How can you communicate with people who seem to be out of touch with reality and rational thought? Once you understand why these people behave so irrationally, you can communicate more effectively with them.
A neighbor was insistent that people have no right to carry firearms because he didn’t want to be murdered if one of his neighbors had a “bad day.” I responded by asking him why he thought his neighbors wanted to murder him, and, of course, got no response.
How does my neighbor “know” that his neighbors would murder him if they had guns? He doesn’t. What he was really saying was that if he had a gun, he might murder his neighbors if he had a bad day, or if they took his parking space, or played their stereos too loud. This is an example of what mental health professionals call projection – unconsciously projecting one’s own unacceptable feelings onto other people, so that one doesn’t have to own them. In some cases, the intolerable feelings are projected not onto a person, rather onto an inanimate object, such as a gun, so that the person projecting believes the gun itself will murder him.
Projection is a defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological mechanisms that protect us from feelings that we cannot consciously accept. They operate without our awareness, so that we don’t have to deal consciously with “forbidden” feelings and impulses. Thus, if you asked my neighbor if he really wanted to murder his neighbors, he would vehemently deny it, and insist that other people want to kill him.
Projection is a particularly insidious defense mechanism, because it not only prevents a person from dealing with his own feelings, it also creates a world where he perceives everyone else as directing his own hostile feelings back at him. All people have violent, and even homicidal, impulses. For example, it’s common to hear people say “I’d like to kill my boss,” or “If you do that one more time I’m going to kill you.” They don’t actually mean that they’re going to, or even would, kill anyone; they’re simply acknowledging anger and frustration. All of us suffer from fear and feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. Most people can acknowledge feelings of rage, fear, frustration, jealousy, etc. without having to act on them in inappropriate and destructive ways.
Some people, however, are unable consciously to admit that they have such “unacceptable” emotions. They may have higher than average levels of rage, frustration, or fear. Perhaps they fear that if they acknowledge the hostile feelings, they will lose control and really will hurt someone. They may believe that “good people” never have such feelings, when in fact all people have them.
This is especially true now that education “experts” commonly prohibit children from expressing negative emotions or aggression. Instead of learning that such emotions are normal, and that destructive behavior needs to be managed, children now learn that feelings of anger are evil, dangerous and subject to severe punishment. To protect themselves from “being bad,” they are forced to use defense mechanisms to avoid owning their own normal emotions. Unfortunately, using such defense mechanisms inappropriately can endanger their mental health; children need to learn how to deal appropriately with reality, rather than how to avoid it.
Another defense mechanism commonly utilized is denial. Denial is simply refusing to accept the reality of a given situation. For example, consider a woman whose husband starts coming home late, has strange perfume on his clothes, and starts charging flowers and jewelry on his credit card. She may get extremely angry at a well-meaning friend who suggests that her husband is having an affair. The reality is obvious, but the wronged wife is so threatened by her husband’s infidelity that she is unable to accept it, and so denies its existence.
Reaction formation occurs when a person’s mind turns an unacceptable feeling or desire into its complete opposite. For example, a child who is jealous of a sibling may exhibit excessive love and devotion for the hated brother or sister.
Likewise, a person who harbors murderous rage toward his fellow humans may claim to be a devoted pacifist and refuse to eat meat or even kill a cockroach. Often such people take refuge in various spiritual disciplines and believe that they are “superior” to “less civilized” folks who engage in “violent behavior” such as hunting. They may devote themselves to “animal welfare” organizations that proclaim that the rights of animals take precedence over the rights of people. This not only allows the angry person to avoid dealing with his rage, it allows him actually to harm the people he hates without having to know he hates them.
This is not meant to disparage the many wonderful people who are pacifists, spiritually inclined, vegetarian, or who support animal welfare. The key issue is not the belief itself, but rather the way in which the person experiences and lives his beliefs. Sincere practitioners seek to improve themselves, or to be helpful in a gentle, respectful fashion. They work to persuade others peacefully by setting an example of what they believe to be correct behavior. Sincere pacifists generally exhibit good will towards others, even towards persons with whom they might disagree on various issues.
Contrast the sincere pacifist or animal lover with the strident, angry person who wants to ban meat and who believes murdering hunters is justified in order to “save the animals” – or the person who wants to outlaw self-defense and believes innocent people have the obligation to be raped and murdered for the good of society. For example, noted feminist Betty Friedan said “that lethal violence even in self-defense only engenders more violence.” The truly spiritual, pacifist person refrains from forcing others to do what he believes, and is generally driven by positive emotions, while the angry person finds “socially acceptable” ways to harm, abuse, or even kill, his fellow man.
Gandhi, in an interview with life magazine when asked about the use of pacifism against Hitler, said, “it could not be used without a lot of causalities.”
DEFENSE MECHANISMS ARE NORMAL
All of us use them to some extent, and their use does not imply mental illness. Some defense mechanisms, however, are healthier than others. A safe general rule is that a defense is healthy if it helps you to function better in your personal and professional life, and unhealthy if it interferes with your life, your relationships, or the well-being of others. Young children utilize projection and denial much more commonly than do healthy adults. On the other hand, “if projection is used as a defense mechanism to a very great extent in adult life, the user’s perception of external reality will be seriously distorted.”
Defense mechanisms are also frequently combined, so that a person may use several defense mechanisms simultaneously. For example, a client uses projection to create a world in which all his neighbors want to murder him. As a result, he becomes more angry and fearful, and needs to employ even more defense mechanisms to cope. So he uses projection to attribute his own rage to others, he uses denial that there is any danger to protect himself from a world where he believes he is helpless and everyone wants to murder him, and he uses reaction formation to try to control everyone else’s life because his own is so horribly out of control.
DEFENSE MECHANISMS DISTORT REALITY
Because defense mechanisms distort reality in order to avoid unpleasant emotions, the person who uses them has an impaired ability to recognize and accept reality.
THE COMMON THREAD: RAGE
In my experience, the common thread in “anti-this or that” people is rage. Either “anti-this or that” people harbor more rage than others, or they’re less able to cope with it appropriately. Because they can’t handle their own feelings of rage, they are forced to use defense mechanisms in an unhealthy manner. They wrongly perceive others as seeking to harm them. So why do “anti-this or that” people have so much rage and why are they unable to deal with it in appropriate ways? Consider for a moment that the largest and most hysterical “anti-this or that” groups include disproportionately large numbers of women, African-Americans and Jews. And virtually all of the organizations that claim to speak for these “oppressed people” are stridently “anti-this or that.” Not coincidentally, among Jews, Blacks and women there are many “professional victims” who have little sense of identity outside of their victimhood.
IDENTITY AS VICTIM
If I were to summarize this in three sentences, they are:
• People who identify themselves as “victims” harbor excessive amounts of rage at other people, whom they perceive as “not victims.”
• In order psychologically to deal with this rage, these “victims” utilize defense mechanisms that enable them to harm others in socially acceptable ways, without accepting responsibility or suffering guilt, and without having to give up their status as “victims.”
• Responsible self-actualized adults are frequently the targets of professional victims because they are willing and able to prevent their own victimization.
Thus the concept of “identity as victim” is essential. How and why do members of some groups choose to identify themselves as victims and teach their children to do the same? While it’s true that women, Jews, and African-Americans have historically been victimized, they now participate in American society on an equal basis. And other groups, most notably Asian-Americans, have been equally victimized, and yet have transcended the “eternal victim” mentality.
Why, for example, would a 6’10” NBA player who makes $10 million a year see himself as a “victim”? Why would a successful, respected, wealthy, Jewish physician regard himself as a “victim”? Conversely, why might a wheelchair bound woman who lives on government disability NOT regard herself as a victim?
I offer this; it’s because the basketball player and the physician believe that their identities are dependent on being victims – not because they have actually been victimized, but because they are members of groups that claim victim status. Conversely, the disabled woman was probably raised to believe that she is responsible for her own success or failure no matter her perceived limitations.
SPECIAL TREATMENT AND MISLEADING LEADERS
These groups of people have been indoctrinated to believe that there is no alternative to remaining a victim forever. Their leaders remind them constantly that they are mistreated in every imaginable way (Most of them imaginary!), attribute every one of life’s misfortunes to “racism” or “sexism” or “hate crimes,” and dream up ever more complex schemes for special treatment and favors. These leaders are the ones who preach that the entire Black experience is slavery and racism, or that Jewish history before and after the Holocaust is irrelevant, or that happily married women are really victims of sexual slavery.
Victimhood is good business for organizations that foster victim status. As victims, the members depend upon the organization to protect them, and the organization in turn relies on members for funding and political power. In the interest of self-preservation, these organizations work hard at preserving hatred and bigotry and at keeping their members defenseless – and therefore dependent.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL PRICE OF BEING A VICTIM
In our current society, victimhood has many perceived benefits, but there are some serious drawbacks. Victims tend to see the world as a scary and threatening place. They believe that others treat them differently, unfairly, and even maliciously – and that they are helpless to do anything about it. This belief, that they are being mistreated and are helpless to resist, generates tremendous rage, and often, serious depression.
But for victims to show rage openly can be dangerous, if not outright suicidal. For example, a battered woman who screams at or hits her attacker may provoke worse beatings or even her own murder. And a person who successfully defends himself loses his status as “victim.” For someone whose entire identity is dependent on being a victim, the loss of victim status is just as threatening as loss of life.
So, unable psychologically to cope with such rage, people who view themselves as victims:
• Use defense mechanisms to displace the rage through irrational beliefs.
• Attempt to regain control by controlling others, whom they wrongly perceive as “the enemy.”
The truth is “No one is a victim!”