Traumatic Incident Reduction Association

Articles on TIR and Related Technique

The views and opinions expressed in these articles and interviews are those of the individuals speaking, and do not necessarily represent those of Applied Metapsychology International or the TIR Association.

Resilience, Defenses, and Case Progress

By: Marian Volkman, CTS
This article originally appeared in the TIRA News & Views Newsletter

Resilience, the ability to respond creatively to a variety of life situations, has a lot to do with quality of life. Defenses, those mental or emotional structures and mechanisms we set up to protect ourselves from danger, can lead to rigidity and lack of resilience. Defense mechanisms get a bad name for this resulting lack of flexibility, but it is more useful to understand human defenses as a form of resilience in the first place.

Defense mechanisms erected in the midst of traumatic experience keep the person from being overwhelmed. This idea is starting to gain favor in some circles in the mental health world. The ability to dissociate, for instance, to "be somewhere else" mentally may be what allows a traumatized child to carry on in otherwise impossible circumstances. Unconsciousness is the last defense in an overwhelming experience. People often court degrees of unconsciousness using drugs or alcohol when daily life itself seems too hard to face up to.

In person-centered work, because we are operating within the worldview of the client, we are never judging or trying to break down the person's defenses. As we know, traumatic experience tends to stick things. The defense mechanism that worked - in the sense that the person did survive the experience - gets further cemented in the oftener it is called into play. That mechanism starts to affect every day life, decreasing the person's ability to respond creatively to the environment. The great thing is that TIR and related techniques act effectively to allow the client to unstick these things within a person-centered context.

We might imagine a scale of resilience parallel with the Emotional Scale. As a person's chronic emotional level goes down, ego strength diminishes and heavier defenses are needed to help the person to feel reasonably safe. As the person moves up the Emotional Scale and consolidates his or her gains, ego strength improves. As a result of removing charge, having end points, and reordering the mental environment, the viewer (client) gains more certainly in his/her ability to face difficult experiences successfully. As ego strength improves, fewer defenses are needed and resilience increases.

At the mid to lower reaches of this resilience scale, a person cannot comfortably view his/her own defenses. It's too scary and unsettling. If his/her defenses are pointed out or challenged, s/he may erect further layers to protect and defend them. Let us note that defenses do not need to be "working" in any real life sense to be strongly held to and protected. This is why we work in a person-centered way. Working within the client's worldview allows the person to deconstruct his/her own defenses when ready, after the trauma that holds them in place is peeled away.

Even though we can see the adaptive sense of building defenses, solidification of layers of defenses over time make a person less flexible, less mobile, and less able to perceive and adapt to the surrounding world. This leads to a lack of connection with people, causing more frequent upsets and the building up of more charge. Below some theoretical point on the scale the person tends to stack up more charge and more defenses. A fairly resilient person hit hard enough and often enough, slides down the scale. Having had the experience of the freedom of true resilience however, s/he is more likely to be able to start moving back up again.

Such things as education, life experience and positive relationships can help someone to increase his/her ego strength of course. Sometimes a transformative life experience such as a severe illness or the death of a loved one can suddenly break down a person's defenses, leaving him/her more open, more flexible and more able to love. On the other hand, the same sort of experience may have the opposite effect in another person.

Any sort of effective work done to resolve trauma, past upsets and confusions, or to promote personal growth, done in a safe (ideally person-centered) environment is generally the most efficient way for a person to get more flexible, to see and let go of some defenses while holding onto others, and to continue on up the scale. Near the top of this scale the person is highly resilient and able to learn from experience, tending to release charge faster than building it up. At this point defenses, once seen, are easily released.

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