Coping with life’s issues – from childhood defence strategies to here & now wise mechanisms

Coping with life’s issues – from childhood defence strategies to here & now wise mechanisms

Meenakshi Kirtane

Founder, Director at Maanas


I grew up understanding creativity as either drawing, painting and craft work that all children do or as the masterpieces ‘Monalisa’ or ‘Geetanjali’ that were a resultant of the passionate frenzy of creative geniuses. With this backdrop, when I met creativity in a completely new ‘avatar’, in my consulting room, it came as a huge surprise.

Creative defence mechanisms of childhood

Client after client, session after session, I was amazed at the different defence mechanisms in operation. Clients honoured me by explaining their world and honestly sharing how they have used different emotional strategies, to survive. As they became aware of the different layers within them, a very intricate and complexly woven design or pattern would emerge. Very unlike the masterpieces celebrated in the world outside, these created patterns were not only very distorted and dysfunctional at times, but outrightly damaging to the clients themselves.

While my training and theoretical understanding told me that I needed to help my clients break out of these defences and see them as problems that needed to be solved, I could not help myself being spellbound by their creativity at work!!!

No one had told me during my training, that one of the names of creativity, in the therapeutic world, was ‘defence mechanisms’ to cope with issues!!

This creativity in coping isn’t beautiful

I realised that in these weaves and patterns, it was creativity at work at the basic level of survival. It wasn’t creativity at its beautiful, magnificent, self-actualised level, right at the top of the Maslow’s hierarchy. Rather, it was the creativity that kicked in right at the bottom of the hierarchy, where a person was gasping for psychological air.

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Somehow, holding on to the last step, in continued fear, that any moment they could fall off and everything would end! Many times, this existential fear is not even in their awareness. Obviously, their creative expressions would look ugly, distorted and crazy.

When enough psychological oxygen wasn’t perceived as available even for survival, where was the scope for any beautification?

It is the Art of Surviving

But as they say, ‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’.

As I started looking at defence mechanisms from renewed lenses of reverence and beauty, I shifted my understanding of them from ‘distorted survival strategies’ to ‘creative survival expressions’. As my relationship changed, I could help my clients see their defences as those beautifully and cleverly woven safety nets, that they had uniquely designed for themselves. From being frustrated or scared or overwhelmed or helpless or angry towards their own dysfunctional patterns, they could shift to understanding them from a kind and empathic place. May be someday even marvel at their own genius in the art of surviving!!

Understanding the defence mechanisms

Thus would begin the journey of facilitating my clients in befriending their defences in the following 3 steps:

Seeing Creativity in Distortions: At step one, I encouraged my clients to look beneath the distortions. Try and understand their creativity at work. How had they woven their pattern? Which part was connected to which other part and how? What triggered a part or the whole of their pattern? What behaviours, actions and reactions were manifested when the pattern was activated? How different was the experience when any pattern was activated in them versus when they were operating without any pattern? How did a particular pattern or all of them put together, create a safety net or web for them?

Survival: Having understood the above in considerable details,I would then nudge my clients to look at the survival value of these patterns. Together we would explore their survival journey. How the years before therapy had been like for them. What all different kinds of survival had needed to be taken care of – physical, emotional, financial, social and so on. Which of these survivals might have been at stake for them during their growing up history. What it might have been to experience that “If I don’t do something now, I will die”. Answers to these questions would invariably bring up a lot of emotional upheaval.

Understanding Strategies as Expressions: After the upheaval settled a little, we would together look at ‘strategies’ from the perspective of ‘expressions’. For them to understand that every defence was their own unique expression for surviving. As the third step, I would make them meet the ‘hero’ called themselves; who, at a very young age had taken a decision to survive. How that young person then, with his/her limited understanding of self, others and the world, had decided to use all of their life or creative energy to survive.

Each of the strategies they might have chosen; behaviours, thoughts and actions, was thanks to their little minds furiously at work. At the point where they might have felt, they could fall into an unending dark abyss any moment, never to return, they would have worked with the same frenzy as any genius artist, to design their safety net. Intricately woven with strands of their sometimes erroneous beliefs, fears, unmet needs and quick actions, the basic ingredients would have formed. Anything available for that child within or outside might have been used. In desperate times, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy stops mattering. The primary goal being, experiencing safety and security; judiciousness in the moment has no relevance.

Intelligent interconnections amongst these must have been formed in such a way that different patterns would have emerged. So many of these must have been tried and tested a million times, to finally approve of the few most consistently reliable ones that gave immediate best results. Lo and behold, the ‘Intrapsychic Masterpieces’ would be ready!!! These tried and tested masterpieces would always be at the command of the person. A safety net that would immediately open whenever they pressed their internal SOS button. That intricate safety net that was completely theirs and always at their command. It made me wonder how empowering it would have been for them to know that they have such a safety net. Whether they used it or not was secondary.

The Road to Wise Mechanisms

Facing up to reality

Tears: At the end of crossing these three steps over many sessions, most of my clients would be in tears. Tears of awe and respect around how they had survived. Tears of pain around all of it. Tears of joy when they could see their dysfunctional patterns as their childhood’s best friends and the role these best friends had played. Tears of a sense of liberation that came from a realisation that if they were the creators of their defences, they could rewrite a lot of things now. They could creatively survive differently now. With their grown up understanding of themselves, others and the world at large, they could weave new patterns. Patterns that were not only healthy but adaptable to situational demands. Patterns that they had awareness and conscious control of. Patterns that wouldn’t overpower them or hijack their conscious choice in any situation.

Loss: While on their healing journey of developing healthy sides, my clients would also experience a deep sense of loss. The realisation that it was time to say good bye to an old friend, or a bunch of them, often left them with a lot of grief and a void within. Yet they would know that it was time to let go. While the defense mechanisms had kicked in as necessary for survival, they had over a course of time turned toxic for them. They also knew that they did not need them anymore. Depending on the journey taken and their readiness, my clients would stop needing different defences at different points in time.

Panic: My clients went through the letting go process, with varied experiences – Sometimes with a lot of courage and steadfastness, sometimes with lot of turbulence. Some would take a leap of faith but lose conviction in between, while some would be organic. Every once in a while when the bridge towards new ways of being or behaving had yet not formed and older ways were let gone, clients would look at me in that panic stricken exasperation. At such times, the biggest authentic support I could offer them was a narration of my healing journey and struggles.

I would say to them “Only when old books are removed from the cupboard, is there space for new ones to come in. otherwise we keep reading the same old stuff and keep repeating the same old stories to ourselves”.

Finding the new way ahead

Eventually after a lot of patience and due time taken, clients would find their new balance and ground.

Rising Up: They would start ascending the Maslow’s hierarchy, ladder by ladder. Basing their sense of safety and security tightly within their renewed and unique sense of identity, they would know deep within, that they had the internal wherewithal to deal with whatever comes to them in life.

Slowly from there, they would move up the ladder of belonging. Owning up to all their different shades of grey and allowing all of who they were to belong to each other, a sense of integration would come in. Secure in their knowledge of who they were, their integrated identity would naturally help give and receive love. Relationships became two person spaces instead of an either/or where only one person could be visible at a time. Eventually their self-esteem started coming from their internal definitions of what was meaningful to them rather than societal norms. Finally, large parts of their lives became creative expressions of their uniqueness.

Termination: As time for termination would come, we would both know. It was with amazement that we would reflect on the journey covered. That twinkle in their eyes and the tentative surety with which my clients would admit, more to themselves than me “I don’t think I need therapy any more”, would make heart grow with joy. I knew that they had gotten in touch, in some magically consistent way, with their own internal reservoir. A reservoir of that creative natural intelligence bestowed to all of us, that tells us how to go about life. Additionally this time, the reservoir had gotten full of wisdom too. Wisdom that they had collected over the years of life lived. Wisdom that they may never have owned up to. A wisdom that would now hand in hand with their natural creativity, guide them towards what was the best and most congruent for them.

Saying Good Bye: It was never easy for either them or me. But seeing their metamorphosis from the blind use of defense mechanisms to a choice of wise mechanisms, I knew that they would now have a life of growth, fulfilment, joy and authenticity. A life where nothing was really guaranteed but a life where they would always have themselves and this time in a wise way…

I end this write up with a deep sense of gratitude to all the clients who honoured me by revealing their reality and with a deep sense of satisfaction that I left them in good hands called ‘the creative themselves‘.


This article was first published by the author at

From Defense Mechanisms to Wise Mechanisms



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Shailendra Vijayvergia Recent comment authors
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Shailendra Vijayvergia
Shailendra Vijayvergia

Someone needs a gut to check and revalidate Maslows Hierarchy Pyramid to tell that Creativity is at wrong place and it should be at bottom. Thanks for sharing insight how defence strategies are not really strategy – it is an expression.

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