Psychological defenses('mental defense mechanisms') are normal
and universal features of the human mindthat operate consciously,
half-consciously and unconsciously to protect the ego from awareness
of difficult or painful feelings, facts and ideas. It is not the
existence of these natural and necessary mental defense mechanisms
but their maladaptive application that causes problems for people.
Without some means of screening and protection from unpleasant thoughts
and experiences no one would be able to remain sane and functional
for long. In severe psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia
there may be a weakness or failure of mental defense mechanisms
which grievously impairs the capacity of the individual to cope
with life by exposing him to the unbuffered and untamed force of
inner and outer stimuli.
Normal defense mechanisms of particular importance in the maintenance
of addictive disease include denial, paranoid projection,
avoidance, isolation of affect, rationalization and intellectualization.
In the psychodynamic hierarchy of mental defense mechanisms denial
and paranoid projection are regarded as psychotic defenses because
their fundamental character involves a severe disruption of
reality testing that causes the afflicted individual to lose touch
with consensual reality and to dwell increasingly in a world and
reality of his own. Individuals relying heavily upon primitive psychotic
mental defense mechanisms such as denial and paranoid projection
are relatively or even wholly inaccessible to corrective influences
such as logic, data, or the opinions of others. One therefore cannot
reason them out of their beliefs or persuade them to change their
minds, regardless of how compelling the contrary data and reasons
might seem to anyone but the individual 'in denial.'
Denial in this psychodynamic defensive sense must be distinguished
from lying, dishonesty and other forms of conscious and deliberate
falsification. Though there is obviously a gray zone and sort of
'No man's land' between wholly unconscious defensive psychodynamic
denial and half-conscious deliberate distortion and evasion of the
truth, the foundations of true denial rest solidly upon a
profoundly misconceived and yet firmly and unshakably believed private
version of reality that is relatively or absolutely immune
to outside influence. In conscious and deliberate deception the
individual remains aware of the difference between his own truth
claims and what he realizes is the actual truth of the matter; in
psychodynamic denial he believes his own deceptions and distortions
and therefore regards the contrary opinions of others as false and
their efforts to convince him otherwise as misguided at best and
malevolent at worst.
Harmful and ultimately painful addictive behaviors require
a bodyguard of lies, distortions, and psychotic denial to fend off
the natural corrective consequences of cognitive and behavioral
dissonance resulting from addiction. Without such an elaborate and
often amazingly sophisticated array of mystificatory and obscuring
defenses, the addictive process could not survive for long but would
melt like a polar iceberg in Mediterranean seas, destroyed by its
innate incompatibility with its environment. But when Benjamin Franklin
tersely noted that 'Those things that hurt, instruct' he could not
have been thinking of addiction: for it is precisely the lack of
instruction in the face of cumulative hurt that suggests the operation
of an addictive process concealed and protected by mental defense
mechanisms that, having become perverted or detached from their
natural survival-adaptive function of protection of the host, now
operate as defectors and mercenary troops in the service of an addiction
that is at best indifferent and at worst inimical to the prosperity
and survival of the individual.
Powerful and at times delusional as the unconscious psychotic denial
of reality is, most addicted individuals retain a sufficient commerce
with social and interpersonal reality to require the augmentation
of such primitive defense mechanisms by higher level and less drastic
measures such as rationalization, intellectualization, avoidance
and procrastination. For while psychotic denial may indeed protect
the addicted individual from seeing the proverbial 'elephant in
the living room,' he usually will be left with a certain smell and
perhaps other reminders of the presence of the elephant that must
somehow be accounted for and explained away in an agreeable manner,
i.e. in a manner that does not betray the presence of the elephant.
'It's not that bad,' or 'I am definitely going to stop - one day'
are classic evasions and rationalizations commonly found in established
addictive processes. The addict is frequently quite ingenious in
developing personal theories of his behavior that attempt to acknowledge,
even if in a minimized and diluted fashion, the destructive consequences
of his addictive behavior, while linking it with a complex, often
Byzantine web of justifications, excuses, complaints and explanations,
the bottom line of which always seems to be that 'I don't really
need to stop just yet' or 'Now is not a good time to stop.' Therapists
and others who innocently wander into this dense maze of psychological
defenses for behavior that is in many cases self-evidently irrational
and harmful not merely to the addict but often to those around him,
risk themselves becoming confused and bewildered by a blizzard
of words, ideas, and false reasons as the addictive process throws
tinfoil into the radar screens of both the addict and his
interlocutor to keep them for interfering with its continued hegemony
and behavioral expression.
Addiction Constructs Worlds and Selves
But the strategies by which addiction preserves and advances itself
are still more complex. Psychological defense mechanisms such as
those described above play a significant role in the maintenance
of most addictions. In a sense, however, they are merely superficial
and secondary aids to the addictive process, which originates and
operates at a still deeper level of the mind.
a self and a world that are congruent with its preservation and
progress; and it renders difficult if not impossible the experience
of a self and a world that are incongruent with its aims. The addictive
process eventually transforms the worldview of the addicted individual
and even realigns his sense of himself -his identity- so that they
facilitate and do not obstruct the continued expression of the addiction.
addictive consciousness is progressively organized around and constructed
by the aim of the ambition for its own gratification. This is in
most cases a gradual and insidious process which is unrecognized
by the addicted individual -the "host" for the "parasite"
of addiction. The end stage of this transformation is represented
by the addict as puppet to the addiction's puppetmaster. The addict
then exists for one purpose only: to carry out the desires and demands
of the addiction. Everything human and individual has been suppressed,
over-ridden, or shoved to the sidelines by the inexorable and irresistible
"push" of the addictive process.
Just as a powerful
river finds or creates channels around anything obstructing its
flow, so does the addictive process defeat the rational and ethical
resistances of the person within which it is active. And in the
process of constructing such alternative paths for its discharge,
the addiction shapes the reality of the addict's world and
his very notion of himself.
The worldview that is created by the addictive process is one that
is compatible with and friendly to the interests of the addiction.
Worldviews that are inconsistent with the continuation of the addiction
are suppressed or eliminated. The process is usually a slow and subtle
one progressing invisibly over many years "behind the back"
of the unsuspecting addict.
What kind of a world view is compatible
with addiction? Almost any philosophy that does not include and will
not permit happiness, healthy and balanced behavior, sustaining relationships,
rigorous honesty with and about oneself, and some kind of spiritual
connection(even though it may not be called that). Addiction thrives
best in an atmosphere of unhappiness, resentment, alienation and estrangement,
secrecy, mistrust and in most cases, ultimate despair of meaning. And
it cannot continue for long in the opposite atmosphere, i.e. one of
happiness, emotional well-being, healthy relationships and genuine
honesty. Serious addiction, therefore, necessarily points in the direction
of an unhappy and dissatisfied world view, and away from the opposite,
happier and healthier perspective. A happy addict is a contradiction
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