When it comes to connecting with others, we all use certain (unconscious) techniques to magnify it or avoid it. Even if it feels natural to do these things, they are a learned response that protects us against pain – in the form of rejection, ridicule, judging, being found out, too much closeness, etc. These resistance mechanisms help us maintain our need for safety – either by being impenetrable or by being dependent.
What they also do is prevent us from really connecting to the other – we either but barriers against genuine communication or we remove all barriers and let ourselves be flooded by the personality of the other, losing our own boundaries and identity.
Here is how these mechanisms work.
Retroflection is when we have a desire to do or say something BUT something in the environment stops us and we either retain our spontaneous impulse or we do something else instead. Retroflection is an automatic reaction caused by excessive self-control and it serves to prevent us from making mistakes, feeling ashamed, being ridiculed, etc.
Retroflection is similar to socially accepted behavior and it removes all spontaneity substituting it with “what’s right to do/ say”. In people who retroflect there is an inner system that forbids and allows, that issues Shoulds and Shouldn’ts that the individual adheres to. The aim of such prohibitions and permissions is to keep “dangerous” impulses under control and choose reactions carefully so that they do not entail unpleasant (or unbearable) consequences. Like mockery, embarrassment, disapproval, conflicts, etc.
The problem with suppressing our real impulses is that we can not do it forever. At one point our conserved emotions will find a way to get out with an explosive strength that will probably not match the intensity of the event that would trigger it. The hidden feelings that boil inside us require even more self-control to choke them. So retroflection is a vicious circle of suppressing our real impulses and desires in order to avoid pain.
In deflection a secret and constant frustration in the person is draining all the active energy away from the contact.
Deflection is like a mirror that reflects all light in another direction as the person is behind the mirror – not acquiring anything, not receiving anything, not taking or containing anything. One way to deflect is using humour. Another is belittling – stripping anything from its real meaning or value by ridiculing it. I have noticed that some people who often appear to be “the soul of the crew” or “the soul of the party”, are actually masters at deflection. It is not just that they are smart or sharp, or funny. Something deeper is running behind all that charm and hilarity. It is the fact that these people are actually impenetrable. And, yes, like a mirror.
Small talk and generalizations are two other forms of deflection.
Deflection means not being able to receive. That is why these kind of people are having a hard time even hearing criticism from others, let alone considering it valid. They stray away from most conversations that require openness and approachability and vulnerability.
What is behind the need to deflect is fear of pain and fear of exposure. Real contact hurts and burns. Superficial contact is always somehow comfortable and deprived of the risk of ache. That’s why deflection is a strive for superficiality. Not because the person doing it is genuinely shallow, but because shallowness does not break bones.
In projection we see what we want to see. There was a nice saying that comes to my mind now as I write about projection. It goes like this: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Which means that a great deal of what we notice is an involuntary expression of who we are. And often what we encounter in the environment (events, people, certain behaviors) is just a recreation of what we feel, who we are, how we behave.
In projection we see parts that belong to us as belonging to the outside world as people’s behavior, stories, attitudes. We disown these qualities and externalize them onto others. And we are going to keep on seeing the same things until we own them back.
The result of too much projection is paranoia. In projection (and paranoia) there is no contact – we assume more than we explore. There is the intention of contact but the projection precedes it, preventing it from happening. If we leave our inner monsters unattended and deny their existence, what we see outside is going to be exactly what we tried to un-see on the inside.
Introjection means swallowing what others tell you and advise you without considering the option that it might not be right. The need to resort to introjection is always coupled with poor boundaries and a weakened sense of personal worthiness. But, once again, what is not connected to these two?
As I understand introjection, it is an attempt to gain love and alleviate anxiety. Because it is through agreeing that we avoid being hurt (and very often we get hurt) and find a remedy for our unanswered inner need for belonging.
All of these mechanisms are simply contact styles we have learned to practise as a result from our earliest experiences with people. They are not something wrong that must be changed and removed from the picture – they are useful and healthy in many ways. But if we want to gain more awareness into our own world, if we want to grow and learn how to be real without being overwhelming or fake, we can practice noticing when these resistance mechanisms take place. Because just knowing is enough for growing.