Originally published February 16, 2017 on The Huffington Post
Since the Tylenol poisonings in 1982, I’ve worked both as a researcher and consultant in the modern field of Crisis Management. Indeed, I am greatly honored that I’m regarded as one of the field’s principal founders.
One of the earliest findings of my colleagues and I was that there were direct organizational counterparts to each of the Freudian Defense Mechanisms. (If Freud had accomplished nothing more than his discovery of Defense Mechanisms, it would have been more than sufficient to assure his lasting fame.) For every one of the classic Defense Mechanisms that Freud discovered that individuals used to protect themselves from realities that were too painful to face, there was a corresponding form that organizations used to protect their collective psyches from unpleasant realities as well.
Most important of all was the finding that there was a powerful correlation between the numbers of Defense Mechanisms an organization used and the attention it devoted to Crisis Management. In brief, the more that an organization denied that something bad could happen to it, the far less money and time it gave to Crisis Management. As a result, it didn’t do nearly as well in responding to major crises, which were inevitable, than those organizations whose denial was significantly lower. Further, because they acknowledged the all-too-real possibility of major crises, those organizations that took Crisis Management seriously picked up problems and fixed them before they became major crises. As a result, they were significantly more profitable. In short, Proactive Crisis Management is not only the right, ethical thing to do to protect an organization, its employees and surrounding communities from harm, but it’s supremely good for business as well.
The point is that while Defense Mechanisms were originally discovered as a phenomenon that applied solely to individuals, they are not confined to individuals alone. They apply as much, if not more, to organizations and whole societies.
Seven basic types of Defense Mechanisms are as follows:
Denial most often occurs when people are subject to severe traumatic events such as the sudden and senseless death of a child, violent sexual attacks, war, etc. The event is typically so painful and threatening that the mind shuts down completely and refuses to acknowledge it at all. Disavowal is when the mind acknowledges a painful and threatening event but reduces its scope and magnitude such that it’s bearable. Thus, a large, threatening wildcat becomes a small, tame kitten. Idealization occurs when the mind convinces itself that good people don’t face serious threats. Therefore, the wildcat can’t really be there. Grandiosity is the feeling that one is superhuman and can meet any threat. Projection is when one blames others for something bad. Therefore, someone deliberately put the wildcat there. Intellectualization is when one believes that there are no valid reasons for the wildcat to be there. Compartmentalization is when one part of the mind sees the wildcat, and other parts smell and even feel it, but all of the various parts are not put together, for if they were then one would have to acknowledge a threat that one is powerless to overcome.
In organizations, Denial takes the form, “We’re invulnerable; nothing bad can happen to us.” Disavowal is, “Whatever happens, its impacts are negligible.” Idealization takes the form, “Good organizations don’t have major problems.” Grandiosity is the feeling, “We’re too big and powerful to be taken down by anything!” Projection is, “Someone else is to blame for our problems.” Intellectualization assumes the form, “The probabilities of something bad happening to us are too small to worry about.” Compartmentalization is the feeling, “Something bad cannot affect our whole system; in other words, it can be contained.”
In the case of Trump, the Defense Mechanisms are shared between him and his followers. Denial is prominent in Trump’s refusal to believe the assessments of the national intelligence agencies that the Russians hacked the Democratic Party and that it played a part, however small, in the election. Denial is also present in his supporters’ refusal to acknowledge that Trump is in every respect unfit to be president. It’s present as well in the persistent inability to accept that old-line manufacturing jobs and industries are not coming back. Disavowal is paramount when his followers minimize the dangers of a Trump presidency. Grandiosity and Idealization are prominent in Trump’s persistent claims that only he and he alone can fix our enormous problems. Projection is a persistent aspect of Trump’s character in that he blames everyone but himself for any problems. And, Intellectualization occurs when Trump and his followers explain away all of his awful comments as things not to be taken seriously.
This is not to say that Trump’s opponents didn’t engage in their own forms of Defense Mechanisms when all along they denied that he would ever get the nomination, let alone be elected. And, living as I do in California, we are in denial by believing that we somehow live in a protected bubble, even though we are greatly dependent on federal funds, which Trump could play a major role in cutting off.
But most of all, one is in deep denial if one believes that facts alone will cause someone to face reality. This is a prime case of Intellectualization.
No, impersonal facts alone cannot do the job. Instead, calm, trusted voices are needed to make unpleasant facts and realities palatable. Whether formally trained or not, trusted voices are in effect society’s therapists. We’ve never needed them more than we do now.
If not, then reality intrudes as it always does eventually. But the greater the denial, the more and the greater the unpleasant reality that’s needed to finally break through.