I want you to know that I use a psychological perspective a lot in my coaching practice. In fact, many psychological theories underpin my work on resonance and the models, tools, and techniques I use in resonant coaching. I do see it as crucial to our challenging as coaches and also to our energetic and resonant development. Psychology can give us some great insights into our client’s behaviors especially when they find themselves stuck.
From the work of Freud, we know that our conscious answer to the questions ‘who am I?’ is only a partial answer. This is because so much of the self is unconscious. We use defense mechanisms to distort or deny reality to protect ourselves and our sense of identity, so we don’t get too hurt or too threatened. All this adds up to the truth that we don’t know who we are at all!
Anxiety is usually a signal that we are struggling to control these desires and so we use defense mechanisms to keep threatening feelings out of our consciousness and painful thoughts out of our awareness. We stop ourselves from realizing certain things about ourselves.
We are quite sophisticated mentally speaking.
When we do this in the short term, the mechanisms are typically useful and beneficial. However, in the long run, they can become self-defeating and keep us stuck. We use defense mechanisms a bit like we use aspirin – to temporarily blunt the pain until we can get a better handle on things. And just like aspirin, it works well in small amounts but becomes toxic if we become too reliant on it.
Now we have many defense mechanisms, and I’d to raise your awareness of some of the most common. I spot these often when coaching my clients and I am sure you do too.
So let’s begin with what are called adaptive defense mechanisms and the first one has a rather grand name of “sublimation”. You will probably know this one; it’s one I know very well. Sublimation is when you channel uncomfortable emotional energy into something more socially acceptable, so instead of getting angry or hurt, you get busy. You redirect your energy to a positive goal, and you seem to have boundless energy for your project.
However, if we were to look beneath the surface, we would find that the actual source of energy is avoidance. I see this a lot with my executive clients who head to the golf course when the pressure gets extreme, and also I’ve had a few private clients who are always busy, but busy doing what?
Sometimes people will do anything rather than face their emotions, and as coaches, we can create the safe spaces to address the avoidance.
Next is Humor. When faced with painful or threatening feelings you emphasize the funny aspects of the situation. This defense works very well unless it gets out of control and irritates others. Also when working cross-culturally as a coach, humor doesn’t translate well across geographical borders. That is because humor, and sarcasm particularly, are usually culturally specific. Inappropriate humor is a warning signal and is often protecting some level of below the surface anxiety. I find with my corporate clients that some organizations allow more humor than others. If a clients main defense is humor, s/he is usually in an uptight organization. They are expressing feeling not only uncomfortable there, but also being misunderstood.
Then there is affiliation, This is very commonly found in coaching. Rather than suffer threatening feelings alone, a client will turn to others for support and comfort. Clients search for an “ear” if you like, and coaches can, and often do, provide this service. However, I would assert that, as coaches, we can do more as professionals than merely listen and affiliate.
Another defense mechanism is denial. I’m sure you are aware of the simple defense of denial. Basically things happen and we just pretend they aren’t there. They can be obvious to everyone else but we still exclude the harsh truth from our reality. I’ve known entire organizations indulge in group denial, especially if things are not going well. It can be an enormous looming crisis for which no one has an answer; it can also be the proverbial elephant in the room. An extreme version of denial is repression when talking about something is off limits. Something is simply banished from reality, with no room for discussion. It may well be the coaches remit to point out areas of organizational or personal distortion. I will often choose to bring tricky points into open discussion for the health of a company.
Finally, there are defense mechanisms that twist reality. The first of these, and probably the most familiar, is rationalization. Rationalization is where we simply change the explanation to make it more acceptable, make excuses or make things go away. We come up with the most amazing reasons for things that have already happened eg. “I didn’t want that promotion anyway.”
I’m sure you’ll also have experience of intellectualization as a defense. Intellectualization is when we ignore the emotions or the feelings and discuss pressing matters as though they were intellectual arguments. Here, even the most emotional or difficult aspects of a situation are swept under the rug of complex arguments. This can be particularly challenging when coaching in organizations. I find I often have to decide whether complicated jargon used by some executive clients is motivated defensively or is just a matter of a learned communication style.
And so to our final defense mechanism that twists reality and I’d love us to dive deeper into this one, and it is projection. As the most common, we all do it, all of the time. Think back to the last time you introduced yourself to a stranger, maybe at a networking event. Think back to what you said, what they said and what you made up as a result; that’s projection. It is the meaning we attach to whatever we hear. It’s part of how we interact with each other, and we can’t stop it.
So let’s be more conscious about projection. Let’s explore what it is actually telling us and how we can use it in our daily lives and in our coaching. Our projections take us directly to our stuff, and our client’s stuff, but how do we know which is which if we have never thought about what we are bringing to the relationship in this way?
Primarily, projection is about me and not me. Whatever I determine is me then excludes everything else so what’s not me is available for me to project onto. And I project anything that I determine is not me, whether it’s good or bad. To be fair, it isn’t always negative energy that I project (or the shadow) I can also put people on a pedestal and see how wonderful they are and it’s actually my light I see shining from them as well as their own (the halo effect).
Equally, I can project a whole lot of stuff I don’t want to admit to and make lots of people seem bad. It really is as black and white as that, and unfortunately, we do it unconsciously. The basic image I have is that it’s like looking at life through a projector lens. I see the reality of the world through my series of filters, and I then project that reality back out into the world.
I’d like to give you a quick summary on projection:
- it is to imagine what is not there
- it can be a transference when some historical information is affecting the present and inappropriate
- where we make assumptions
- and can often be embedded in many different forms of feedback
As you can see, there are many defense mechanisms that we all use quite unconsciously in different situations that when pointed out can give us a greater understanding of what is going on just beneath the surface of our awareness.