Watch out for this defense mechanism

You are involved, say, with a pathologically self-centered personality, perhaps a narcissist or sociopath?

That is, he wants what he wants when he wants it, and he’ll do whatever’s necessary (his entitlement) to get it, or take it.

Key diagnostic trait: he reserves the right to punish you when you obstruct his agenda.

Now here’s the thing: in the heat of the moment, you may actually be pretty good at confronting his abuse. Maybe you stand up for yourself pretty effectively? Maybe, in the moment, you’re even pretty good at setting limits and challenging his nonsense?

So then what’s the problem?

The problem occurs when you step away from these incidents.

In stepping away from them, you potentially risk enacting your own form of compartmentalization, by which I mean that, while in the moment you may address his abuse with some backbone, yet beyond the moment you effectively “drop the ball” by failing to process, and own, the greater pattern.

It’s a case of our seeing the trees in the forest just fine, yet somehow, defensively, ensuring that we fail to see the forest through the trees.

I’m referring, of course, to a kind of defense mechanism with which some—not all—of us may be familiar?

As I suggested, strategically this defense mechanism deploys a form of compartmentalization, while tactically it assumes forms of denial, minimization and avoidance (of reality).

What precisely is the function and, more importantly, the danger of this defense mechanism?

Its function, I suspect, is to prevent us from connecting the dots; that is, our failure (defensively) to connect the dots enables our avoidance of confronting the greater pattern that underlies the series of incidents.

So long as we address the “abusive incidents” separately—as discreet events—thereby defensively ignoring their wider pattern, then we can rationalize more easily our “staying in” the relationship with a kind of pseudo-dignity and pseudo self-respect.

To be clear, we achieve this self-compromise by reframing the abuse as a series of brushfires to be troubleshot on an ongoing basis, much like a manageable chronic illness.

And especially if, as I’ve noted, we’re pretty good at this—somewhat effective, that is, at confronting these brushfires on a case by case basis—then it becomes easier to compartmentalize in the manner I’m describing.

The danger, of course, is how this defensive process—in its reframing of the exploitation as a series of disconnected, but manageable, events—supports our denial that the relationship has, in fact, been globally and fatally compromised by the exploitation.

This highlights, yet again, the basic conundrum of defense mechanisms: the protection they confer is so often exceeded, unfortunately, by their cost to our well-being and, sometimes, integrity.

(My use of “he” in this article was for strictly for convenience’s sake, not to imply that females aren’t capable of the behaviors discussed. This article is copyrighted © 2009 by Steve Becker, LCSW.)

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Kathy thanks for your encouragement – I have written some shorts, but unfortunately don’t have the technical skills to make them – I am meeting with a group of film makers soon so maybe that will change. I do feel a real need to express this in some way. I am writing a book about the aftermath – it’s more about me and this processing than what actually happened.

I don’t want you to feel bad about what you wrote – I don’t think there was a lack of compassion there. There was realism there and brutal honesty with yourself. You are miles ahead of me in healing from all this and to briefly go back to where you were to s how a path for the rest of us showed that you have compassion in bucketloads – you have it for people who deserve it this time around. We should always maintain our compassion, but be choosy in who we offer it to whether in person or in heart. There is nothing wrong in seeing the humour in a situation or expressing your frustration with something – that doesn’t equal loss of compassion.

I had a flash about your story – I am wondering whether it is you who needs to write. I know for myself, I was avoiding the pain of rejection for myself by supporting him even though I knew he was a hopeless cause – it reminded me a bit of parents who live through their children’s lives and encourage the children to pursue the dreams they couldn’t.

So you are a marvellous writer – what short stories would you write if you were the published author? The themes of darkness irritate you – what do you want to write? You are so correct in saying these relationships are a mirror for us. I supported him because I was too scared to pursue that for myself so when he failed despite my support, it hurt like hell, because it meant I also failed by proxy.

Pity is arrogant in my mind and shows a looking down on someone from above, whereas compassion in its true sense is loving understanding. I don’t want either of those for the P. He is not worthy of them. I don’t know how I want to think of him in the future. I don’t want to associate anger, fear, depression, despair, sorrow, pity or compassion or love with him. So at the moment he is a blank that I can impose the particular wave feeling of the day or hour on as I cycle through rage, anger, sadness, regret and all the other fine emotions I would like to forget.

I think it was Oxy? who referred to pity being a motivational emotion. This motivation to help is called a ‘motivational displacement’ in educational terms. It means we take our motivation away from ourselves and place it on a person we love and we use our powers to help them in any way they can to achieve their goals. It’s a beautiful concept. But I can honestly say I don’t get this feeling for everyone I pity. For example, I share a mix of pity and disgust for parents who are (and I am stereotyping here!) lower class, no education and treat their children as objects.

I watched a group up the street yesterday = the adults were all standing around a car while music blasted from it with explicit lyrics. Children ran around in nappies dancing to it. I pity those children and feel disgust about the stupidity of the parents. But my fear of them would stop me from intervening unless there was direct evidence of abuse happening. I don’t have any evidence they don’t feed, clothe and look after their children, but I equally believe they don’t engage their minds or relate to them as equal human beings with rights. They are stupid people who care for their own wellbeing only. So that’s a bit of pity that doesn’t include a motivational displacement. I very much doubt they would appreciate me sticking my nose in and telling them what the children need from them.

Kathleen = one thing from your previous post about the writer. It showed me and probably others too that you still have your struggles with this. That was a very brave thing of you to do – again it wasn’t about him – it was about you and your feelings around this. You are human. At times I have wondered if you are like an ancient Greek temple or some otherworldly sage come to give us the path – you have such wisdom about all of our confusion and pain. So thankyou for sharing it with us and thankyou for sharing your analysis of processing today. You are a model of someone who has such huge self awareness and honesty – even when it hurts you, that it is inspirational to me. I hope – sincerely hope I get to that place. And I am sorry if what you are reading here is triggering you – that can’t be easy when you thought you were right out of the woods.

So this is a waffley post! I think compassion is a beautiful thing and am glad to have recovered mine – it was a bit scarred and scared after the P. However I am not indiscriminately compassionate now – this is part of what got me into trouble with the P in the first place. I measure up and look at the situation to decide ‘does this person deserve my loving understanding or not?’ Compassion can lead us to sacrifice ourselves for someone else – it is more than just a warm fuzzy feeling that resides in the heart – it calls us to action to right wrongs and make situations just. I want to know my actions are for someone who deserves them and more than that – that they actually need my help. I have a tendency to rush in and take over in my efforts to please.

Other people are capable of handling their own lives in most cases so my compassion can take smaller actions such as listening and being present with the person, spiritually companioning them through a tough time, or asking them what they would like from me. Most of all though, I am using my compassion for myself at the moment – it is a salve to my soul and allows me to forgive myself my stupidity that got me into so much trouble. When I am much better, I can share that compassion with deserving others – not with everyone!

Oxy – I have read that book The Games People Play – brilliant book and I so recognised a few of the dynamics present in the relationship. I also think checking out fb was breaking nc and that’s why I suffered the consequences of being upset about it.

Oxy, I must be doing a terrible job of expressing myself. That was my way of dealing with it. Going through the process. I just did it in front of everyone.

Regarding the word pity, I never suggested it was the same as compassion. Pity clearly seeing that this person is less than you in some way. It may not be their fault. They may be disadvantaged or have some other reason to have fewer resources. But pity is a valid emotion. If we say “oh, you poor thing,” we’re also saying something about ourselves, speaking from a position of relative superiority, even if it’s just the objectivity that comes from not being inside their suffering.

I think that this is why the concept of pity raises so much confusion. If we’re better off than they are, isn’t it our ethical or spiritual responsibility to share what we have and bail them out? The Good Samaritan thing you mention.

The operative question is whether we’re “”obligated.” And my take on it is that we’re not obligated to help, if it infringes on our own ability to survive. So, can we feel pity and not help? Of course, we can. It makes us uncomfortable, perhaps. If we turn away, we may feel like we’ve acquired a bit of karmic debt that we need to work off by giving to charity or doing something like that when we have something to spare. But if we can’t feel pity and be conscious of our own needs at the same time, our only option is to block pity from our emotional system, and that creates risk of us becoming heartless in the face of other people’s suffering. Sometimes, we have to feel and not doing anything about it.

As far as you being emotionally destabilized right now, at the risk of sounding insufficiently compassionate, have you considered that it’s actually a good thing? Instead of denying or stuffing it, you’re processing the blow. You’re doing it on the spot. You’re sufficiently comfortable with processing it that you’re sharing it with us in real time. You’re reaching out for support. You’re doing all the right things to work through it.

You seem to be surprised you’re having these feelings. You said that you got knocked off your position of feeling like you figured everything out. And you’re talking about being in the woods again, as if this is something bad. Oxy, sweetheart, this is life. We figure life out, and then lie throws us another challenge. If we really did figure it out, we catch it and toss it back without even noticing. But if we still have something left to learn, we feel boinked by the cosmic skillet and we have to go through the process again to learn that smidge of lesson we didn’t get last time.

Maybe what you’re learning this time is that you’re not invulnerable. Than any time you try to accomplish anything, you risk disappointment, loss and pain. So here you are, working through your ouch-y to figure out what the lesson is. I’m sure I’ve mentioned my wonderful minister, who used to say, “God, I know this is a lesson, and I’m ready to learn it, really I am, if you’ll just let me know what I’m supposed to be figuring out.” Midstream in the learning process is always a kind of hell. And it’s usually not because we have to be in pain to learn, but because we’ve got our heals dug in, resisting it.

You mentioned that I was breaking NC. Don’t I know it. (See item #7.) Didn’t you read my bargaining with that lesson. But I invested all that money in his writing. It’s the one thing I might be able to get back for it, knowing that he at least is turning out meaningful work. I have a right to see how my investment came out.

Yadda yadda. So that’s the lesson. If I give him head space, I just get something else to be mad about, and my reward is to go through yet another round of processing. And it’s entirely in my hands whether I want to keep doing that or take (yet another chunk of) my life back. Or put another way, do I want to keep feeling like a victim, or put my attention on things that actually make me happy or feel like I’m accomplishing something. Other than clawing my way back to emotional stability.

GeminiGirl, I agree with you about compassion. And I’m generally cheering when I reading your posts these days. You have moved so far from the days when you were asking people if you were entitled to feel as hurt as you did.

I mention that because the precursor to feeling compassion for other people is to feel compassion for ourselves. To accept that we did the best we could, at any time in our lives, given what we knew and what we had to work with. And that we deserve kindness, understanding and acknowledgement — from ourselves first. We are our first judge, and usually the only one who can judge us, because we are the only one who knows the whole story. (Unless you want to count God, and I look at God’s attitude toward me as a guide to how I feel about myself. God forgives me, but God also wants me to learn, so I don’t keep suffering needlessly.)

The concepts of pity, empathy, sympathy and compassion are not clearly differentiated in our language. But my understanding of compassion — feeling for another person’s condition in a pure way that isn’t tangled up with any other demands, including fixing them — requires the same level of acceptance of myself. I may want to fix things in me or for other people, but that’s not driven by compassion. Most often it’s driven by my discomfort with my own feelings. I feel embarrassed or guilty or upset with the general psychic noise around me, and I want to make myself more comfortable.

True compassion respects another person’s circumstances and is humble enough to also accept that this may have nothing to do with us. The world is full of beauty. It’s also full of suffering. Often they are related. And sometimes, the best thing we can do is to simply observe and feel our feelings.

You wrote about depression being suppressed anger. And how it may finally explode. If that is finally happening for you, you’re going to be hell on wheels for a while. You might consider alerting your husband and your adopted kids that you might be a little snappish for a bit, but it has nothing to do with them. They just might want to give you a some space right now.

I suspect you’ll get through this fast. You’ve been working up to it for a long time, and all you ever really needed to accept (you already learned it) was that you didn’t ask for this, you didn’t create it, and there was never anything you could do about it. So you really can let yourself off the hook, and just start letting go of any residual demands that it be different now. You are so close already, and have been for a while. If it was up to you, it would all been different. It just was out of your hands.

Affectionately —


Ox Drover

Dear Kathy,

You are right about the “semantics” in English of Pity, empathy and compassion being easily confused.

Probably compassion is a better word for what the “Good Samaritain” felt for the injured man on the road, but though he was NOT “obligated” to do anything and he had not caused the man’s trouble, he was moved to do something to help the man without any thought of reward for himself, he was altruistic completely, whereas the others that passed by had no pity or compassion or empathy, but felt themselves “too busy” or “too important” to help someone less fortunate than they.

The same lesson, I think is taught in the story of the “Rich man and Lazerus” the begger at his door. The rich man had no obligation to help the begger, and from the way I read the story didn’t even notice the man begging there, even to feel pity, compassion or empathy. He didn’t kick the man, just ignored his suffering, and failed to even give the better the SCRAPS from his table, or to tell a servant to throw him the left overs from the table.

I do NOT want to be so callous that I cannot have compassion on others, or to not have empathy for those that are truly suffering—the psychopaths have no empathy, and though the “rich man” and the ones who passed by the beaten traveler had failed to have compassion, empathy or pity enough to motivate them to help they may not have been psychopaths, because even those of us with empathy, compassion or pity sometimes fail to ACT on those emotions for one reason or another.

Sure, I am vunerable to being “blind sided” or “hooked” or “fooled” BECAUSE I love, I do have empathy, compassion and pity (not using pity as an arrogant looking down on) for others who have less than I do, or who are injured. I AM willing to share what I have or to stop and pull someone out of a ditch—-I no longer pick up hitch hikers though, because I perceive there might be SERIOUS danger to me involved, but I will pull up beside someone who is broken down on the freeway, and make a phone call for them from inside the safety of my car. Or I will call the highway police and notify them that someone is broken down. If there is a wreck, I will call 911 and if it looks like medical assistance is needed, get out and do what I can immediately, but I will NOT give unprotected CPR to ANYONE I don’t know—I keep a mask in my car along with other safety equipment including gloves and bandages. So I both offer assistance AND protect myself in a logical and safe way. But I can’t imagine driving by a woman broken down on the freeway or a man for that matter that was in obvious need of help and not doing what I could (without endangering myself). I wouldn’t want to be the kind of person who could view DISTRESS and not take action. I wouldn’t want to pass by someone in ACUTE need and not even give them a thought.

I realize I can’t solve all the problems in the world by giving a few bucks to a homeless person or calling 911 for a woman broken down on the freeway, but in my life I have “Entertained angels unawares” when people stopped at the wreck I had and offered assistance when I lay there pregnent and with broken bones, or when I was nearly homeless and someone offered a word of comfort….I cannot repay those people directly (or the people here on LOVEFRAUD who have offered me support and comfort) but I can “pass it on” to others in need.

Like you said to Gemini, “it would have been different” if I had control over the outcome, but I don’t have control over anyone except myself.

I realize that loving someone and trusting someone is a RISK and the more we love and the more we trust, the MORE RISK of hurt. But I sure don’t want to be without the ability to love or the ability to trust someone else. How awful that would be….heck, if I was like that, I would be like the psychopaths because they can’t love, and they can’t truly trust, because they think everyone is like them. I know everyone is NOT like me though, but I am glad that there are others who can love, who do love and who DO trust. I’d much rather live through the pain of betrayal than to have never have loved or trusted at all. Thanks, Kathy.


I have seen in myself…..the setting of boundaries…
Redetermining what we will take and what’s worth it in our lives…and WHO is worth it in our lives….
I think the process involves ….at some point….the reevaluation of all our relationships….
I see a lot of us doing this…..
I do believe it’s something we SHOULD be doing and is healthy for us…..we should just take it slow…..
I guess….we could ax everyone for all the things we have been wronged for…..
But again…re evaluating and ‘teaching’ people how to treat us is maybe key.
It’s all about balance!


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