January 29th, 2010


Conflict Part III: Defending Yourself

Last time I talked about internal (intrapersonal) conflict. I told you that thoughts drive the conflict bus. Each time you find yourself in a conflict, you want to check in on your thoughts.  Make sure they’re related to the current event and not some ghost from your past. If you’re a writer who avoids conflict in real life, then you’re well equipped to write about internal conflict. You know (or sense) the good and the bad inherent in avoiding conflicts. The good being you avoid a fight, argument. The bad being you don’t get your true needs met and some intimacy is sacrificed in your relationships.


Today I want to visit defense mechanisms. Their job is to reduce our anxiety. They’re fight or flight driven. If you perceive a threat, your brain works to keep you calm so you can fight or run.  Staying calm is good. Keeping anxiety in check is great. The problem? Anxiety tells us we need to respond to something. If we kick into calm mode too quickly, we may not address a threat in the best way. DM's are best in moderation.


I picked out the ones that we see the most. If you want the full list, I'm happy to provide.

Enough warning and explanations, it’s time to meet the crew.


Rationalization: making up acceptable excuses to explain our anxiety. Look at the examples below. Can you see the benefit and the potential problem?

            “We lost the game because I didn’t practice enough.”

“I know I shouldn’t have spent the money on those shoes, but I’ve been working hard and I haven’t done anything fun in forever.”

Denial: refusal to recognize information or anxiety. Denial is great, until it’s not. It can help us get through tough times, but it can prevent us from dealing with life. 

            “I can’t talk about how I feel about Mark’s death. I have to plan a funeral.”

            “Smoking isn’t bad for you. That’s just some liberal ploy."
Repression: pushing unacceptable thoughts or feelings into your subconscious. Denial deals with an external threat. Repression deals with an internal threat. You don’t realize you’re doing it. It just happens. This is how abused children survive.  They could hate their parent for abusing them. Where would that leave them? They have to disconnect from those feelings until it’s safe to look at them. For some, they never feel safe.


Projection: the assignment of our own undesirable traits to others. I love this one. This is the backbone of therapy. It shows up A LOT in fights. 

The spouse having an affair says to the non-offender, “I don’t like you spending so much time with him. I know what he’s thinking.”


Displacement: redirecting your anger/ frustration (or some other negative emotion) toward a safe target. This shows up in therapy as well. It’s okay to displace our frustration to a safe target. We all need to vent. But there’s venting and there’s abusing (physically or mentally).

            Your boss yells at you, so you kick your dog when you get home.

            You hate your job, so you come home and yell at your partner.


As writers we don’t have to know the psychological term. Most of us have experienced these DM’s. Shucks we use them. However, you must know how they feed conflicts. A writer needs to know that denial leads to arguments because others see the truth while one person refuses. A writer needs to know that sometimes characters will yell at someone they love because the person is safe. And when you see the conflict through those lenses, you, the writer, can sit with the anxiety. You see its purpose. You can allow your character to walk through their struggle.  


 As always, write what you know. If one of these DM's looks familiar (like a best-friend) slip it into your writing. Sit with the anxiety. It will give the story some tension or comedy. I'm an expert at rationalizing. I've learned to use it responsibly in real life. I want to give others the benefit of the doubt. And I want to give myself the benefit of the doubt (and I really like shoes).

Do you want me show how DM's play out in writing?  What DM's do you tend use (for good or evil).