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.)