strong magnet. I’m afraid that the answers to the questions you have, we all have, are so foreign that they are impossible to really comprehend. It’s like a very dark hole you will never see the bottom of.

      2. Again, I wouldn’t think that “self esteem, self respect, self discipline” are “like different facets of the same stone”. If a person buys into certain kinds of ideas, he can have huge self-esteem without self-respect that would make him a better person.

        1. True J, what I mean is that in a healthy persons make up they can have self respect, self esteem and self discipline which all contribute to each other. I don’t think there is anything wrong with self esteem if it is in balance and grounded in reality. With the type of person we are usually talking about here, those three elements are not in balance and their self esteem is not based in reality, they are legends in their own minds. They may excell in one or two areas and see themselves as Gods because of it but because their self esteem is so over the top they think the rest of the world should bow down in worship or that they don’t have to abide by the same standards the rest of us mere mortals do.
          Self discipline breeds self respect and self respect fuels self discipline, the two combined result in a life lived right and boosts self esteem. That’s why I see them as three facets of the same stone……when they are in balance.

        2. Unhealthy high self-esteem can be un-grounded in reality or it may be backed up with actual accomplishments.

          Either way there’s not that true appreciation of helping everyone nourish and prosper(or however you want to express it). Even when such people act as pillars of community or seem to do good things, it’s that tactic of playing the servant again at work there. Underneath that, self-bolstering matters, not merit.

          1. Yes J, in a disordered narcissistic person. But is there anything wrong with feeling good about yourself when you have done the right thing? Is there anything wrong with feeling good when you have helped someone else feel good? Is there anything wrong with taking pride and satisfaction when you push yourself just a little bit further to do something more than you felt like doing because it needed done? No, not in my opinion. That is where HEALTHY self esteem comes from.
            Of course there are plenty of people out there that do all the right things for all the wrong reasons but there are also people who do the same things because they are in the position to do so and want to help others less fortunate or down on my way home their luck. I don’t think there is anything disordered about feeling good about yourself in doing good.

    3. Absolutely, J. And stay tuned. In the series I’ll be talking about the many things that can be confused for the unwillingness to bear certain burdens and the loathing of certain things that often appear on the surface to folks to be examples of fear, low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, dependency, etc.

      1. Dr Simon, one thing also came to mind.

        The term autonomous complex is probably familiar to you all. Could that have been used to explain all kinds of instances when someone just plain has poor impulse control or says inappropriate stuff or flips out?

      2. A question again, Dr Simon.

        Since a person can be more neurotic than character-disordered and still actually be a covert-aggressor, can you also give one or more vignettes about what such personality would look like?

        I think this would be good simply so readers can have feel for different types. After all, there have been case cignettes of narcissists and borderline personalities.

  4. When someone has a savage outbursts and it’s not quite either “acting out” or “acting up”, would “flipping out” be an appropriate term? It makes sense.

    1. Comes to mind a certain then-boyfriend of a female acquaintance.

      I mentioned him in one discussion, I don’t recall which article’s comments it was, but I here tell some more I learned about the guy.

      This one woman’s boyfriend had pounced on my room’s door out of jealousy and suspicion. It later turned out, in conversation with a friend of mine, that the guy actually IS paranoid.

      He has issues with controlling his anger and apparently he was also very possessive towards her. The relationship ended, when he slammed her in a fit of rage.

      I don’t mean to demean the severity of violence. Obviously what he did is unacceptable and it’s only good that she left and severed connections. People with personality disorders mustn’t be excused, either. They have to learn to function better and take ownership of their behavior as well.

      Another example demonstrates further what I want to say, bear with me, please.

      I heard of one guy from a male acquaintance. This guy was a little bit of a doofus and didn’t have the best eye for socializing, but otherwise was friendly and easy-going, so other men from his vocational school would have had no problem accepting him into their circle. Then something went wrong in the guy’s head. He had an episode, where he crashed a car, shattered its Windows, then went to rage to some clinic. Other men experienced it as so embarrassing they no longer wanted to include him.

      It was unfortunate, certainly. I can’t know exactly what there had gone on before in that guy’s head, there are many explanations.

      However, I think “acting out” doesn’t quite cut it when desribing instances like that. I’m not really sure whether such could be called “acting up”. Perhaps either can overlap with the next one?

      It’s said that someone “flips” or “flips out”, describing an irrational, primal reaction.

    2. Hi everybody,
      I know, I know, I am tooooo late with comments on this article. However, no comment, no question…., but it would be so wonderful to have answers to J’s questions, these three, in particular.


  5. With dissociation I think I was going through this after leaving, pretty much when I had moved away and was in the first steps of getting my life back. I was upset because I didn’t think I could feel anymore. I felt so betrayed and traumatised that I was numb and it really did scare me at the time. I found it so upsetting…I’m not sure if that’s exactly what it is… but also I was so deeply in love with my ex (that sounds so unbelievable to me now) I believed all those fake good times and lived in denial/or was it belief in some warped fairytale! This confusion just nullified everything I believed about myself! Though today I felt…well ecstatic about my life! I can’t even believe I am saying it! Despite struggling financially and with all that other stuff suddenly our lives are coming together my son’s social life has taken off! I have kids coming around and he’s going out like all teenagers should be and that’s all I’ve ever wanted for him. (this never happened whilst living with my ex) It has taken a little while but it’s these little things that bring life back into your heart. I am soooo happy that he is sooo happy and both of us never would have thought a few months back it would be possible. I just wanted to share that because sometimes going through all this stuff it feels like you will never have moments to feel genuine happiness again BUT it does happen and it’s always in the little things that grow into big things…so all of you struggling at the beginning…you will feel again so don’t despair! :)

        1. Thank You Puddle :) So glad to have met you through Dr Simon’s work… your comments and words really have made a difference too! It helps to see that we all go through the same things with these people! Here’s to things getting better and happier for us all… ((hugs)) Puddle :)

          1. With you having said that, Tori, I also want to express my gladness.

            Puddle, you’ve been great to discuss with here. Even though some of the subject matters I think of aren’t directly related to those of Dr George Simon, I hope you’ve also liked exchanging thoughts on so many things.

          2. *Correction: LIKE. I’m not leaving or anything, even though I’ve never commented as often as others on this site.

          3. J, to the best of my ability to be able to like discussing things of this nature, yes…..its all been good and very enlightening. Everyone here comes from a different point of experience with this, you included. I think Tori and I have a kinship of sorts because seemingly we experienced a very similar emotional roller coaster ride. It is very validating when I read someones words OBJECTIVELY and can relate to what they are saying SUBJECTIVELY. So, as I had said a little while ago, one of the biggest signs there is that you are involved with a disordered person is that you are scouring the internet for information about disordered people. The second part of that is the !OMGawd! phase where you start reading other peoples words and hear about what happened to them and what the disordered person in their life acted like, sounded like, etc….. and keep thinking…….”that’s what HE did”! Or, “that’s how I felt”!
            I think the most damaging aspect of being involved with one of these idiots is how badly it undermines your sense of reality and how much it isolates you because people who understand what you have been through –first hand– are few and far between.
            So J, even though you yourself have not been through this in the same way as say, Tori and I have been, you have been a steadfast presence here and I can tell that you understand the outrageous nature of one of these encounters. That is very much appreciated! :)
            You and I do kind of get a little off track sometimes and I think that is because we do come from different motivations to understand but that’s ok too, right? i’m less of a theoretical thinker and more of a practical, hands on experience sorting through type and one of these encounters most definitely leaves you sorting through quite a lot. It’s another underestimated aspect to “getting over” one of these entanglements. When It’s over, it’s really not OVER for quite a while because you are basically left reliving the whole thing only with your Spath glasses on now and they certainly aren’t the rose colored ones you WERE wearing. Very very painful to say the least.
            Then there is this bitter jagged pill to swallow,,,,,,,,you may never really know the truth and may wonder about it, to varying degrees, for the rest of your life.
            I think the reason it doesn’t bother me as much as it once did is because I don’t think about it as much now, but when i do,,,,,,,like right now? Instant tears. Two years after, it is still a source of indescribable sadness when I let myself “go there”. I’ll never know why he did what he did…..I’ll never know exactly what I did or didn’t do, in his twisted view of reality, to warrant a complete emotional trashing like he delivered. All I know is that he is nothing to me now and never will be again and that I can finally say good riddance to the looser.
            Sorry for the ramble there! Thoughts and emotions flowing freely…………
            Thanks J…….

  6. Dr Simon thanks so much for this. It can’t be emphasized enough. It seems everyone who is psychologically literate (or thinks they are) has an indelible link between bullying/abuse/agression and insecurity/inadequacy/etc. built into their brain. It is really infuriating when you need people to come together and agree on how to handle somone… I can’t tell you how often I’ve loaned people your books, referred them to this website. It is a huge vocation, mission, service you have given to so many of us.

  7. Oh, the example of the girl in your article Misused Terms part 3 is MY SON. Almost exactly. I was stunned because we (my son and I) since he was 13 have seen 5
    different counselors in 6 years. And of course NONE of them figured out what the problem was or how to correctly deal with it. A million THANKS !

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