The English word “ego” derives from the Latin word for “I,” and in a general sense, it refers to a person’s sense of personal importance. Some Christians may bristle at the first consideration of this concept, thinking that it means an inflated self-importance; however, it defines a healthy balance in terms of protective self-interest. A human being must have a degree of self-interest for survival; otherwise, they would experience a dysfunctional fatalistic despair and a sense of futility. Jesus instructed to love one’s neighbor as one loves and cares for self, and from this, I believe that the Bible supports its own concept of ego or what some define as “self-esteem.” I don’t necessarily agree with the whole concept of “ego” as some theories in psychoanalysis define the term, but I find a great deal of value in the general concept from the way Scripture relates it. The next verse that comes to my own mind was written by Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians, instructing men to love their wives in the way that they love, care, and provide for their own bodies. Love and care of others flows from the intrinsic sense of love and care that one naturally has for one’s self.
When a person senses that their integrity or psychological safety has been threatened, they employ a host of possible responses that help to preserve their integrity. Certain professional disciplines assign the term “ego defense mechanisms” to these various responses which are like psychological strategies that help us navigate through the stressors. Whenever we encounter new information that does not strongly support what we already know or when we learn that others differ from us, our “ego” feels at risk. To help preserve our sense of self so that we can learn and cope, ideally, we do so in a way that is appropriate for our age and the situation at hand. Depending on how deep the threat feels to us, how many supportive resources we have available to us in the moment, and how strong we feel at the time, we often adapt by relying upon defense mechanisms of an earlier phase of development.
If a stressor strikes a mature adult very deeply and threatens their basic sense of survival (as opposed to something that we merely find irritating), that individual might use a more “primitive” defense that is generally more typical of the coping strategy used by adolescents or children. For example, it is not socially acceptable for adults to cry or show rage in public, but if faced with immediate and very tragic and personal news in a public setting, crying or showing open anger in public would be understandable for an adult. However, consistent and habitual use of more primitive ego defenses such as a lack of self-control in public presents social problems for adults. Ideally, an adult will rely on “mature ego defenses” which include altruism (helping others instead of focusing on problems), affiliation (seeking out of others for support), humor, self-assertion, and sublimation (acting out impulses in a socially acceptable way). Suppression is another, and this can be considered a very Biblical one of self-control. Suppression (that does not deteriorate into avoidance) involves a conscious choice to dwell on “whatsoever things are good” by "casting down imaginations.”
Defending the Ego
Some theory classifies these coping strategies according to the age at which these coping strategies naturally begin to emerge as an individual grows and develops. These strategies also reflect a sense of ethics. Children focus on self-interest because they lack the intellectual ability to consider other perspectives. They are the center of the world. (For an adult who feels threatened, like a drowning man who is fighting to get to a place of safety that allows for him to breathe, it is appropriate to focus only on the self temporarily in order to survive.) Older children and adolescents begin to develop a “rules-focused” perspective, and fulfilling established obligations determines what is right or wrong. Self-worth relies heavily upon performance. Ideally, adults demonstrate mature coping strategies determined by that which accommodates, respects, and balances the different standards that vary among individuals. Independent thought and consideration guides the weighing of alternatives for the most moral option and course of action. The rules-focused ethic operates statically by means of an algorithm of black and white possibilities that are determined by rules, but the mature ethic operates by means of critical thought which is informed by ethical rules.
Depending on the immediacy or magnitude of a stressor, critical thought might be a luxury for an adult. Depending on the situation, a mature adult may employ any coping strategy from any stage of earlier development. Dysfunction emerges from an overuse or excessive, habitual use of primitive defense strategies, lacking a willingness or ability to balance protective self-interest and compliance with rules with respect of and tolerance for others.
How is this relevant in counter-cult witnessing?
In addition to helping us understand ourselves, we can also consider the defense mechanisms we observe in others in order to help improve our relationships and our ability to effectively communicate. If we tell a person something that they find very stressful, noticing their responses may give us information that we are pushing too hard or relating too much information too fast. We can change our approach to information, or we may realize that we should go back to affirm and validate the person through encouragement (“exhortation”) or a reminder of shared interest. (“We both believe in the same virtue and seek the same goal, even though you don’t like what I say.”) It also helps to remain mindful that the threatened person does not see “the big picture” because of their necessity for self-focus.
I find that consideration of these defense mechanisms helps me to understand the perspectives or others – “where they are coming from.” This is especially important to me when subject matter becomes more emotionally challenging. In addition to observing body posture with voice tone/tenor for signs of change or stress, I listen to the types of feedback I receive from the other person. By having some sense of what defenses tend to typify certain age groups, I get a sense of whether the person feels threatened. These considerations advise me how to proceed in the conversation or whether I should proceed at all.
Some Common Defense Mechanisms
When witnessing to people who embrace cultic belief systems that tend to view life from an ethical position that is more “rules-focused” in the black and white terms that the cultic system demands, I tend to and expect to see the other party rely upon certain and predicable defenses.
Denial or distortion (of external reality).
We see children utilize denial all the time. “No it isn’t.” “I didn’t do it.” “I won’t spill this glass of milk that is teetering on the edge of the table near my flailing arms.” They lack the ability to anticipate consequences, so they deny reality that is beyond their ability to comprehend.
A dear friend has a son who loves to watch Spongebob on TV, but he does not understand that it is broadcast at a set time every day. When he decides that he’s interested in watching it, he tells his mother that he’s sure that if she turns on the TV, Spongebob will be playing. For several weeks, this mother and son had daily discussions about this aspect of reality. The child relied upon a distorted reality, partly through denial and partly through distortion. Another typical distortion would be to accuse another of lying because of painful and uncomfortable doubt of reality that threatens the person’s sense of integrity, a denial that is hopefully temporary until the truth of reality can be validated and processed psychologically. If facts demonstrate something different than the person’s comprehension, upon first hearing these painful facts, they may believe that the facts “can’t be true.”
For adults, this response is very typical because of cognitive dissonance. For example, if a doctor informs a patient that they have cancer, the patient may deny it and seek a second opinion. (Note that denial in this hypothetical example, in and of itself, is a self-focused response, but the action taken to resolve the dissonance is mature – the seeking of a second opinion, and it suggests that the denial my only be a temporary state.) Take note that when the stress that provoking the denial is great, and any additional information you give at this time will likely not be processed because of the process of cognitive dissonance. If the doctor informing the patient of a frightening diagnosis also has complicated and technical instructions to give, the patient very likely will fail to comprehend these details because they are consumed with the magnitude of the diagnosis. Often during these types of situations, the doctor will call upon other resources to help the patient, such as literature that can be reviewed later or through additional consults with other personnel.
When witnessing to others about deeply held beliefs, something deeply personal, consider that denial or distortion will likely manifest. An initial response might be to dismiss your challenge of their doctrine or practice as “lies” or unwarranted, unreasonable criticism. But if you consider that the individual bases identity and worth upon the object of your criticism, it becomes easier to understand that your challenge threatens their integrity on a very deep level in a very personal way. Anticipation of this denial helps you feel less defensive yourself so that you can understand that the person is not responding to you as much as they are responding to the threat of the information itself. And like the doctor who has just “unloaded” a terrible diagnosis on a patient, consider that if the person to whom you’re talking is quite angry their denial or distortion responses (with “acting out” emerging as a second defense mechanism), they may not be able to process any more details at that time.
Many people find confrontation or assertiveness very difficult or threatening. Our social mores also encourage us to say only pleasant things, and it is often very painful to cope with another person’s rejection of our ideas. For this reason, many people will repress their feelings or what they want to say in the moment. But over time, the feelings do not dissipate, and the emotion is later released in a way that is disproportionate to the situation at hand. Passiveness turns into aggression. Or people may pretend to be accepting of a statement someone makes, but they express their anger in a way that is unrelated directly to the offensive issue. (Person A offends person B. Person B says nothing but then refuses to cooperate agreeably with Person A regarding several other unrelated matters.) Particularly for Christians who have been in very restrictive and high-demand groups, they have been punished for true and direct expression of their concerns and feelings. They’ve been conditioned to deny themselves and their true feelings. They have been taught and encouraged to be passive-aggressive as a religious rite and virtue.
In the situation where Person A has offended Person B who passively masks his response directly, if Person B lets the air out of the tires of Person A’s car in retaliation, this is “acting out” in a show of aggression. Children tend to do this same type of thing to express their anger because they lack the skill and ability to problem-solve.
Projection involves the taking of impulses and feelings that one feels themselves and attributing them to someone else to reduce their own internal stress. Children often use this defense to cope with jealousy and strong desire. “You want what I have!” When engaged in an argument, if the person arguing starts calling their opponent “stupid,” often the person feels stupid themselves. (We speak out of the intent and treasure of our hearts, revealing much about our thoughts and motives.)
When a person feels overwhelmed with discomfort at their own response, they will claim that the opposite is true because the truth is painful and threatening. This often goes hand-in-hand with passive-aggression, fantasy, and wishful thinking.
Rationalization. When faced with uncomfortable facts, ideas, or choices, the individual creatively constructs incorrect, self-serving explanations to justify themselves and preserve the integrity of their sense of self. Rationalization does not involve direct denial which ignores factors but rather uses disavowal to negate reality or alter it to make it seem and feel more acceptable.
Fantasy-based responses: Devaluation, Idealization, and Splitting.
Like rationalization, fantasy-based responses also involve disavowal to negate some aspect of reality as opposed to completely ignoring troubling factors. When an individual cannot reckon conflicting aspects of conflicting thoughts and painful feelings, they can cope by “splitting,” a viewing of matters or people as entirely bad or entirely good. This coping strategy employs fantasy to split the subject of consideration into its good and bad qualities, then ignoring one of these aspects to see the whole in terms of one aspect only. Idealization describes focus on only the positive aspects of the subject while ignoring and denying the negative ones. Devaluation describes focus on only the negative aspects of the subject while ignoring or denying the positive aspects. In childhood, this over-simplification benefits and protects the child who cannot anticipate consequences and problem-solve. Use of splitting in adults generally indicates and manifests as an element of pathology.
In order to cope with the difficulties of chronic distress or abuse, a person can cope by identifying and bonding emotionally with their abuser. The individual identifies them self and cooperates with the aggressor because they have no functional capacity to resist. Under situations of total helplessness or learned helplessness, this coping mechanism helps the individual survive psychologically and emotionally.
In terms of counter-cult witnessing, these are the primary ego defenses that I have observed, but coping mechanisms are certainly not limited to this list. But accounting for these responses can help you understand the person and the reactions of that person to material and the challenges that you present to them as you encourage them to broaden their own perspective. Knowing about these responses can help you act wisely and choose meek and patient measures while you are giving an account and defending your own faith. And in terms of idealistic groups that employ manipulation, spiritual abuse, and thought reform techniques, knowledge of the group’s focus on performance, rules, and merited salvation through works can help you have compassion for individuals who employ the more primitive coping mechanisms that they were likely taught in their group.
The next post will discuss a scenario wherein defense mechanisms were employed to cope with the cognitive dissonance when confronting an individual with uncomfortable information about their religious group.
More to come…