Defense Mechanisms in the Counseling Process

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Arthur J. Clark

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  • Dedication

    To my wife, Marybeth, and my daughters, Heather, Tara, and Kayla, for their love and support through the years.

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    Foreword

    Psychodynamic constructions of counseling and therapy are alive and well, despite rumors to the contrary. Arthur Clark has presented us with a scholarly summary of defense mechanisms, and his innovative thought brings them alive—and, more important, makes them immediately useful and understandable to the practitioner.

    Defenses in clients are often seen by helping professionals as something to overcome. I much prefer to think of defenses as a client's natural way of being, partially learned, partially innate. In effect, I am suggesting that defense mechanisms are a logical result of developmental history of the person in environmental context. When viewed from this light, defense mechanisms become an important way to help us understand and conceptualize the client.

    One of Clark's major contributions in this book is the way he helps us understand client developmental history as it relates to various defensive styles. A weakness of much counseling and psychotherapy theory is a lack of client conceptualization. The model of defense mechanisms presented here will be invaluable to both the beginner and the advanced professional through helping them understand where their client “comes from.”

    Thus, the great strength of this book is in its conceptual richness. I rejoice when I find a scholar such as Arthur Clark who brings to us such a wide understanding of complex constructs but who can also make them clear, significant, and, yes, practical and usable in the daily practice of counseling and therapy.

    For example, let us consider Chapter 2—“Denial.” Persons use denial to ward off serious external or internal threat—it has a positive function in its origin. But this positive denial has usually outlived its usefulness and, in Gordon Allport's (1961) words, has become functionally autonomous. Clark details the several types of denial in a fashion we all can recognize in our clients. This is followed by clear illustrations of how we as counselors or therapists can help clients process the meaning of their defensive structure of denial. We seek to understand, rather than attack, defenses. Through the process of understanding the client's defensive structure—in this case, denial—we then can move to other interventions to help the client reconstruct new meanings from the overly tight defensive position. Then, once this is accomplished, Clark suggests we help the client generate new behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Here we can integrate psychodynamic thought and much of cognitive-behavioral theory and practice.

    I find much to admire in Clark's process model. It is a clear and accurate summary of how we can integrate psychodynamic client and case conception with other theoretical orientations such as humanistic-existential and cognitive-behavioral. Counselors will find the action model of processing defense mechanisms helpful in their own practice: (a) developing relationship with the defensive style and “going with,” rather than against, the client; (b) integration in which confrontation, cognitive restructuring, reframing, and interpretation will be helpful; and (c) accomplishment in which the client learns how to catch her- or himself engaging in the defense mechanism and how to substitute newly learned more useful behavior.

    Clark also shows an interest in the application of multicultural issues to defense mechanisms. Awareness of race/ethnicity, gender, and other cultural factors is essential for a rich understanding of client defensive structures. Indeed, individuals learn defensive adaptation styles in family and social context.

    Clark's discussion of group process from this framework is also helpful. The dynamics of interaction between and among defensive styles become manifest there, particularly in unstructured groups. I appreciate this contribution to generalization of the defensive structure model, and it illustrates Clark's deep understanding of issues that we have not addressed fully in our field.

    In short, Arthur Clark is to be commended for his contribution. Defense Mechanisms in the Counseling Process will occupy an important place on my bookshelf and in my thinking.

    Allen E.Ivey, Ed.D., A.B.P.P. University of Massachusetts, Amherst

    Preface

    Twenty-five years ago, as a novice school counselor, I first encountered a pattern of behavior in counseling that has intrigued me ever since. Students frequently would tell me that their grades were improving or that episodes of discipline infractions were a thing of the past. We would then continue with our counseling sessions, and I would feel satisfied that my efforts were making a difference. After talking later with the students' teachers, however, I would often learn that their academic performance had deteriorated further or that problems with discipline had actually increased. This pattern repeated itself numerous times as I found clients absolutely convincing when they told me about their improved progress or lack of culpability relating to irresponsible behavior—only to subsequently find out that they were deceiving me. With additional counseling experience, and an increased determination not to be misled by clients, I became more able to detect discrepancies between what individuals report and what they actually do. This awareness, however, created further difficulties for me as a counselor. If I challenged clients about the veracity of their assertions in initial counseling sessions, they would typically become argumentative or withdraw. My untenable choices in counseling were to acquiesce to clients' inaccurate statements or challenge them and undermine the counseling relationship.

    Those patterns that I encountered early in my career and have since repeatedly observed in my extensive school and clinical experience are, of course, the manifestation of client defense mechanisms. In recent years, I began to present my thoughts in writing about the defenses in counseling (Clark, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995c, 1997, 1998a) in a pursuit that culminates in this volume. What I have uncovered in my continuing research is that a substantial body of literature exists on defense mechanisms but that surprisingly little attention has been accorded to identifying and modifying defenses in counseling practice. Various counseling and psychotherapy publications refer to the importance of considering client defenses, particularly as they relate to resistance (George & Cristiani, 1995; Gilliland & James, 1998; Gladding, 1996), but systematic procedures for processing the mechanisms are rarely detailed. Psychoanalytic writings do emphasize the psychotherapeutic management of defenses (Blum, 1985; Gray, 1994; Sandler & Freud, 1985); this material, however, is presented in theoretical formulations and terminology that are difficult to apply directly to more generic counseling orientations. General references that address the various defenses typically focus on conceptual or empirical perspectives that are not immediately relevant to counseling practice (Conte & Plutchik, 1995; Cramer, 1991; Vaillant, 1992).

    Although I found the counseling, psychoanalytic, and general resources individually insufficient, in combination the literature offers a knowledge base and potential framework for developing a comprehensive approach for working with clients' defense mechanisms in counseling. Psychoanalytic writings provide a foundation for conceptualizing and treating patient defenses, whereas general references clarify various facets of the mechanisms on the basis of contemporary and wide-ranging research. Counseling and psychotherapy publications that identify and describe selected techniques and processes offer a dynamic structure for effectively managing client defenses. In addition, many current counseling approaches emphasize multicultural considerations (Axelson, 1993; Pedersen & Carey, 1994; Ponterotto, Casas, Suzuki, & Alexander, 1995), and any discussion of defense mechanisms would be incomplete without acknowledging the impact of cultural forces on individuals' development and functioning. In this book, an emphasis will be given to integrating examples from multicultural perspectives when presenting counseling interventions that counselors may use in processing client defenses.

    Cultural forces inextricably relate to social influences in the environment of individuals, including the groups with whom a person identifies. Defense mechanisms are primarily a social phenomenon; they are used in response to threatening interpersonal exchanges. Through direct experiences in social-cultural contexts, persons essentially construct and express linguistic and behavioral patterns (Martin, 1994), including the mechanisms of defense. In counseling, clients actively engage the same defenses that they initiate in other interpersonal relationships that evoke psychological disequilibrium. Counselors who conceptualize client behavior through defense mechanisms as theoretical entities also socially construct a reality that is commonly shared by groups of mental health professionals (Hoffman, 1990). Through a collaborative participation with a counselor, clients are encouraged to cocreate new perspectives and meanings that form a basis for more purposeful and adaptive behavior. In this formulation, social interactions become a critical focus for explaining and fostering human change and development (Gergen, 1985; Guterman, 1994).

    Both theoretical and practical considerations contribute to the purpose of this book: to present a systematic model for identifying and modifying client defense mechanisms in the counseling process. Three stages of the counseling process provide a framework for detailing specific techniques and strategies for managing individual defenses. Extensive examples from diverse populations of clients emphasize therapeutic change involving 10 defense mechanisms: denial, displacement, identification, isolation, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, and undoing. The examination of each defense will also focus on aspects of the mechanism's theoretical origins, psychopathology, definitions, and, where delineated, types. Because this book stresses the work of the counselor in individual treatment with clients, a separate chapter focuses on defense mechanisms in the counseling process in groups. An integrative case example will illustrate a client's multiple defense change through the counseling stages.

    Chapter 1 includes perspectives on the importance of defenses in counseling, definitions and properties of the mechanisms, and developmental and assessment considerations. Ten classic defenses are then introduced, in addition to a brief overview of the three-stage model of the counseling process. Chapter 2 focuses on denial as the first of the defenses to be reviewed regarding theoretical and practice implications. Denial serves as a lead chapter both for the significance of a prominent defense and for clarifying the counseling process and techniques that are also represented in the subsequent nine chapters on individual defenses. With each chapter on separate defenses organized in a standard format, the reader may study for comparative purposes specific counselor interventions in the counseling process. I have based my selection of the defense mechanisms examined primarily from those defenses most frequently referred to in the literature and my judgment of the mechanisms more commonly encountered in counseling practice. The group and case study chapters conclude the book.

    In this volume, counseling is viewed as a therapeutic process involving client development during three stages. Throughout the counseling experience, essential interventions focus on clarifying individuals' functioning and establishing more adaptive behavior. Although the defense mechanisms originated in the psychoanalytic modality, the use of the constructs has broad and sustained application to practitioners in the helping professions with diverse orientations. With this in mind, I have written this book for counselors, psychologists, social workers, and other direct service professionals. Although the term counselor is used almost exclusively, this designation applies to the complementary roles of therapist and psychotherapist. The book is pertinent as a text in graduate courses that focus on techniques of counseling, theories of counseling and psychotherapy, or the counseling practicum.

    Acknowledgments

    I wish to express my gratitude to William P. Brown, whom I first met in his position as director of Pupil Personnel Services in the Sharon Public Schools in Massachusetts. Bill has been a mentor and friend for many years, and he made a significant contribution to the completion of the book through his perceptive critiques. Allen Ivey, distinguished university professor, University of Massachusetts—Amherst, deserves special credit for his encouragement during the development of the manuscript. I am also grateful to Barry Jackson, chief psychologist, Durham Board of Education, Whitby, Ontario, for his discerning comments in reading each chapter. I also wish to acknowledge Jim Nageotte, sponsoring editor from Sage Publications, for providing supportive direction in shaping my manuscript. For their review of my book, I appreciate the assistance of the following: Denise Twohey, Susan Neufeldt, Merith Cosden, and Linda Berg-Cross. Thanks to my graduate assistants at St. Lawrence University—Angelita M. Dobson, Stephanie de Vera, Lorraine Lyndaker, and Judy Gibson—who were helpful in numerous ways. Finally, I appreciate the efforts of the university's senior secretaries, Bonnie Enslow and Faye Martin, for their typing and logistical support.

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    About the Author

    Arthur J. Clark is Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Counseling and Development Program at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. He received his Ed.D. in counseling from Oklahoma State University in 1974 and has held positions as a school counselor, director of guidance, and school psychologist. His professional experience also includes counseling in a substance abuse treatment center and maintaining a private practice as a licensed psychologist. He has been an editorial board member of Elementary School Guidance and Counseling and the Journal for Specialists in Group Work and holds memberships in the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association. His publications in counseling and psychology journals focus on issues critical to practitioners in the helping professions. He currently resides in Canton, New York, with his wife, Marybeth, and their daughters, Heather, Tara, and Kayla.


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