On irrationality, defense mechanisms and change by Aurora Aritao

As a keen observer of behavior, I am as inspired by the human capacity for greatness as I am fascinated by our irrationality. I’ve come to terms with the fact that our views, opinions and decisions are influenced mostly by unconscious processes: gut feelings, intuitions, as well as generalizations, snap judgments and single-minded interpretations. Anyone who has a fully functioning brain is biased in one form or another.

Defense mechanisms keep pain at bay

A closer look reveals that in denying negative emotions, the mind may project whatever is unwanted onto others.  In others, we may see what we reject in ourselves. We might attribute what does not fit with our view of ourselves to someone else, or we keep them hidden away, ignored and denied for as long as possible.

Repression is another type of defense mechanism, first described by Sigmund Freud, as a way that people keep unpleasant memories out of their conscious mind. Repression is a compensatory style that deals with threat and stress by blocking unpleasant emotional experiences that might bring up anxiety, distress and vulnerability.[1]

While repression involves unconscious blocking of recall of painful events, suppression is intentional.  It involves avoidance in discussing painful problems, wishes or feelings and in exploring sensitive topics.

In challenging times, other observable ways that people may attempt to mask true feelings include blaming others, denying the truth, rejecting kindness from others, living in the past, holding grudges, lashing out, obsessing, self-sacrificing, procrastinating, daydreaming distancing, self-idealizing, indecisiveness and so on.[2]

A case of unmet expectations

In my coaching, clients sometimes share feelings of disappointment and frustration from unmet expectations in the workplace. Lea, a highly skilled and well-educated Senior Director was ecstatic to join a private consulting firm to work directly for the Company Founder.  With her experience and credentials, Lea expected to be part of the decision-making strategy team.

Role confusion

A year later, Lea is deflated, demotivated and ready to quit her job.  She was assigned to do too much implementation work. Her time was subsequently split between 2 bosses, each with different interpretation of her role.  The role in her mind was not at all aligned with that of the two bosses. She became resigned to the fact that they do not appreciate her contribution nor do they value her worth. 

Consumed by emotions

By the time I met Lea she was highly emotional, bursting into tears within the first few minutes of talking.  She said nobody understood her. When I asked why she wanted to quit, she declared that people only use her, and that she must be difficult to get along with.  She could not trust anybody in the office.  She was making assumptions about what her bosses and colleagues might have been thinking of her.

I proceeded to work with Lea on a strategy to break the negative downward spiral she was in and to create space for her to reflect on the possible forces at play, both explicit and what’s ‘under the surface’.

Reflection and Action

We agreed that before deciding to quit, Lea needed to calmly, objectively and assertively make her views, feelings and intentions clearly known to her managers.  In addition, if there was any painful reality that lurks beneath what we can see, there may be a tendency to deny it by stubbornly negating that unpleasant reality and refusing to acknowledge truths.  We may project that painful truth about ourselves to others, or come up with self-serving explanations to justify our own behavior.

Change and transformation

Change begins with the self.  Without self-awareness and self-management, there can’t be sustainable change.  It would make good sense to always challenge our thinking and to create space before we react to any kind of stimuli, especially stress-inducing stimuli. 

Hence, what might an interpersonal model for change that takes into account our irrationality, look like? How can we discard what is no longer relevant and unhelpful in our belief systems?  How can we regularly pause, go inward and reflect?

I have found these steps useful in this process of deep transformation, and I’d be interested to hear what has worked for you:

  • Illuminate unconscious thinking - discover more deeply these concealed and hidden dynamics, acknowledge that they affect you as much if not more than conscious thinking.

  • De-energize maladaptive thoughts and feelings – take the focus and energy away from negativity, be present. When the mind starts to ruminate about the past or negative thoughts, snap out of it and notice what is new in your environment.

  • Modulate anxiety – regulate emotions through healthy mind and body habits. Exercise regularly, take time to breathe mindfully or meditate and learn to reframe situations to get a fresh perspective.

  • Reflect and learn – find the time and space to go inward and reflect on the day, or the week or the year. Write down your thoughts on a journal.

  • Re-wire the brain through new experiences – Create new wiring and new habits. The brain is plastic – it can learn new tricks if you make new connections stronger than the old wiring, with openness, creativity, practice and repetition.

The work is like building new muscle – of becoming a reflective leader of change, starting from the self.

To connect with Aurora:

Leadership Coach and Consultant

Leadership Coach and Consultant

Aurora Aritao is a certified executive coach and organizational leadership consultant who believes in the value of developing reflective and effective change agents in organizations.  
She brings 15 years of corporate experience in tech product marketing management, leading cross-cultural teams while defining, launching and growing award-winning technology solutions for companies like Optus (AU) the Vodafone Group (Global) and Microsoft (HK).
Her training in clinical organizational psychology at INSEAD (EMCCC) reflects her passion for deeply understanding organisational behaviour and the interrelationship between personality, leadership style, culture, and organizational decision-making. Aurora also facilitates for the NeuroLeadership Institute.

twitter: thriveinmind
email: aurora.aritao@insead.edu
LinkedIn: https://hk.linkedin.com/in/auroraaritao


[1] Lynne Namka, Ed.D. “Defense Mechanisms That Affect Relationships”, www.byregion.ne
[2] Anatomy of Defense Mechanisms according to DSM-III-R