In Spike Jonze’s movie Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) struggles in his effort to adapt The Orchid Thief into a film. Part of the problem is the book—it’s lacking a usable storyline. But much of the problem is with Charlie himself, since he wastes much of his energy on his anxieties and self-doubt. Charlie not only can’t adapt the book, he can’t adapt to life. Meanwhile, Charlie’s twin brother Donald (also played by Cage) decides on a whim to give screenwriting a try. After taking a seminar, he produces an improbable, cliché-ridden script that he sells for a small fortune. Who, then, is better adapted—the talented writer of fine sensibilities immobilized by writer’s block or the hack who plows ahead with an excess of confidence? Who serves as a better model for adjusting to life? What is successful adaptation anyway?
The orchids described in The Orchid Thief are well-adapted to their environment, in the original, biological sense of the term. We often use the word not in that original sense but to refer to psychological coping mechanisms. I earlier wrote that one of the five factors that predicted healthy aging in the Harvard Developmental Study was an adaptive coping style, i.e. adaptation. According to George Vaillant, who directed the Harvard Study for over four decades, healthy aging isn’t determined by the severity of the hardships we encounter so much as by how we adapt to those hardships.
Vaillant thinks of adaptation largely in terms of the psychoanalytic concept of defense mechanisms. First described by Sigmund Freud and explored in more detail by his daughter Anna Freud, defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies used by the ego to ward off some sort of threat to the person. The threat was seen as an internal one, coming from unacceptable sexual and aggressive impulses. These impulses produced anxiety, and the defense mechanisms were strategies to ward off the impulses and thus reduce anxiety. Over the decades, other theorists have described defenses as deployed against other sorts of internal threats, including feelings of inferiority and insecurity.
Defense mechanisms have traditionally been considered distinct from coping strategies (defenses are considered to be unconscious and deployed against internal threats; coping strategies are intentional and used for external stressors). In practice, though, these distinctions between the two tend to blur. For example, is joking about something foolish I did more a matter of handling internal blame or of deflecting external criticism? Is it more a conscious strategy or a reflexive habit? Well, it could be any of these.
In the Harvard Study of Adult Development, adaptive defenses are seen as lying along a continuum from immature to mature. The most primitive and unhealthy defenses are “psychotic” adaptations, involving significant distortions of reality. Next come “immature” defenses, then “neurotic” defenses, and finally, at the top of the heap, “mature” defenses. Here are examples of each level:
- Psychotic defenses include paranoia (my hostility toward you flipped into thinking you are hostile to me), hallucination, and megalomania
- Immature defenses include acting out, passive aggression (aggression turned into obstruction), hypochondria, projection, and fantasy
- Neurotic defenses include intellectualization (“good” reasons used to mask questionable motives), dissociation (some aspect of consciousness being separated off), and repression
- Mature defenses include altruism, humor, suppression (consciously choosing not to delay attending to an impulse), and sublimation (directing an otherwise unacceptable impulse into something desirable, such as aggression in sport)
A somewhat different categorization of defenses along with descriptions of each can be found here.
If such defenses always operate totally outside of conscious awareness, we don’t have much chance of consciously modifying them. How can I change something I don’t know I’m doing? Lack of awareness is certainly a hallmark of the psychotic defenses: what megalomaniac knows that he or she is megalomaniacal? The more mature the defense, though, the more likely it is that the person can become aware of using that defense. Most people who cope with their anger by being obstructionist don’t know they are being passive-aggressive, but some do (I occasionally respond to irritation by being irritating in turn, but usually figure out what I’m doing and stop). We can also learn to notice it when we’ve started rationalizing—if I think about it, I realize that I’m not really bingeing on comfort foods because my stress is too much to handle, though that’s what I had been telling myself. As for humor, it’s not too hard to figure out that laughing at life’s vicissitudes often a way to keep from crying instead.
Of course increased awareness of the defenses we are using is only beneficial to us if we eventually manage to limit our use of immature defenses and increase our use of mature defenses. Vailliant’s study provides some hope that, as we age, we can move from immature to more mature strategies. He looked at the defenses used by 67 of the Harvard men at age 50 and 75. Here’s what he found:
- 28 men were already using such mature strategies at age 50 that further improvement wasn’t possible
- 19 men used more mature defenses at 75 than they had at 50
- 17 men stayed the same
- Only 4 men used more immature defenses at 75 than they had at 50. Two of these were alcoholics, one had Alzheimer’s and the last was very ill and died soon thereafter.
It’s useful to think about which defenses you use. Since some blind spots are likely in this sort of self-reflection, it is useful to also get input from someone who knows you well. Then try to be aware whenever the immature defenses crop up and look for different ways of adapting to whatever threat or stress prompted that response. Moving away from immature strategies and towards mature strategies is a good way to increase the likelihood of healthy aging.