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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

How Tightly is Your Front Door Shut? The Preservation of Identity and Self-Esteem versus the Mature Need to be Known.

We all have a front door to our personality, and for some of us it is bolted shut.  For others of us, we open it up from time to time.  We can let others see in, or even come in for a visit.  And for still others of us, it swings open too easily. 

All counselors have had patients who seemed to use a high degree of defensiveness and denial.  This shows up on psychological tests as a high degree of defensiveness.  It can get in the way of counseling when people are overly defensive, and it can be very frustrating.  For example, I might administer a 175 question personality inventory and find that a patient has answered false on every single symptom question.  Even the healthiest of persons has some kind of symptom.  The patient is not identifying problems to work on, and they are not identifying any of their own coping mechanisms which need to be worked on.  Sessions in this case can be quite stilted, slow, and uncomfortable.  The patient may "throw a bone" to the therapist, some little problem to work on, but nothing significant.  Sometimes that changes later in the therapy process when the client is more comfortable to open up.

However, there can also be a problem when a person has an overly wide open front door.  Imagine the following scenario:  "Hello, my name is Ed.  What's your name?  I just got out of Griffin Memorial Hospital, but my schizophrenia is under control. I'm not suicidal anymore, and my medication is working just fine.  I'm going home for some pizza right now; would you like some?  It would not be wise for us to be totally transparent and let the world see everything about us; and it would not be wise for us to expose our "inner DNA"--our identity and self-esteem--for just anyone to influence or experiment with, since this is a precious commodity.

We all keep a front door closed so that the outside world does not see too much. Jung drew a distinction between the persona and the ego and the self. Normally we just let the world see our persona.

I try to be sympathetic with my patients and to realize that there is a reason whey they are the way they are, and to that end, I have come up with an explanation that makes sense to me of why some people are so defensive.

Traditionally, patient defensiveness in therapy would be seen as either a result of anxiety about opening up, or a result of low psychological mindedness.  These would remain possible reasons in my mind, and I won't discuss them here, but what also makes sense to me, is that  psychological defensiveness is protecting something very precious.

Think of a cell and its DNA.  There is one thing in a cell which it absolutely must protect.  It is right at the center.  It is the code, the DNA.  Without it, it dies.  People have a kind of DNA.  Cell DNA gives a map for the how the cell will function.  A person's identity and self esteem also tells them their path and how they will function.  Without identity a person would be lost and drifting.  Without a sense of identity it would be harder to have a sense of self-esteem.  And without self esteem the person might feel that there would no reason to even try to function.

Using this model, the resistance of some people to opening up in psychotherapy is at least somewhat logical.  The resistance to letting others see one's DNA is similar to not letting others try to change one's DNA.  The organism may be programmed to protect that core.  Just as the cell is programmed to protect its DNA core, the human being, especially after reaching the late teen years, is probably programmed to protect their identity core:  "I belong to the nation of A and the religion of B.  My clan is C.  And I will defend them to my death."  This is an identity core.  If I let you see into my core too closely, however, you may see my uncertainties, and then you may want to change me.  That threatens what I have been taught.  Moreover, if I did change my identity it would require a great deal of energy. 

Teenagers are often loathe to open up in counseling about their problems and about their identity.  They particularly don't seem to want to open up about their problems to adults, and again, I think this makes sense.  They have finally started to have a clear sense of identity, and they don't want to start over.  Of course, they are not necessarily thinking in these exact terms.  I suspect that what they are actually thinking is, "Why is this shrink talking nonsense?  I'll just go along with him to the extent I have to, to get him and my parents off my back."  But his organism and genetic code may be thinking (not really "thinking," but sort of), "I have to preserve the important formative experiences of my identity.  I've got the truth now about who I am, and even if I am not totally sure it all makes sense, I can't start over now."

Here is a second analogy.  Imagine a sci-fi thriller movie in which the crew is in hibernation.  They wake up and find reason to suspect that their computer guidance system software has become corrupted.  The spatial coordinates in the computer are not quite right.  But on the other hand, those coordinates are all they have.  They can't call home, especially if they don't know which direction to point the antenna.  Even though the information in the computer is not quite right, the crew would fight to preserve that flight computer and its coordinates, because it is all they have.  Now, in the same way, we are probably programmed to defend our inner identity because it is all we have.

It takes a very mature person to be able to select the right therapist, open up their front door just the right amount, and then allow dialogue with their therapist with the aim of changing their internal identity and sense of direction.  Then, after a correction, the front door has to be closed once again.  The therapist has to be told goodbye in a mature fashion (see my blog on saying goodbye to the therapist), and the person goes on with their new set of inertial coordinates, their slightly altered sense of identity and coping abilities.

Some people are never ever able to open the door and let see someone else see in. They are never able to open the window shades and let a therapist have a chance to help them alter their inner DNA so as to feel better, have a happier and more productive life and so on.

Finding the balance between adequate self-protectiveness and reasonable openness to correction is difficult.  It can be hard to find a balance between protecting our inner DNA code and being mature enough and strong enough that we can let someone else see in and help us with some of our internal issues.