by Peter T. Malinoski, Ph.D.
As children we learn the two great commandments: Love God above all things and love your neighbor as yourself. In order to follow these commands, however, we have to interact with both God and our neighbor in genuine ways. What does that mean? That means we have to have an accurate perception of our thoughts and feelings and respond to both God and neighbor in authentic and appropriate ways.
Part of our human nature sets up defenses that can sometimes cloud our interactions with God and neighbor. Although those defenses have a purpose, it’s important to recognize when we need to resolve them in our quest for connection in truth. After all, the closer we get to truth, the closer we get to God and the more able we are to genuinely love Him and neighbor.
Appreciate the Protective Nature of Defenses
God gives us certain automatic defenses to help us protect ourselves, our families and our neighbors. The defense of denial, often triggered in an overwhelming situation, helps us cope until we can recollect ourselves. The defense of withdrawal, on the other hand, helps us deal with public criticism to protect us from shame.
It’s natural for us to defend ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically. In many cases, defenses can help preserve life, help us cope with difficulties, and protect those we love in the short run. We need to appreciate the positive aspects of having defenses. The problem is that defenses can be maladaptive, and they often harm us in the long run, especially if they are overused.
Understand Typical Psychological Defenses in Relating with God
While physical, emotional and spiritual defenses are often pretty clear cut, psychological defenses can operate unconsciously, in that part of ourselves that we cannot readily access with our intellect and our will. As a result, some psychological defenses are tricky to recognize. If we don’t recognize something as a defense, it can be easy for that defense to affect our relationship with God and others in an unknowing and potentially harmful way. The first step in recognizing psychological defenses is understanding what they are.
Let’s look at three defenses that might occur if we are unconsciously angry at God, which is a very common threatening internal experience. We could also look at defenses against disappointment in God, confusion about God, a sense of abandonment by God, a feeling that God is angry at us, and a whole host of other very uncomfortable experiences.
Displacement: This defense is the redirection of an emotion or behavior from its original object to another object. People displace their emotion or behavior because they believe they cannot safely express that emotion or behavior to its original object. For example, a man may be unconsciously angry at God, but he is too afraid to express that anger because he fears God’s wrath. When he goes home, he kicks his dog for some minor perceived offense, expressing that displaced anger at a safer object.
Projection: This defense can be expressed by reversing the direction of unacceptable internal experiences. For example, a woman could be unconsciously angry at God. However, that is way too threatening for her, so instead, she experiences the feeling that God is angry at her. The anger in the relationship is acknowledged, but it’s directionality is reversed.
Reaction Formation: Reaction formation goes beyond denial. This defense occurs when a person has a belief, thought, emotion, or desire that is very threatening. Unconsciously, she copes with it by experiencing the polar opposite in conscious awareness, sometimes to an extreme. For example, a woman who is very angry at God may experience in conscious awareness a feeling of warmth or appreciation toward God, but it rings hollow in many ways. The experience of anger at God is so threatening that it is not only unconsciously denied, but the added factor of feeling superficial warmth or affection toward God is added, as if to say “I’m so not angry at God — look how I feel affection and warmth toward Him!”
Recognize How Psychological Defenses Can Cloud Relationship
Once we understand our typical psychological defenses, we can begin to see how they can potentially cloud our relationship with God and with others. For example, if you are angry at God but displacing that anger onto your spouse, you’d be interacting with God in a less-than-truthful way and potentially damaging your marriage.
Instead, talk with God honestly during your prayer time. Express why you’re angry at Him or, if you don’t know what you’re feeling toward Him, tell Him that. Ask Him or the Blessed Virgin Mary to help you sort through your emotions as well as resolve the situation. If you’re “working it out with God,” you’ll be much less likely to take your negative emotions out on those you love.
If you find yourself believing that you can never please God or that He’s perpetually angry with you, you may be experiencing projection. In this case, you may spend a great deal of time “spinning your wheels” in trying to get on God’s “good side.” By considering whether you are instead angry at God, you can bring yourself into a more genuine relationship with Him and free up your emotional energy to love and serve others more fully.