22. "I'm Sorry"- Introjection - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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22. "I'm Sorry"- Introjection

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out of Dev Chrysalis Intimacy/Relationship

Out of the Developmental Chrysalis in Intimacy and Relationship Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Another immature defense mechanism is introjection.  Introjection is the taking in of the material and messages the other is trying to give one, sometimes despite suffering personal damage.  The infant is forced to eat it even though he or she clearly doesn't like it.  The infant learns to deny him/herself and believe the unbelievable and deny reality in order to keep the approval of the adult.  "I like strained spinach."  He or she allows him/herself to be defined by another without regard to his or her own feelings or experiences.  Such a person may gravitate to a domineering personality who will attack his or her worth.  Such an authoritarian individual will be glad to define him/her… to tell him/her who he or she is.  The introjector takes on a negative self-definition.  "I am not worthy. I'm lucky to have my partner.   I'm not a good parent or a good partner.  I can't make it on my own."  In therapy, they may be the clients who highly adore the therapist.  They will hang on every word, seek approval, and agree with every interpretation.  They will eat it up!  They will ingest everything the therapist says like manna from heaven.  Therapist questions such as, "What do you think?  How do you feel about that?  Is that OK with you?" will be unfamiliar and difficult for them to answer.  What they thought, felt, and whether things were OK or not was not relevant in their formative lives.  Agreeing and complying to keep the highly conditional love of parents was the only relevant motivation.  Now keeping approval of their partners, other important authoritative figures such as bosses and supervisors, and also of their therapist is the motivation.  Such individuals may come to therapy for individual goals, but tend not to come to couple or family therapy unless brought by their partners or family members.  They just comply with their important other people.  That is, they comply perhaps until the inner hidden feelings and desires try to assert themselves.  However, asserting such feelings and desires will tend to be done passive-aggressively rather than overtly.
An individual may endure years and decades of family and/or cultural programming that causes him/her to become self-hating.  Very oppressive, dominating, and highly punitive circumstances where it was extremely dangerous to express oneself, much less assert oneself would tend to lead to introjection.  Just as the therapist helps a client by recognizing how he or she condemns him/herself for being unable to please parents or having been too fat or not smart enough, the therapist can help a client by helping him/her recognize how he or she self-condemns for being gay, or African American, or a woman, or from a working-class background.  An individual may come from years of introjection: eating it, taking it, and become bitter enough finally to fight back.  The fighting back would have created a crisis that would then bring the couple or family into therapy.  The crisis may cause life circumstances and consequences to bring an individual in therapy as well.  Teaching the introjector how to fight, that is how to assert him/herself is essential.  Ironically, the introjector's partner or other important associate will sometimes welcome the fighting, because it is clearer and more honest than the passive-aggressive behavior that has driven him/her crazy for years.  The evasive nature of the introjector is highly frustrating for someone who wants to be intimately or productively engaged.  However, the introjector will have little experience in active fighting.  Often, the therapist will need to initially speak for the introjector.

Pietr and Gretchen came to therapy after more than twenty years of marriage and three children who are now off in college.  The precipitating issue was Pietr's lack of satisfaction in the relationship, emotionally and physically.  As he complained about how the marriage has degenerated, especially, after their last son went off to college, Gretchen's entire physical affect is of guilt and shame.  When she, a good Catholic girl is given the opportunity to speak about her experience, Gretchen is meekly remorseful.  She says she doesn't know what's wrong with her and how sorry she is.  Pietr interrupts with anger that he's heard this over and over, "She's sorry… she's sorry… So where does sorry leave me?"  In being passive and taking it, Gretchen presents herself as a sorry pathetic mess, and yet, successfully makes Pietr out to be the ogre.  His anger is from being manipulated into feeling he is the ogre for having unfulfilled needs.  Gretchen does not know how to reject the accusations—only to ingest them.  Speaking for her, the therapist can say, "What about your needs?  You're needs as an individual?  Your needs as a woman? You must be tired of being put down all the time, of always being the one who's wrong or screwed up.  Don't you want to tell Pietr to 'get off my damn back!' sometimes?"  Surprisingly, otherwise meek introjectors may take ownership of these feelings.  By speaking for the individual, that is speaking Gretchen's secret existential reality, the therapist confirms her right to be angry at her husband.  Metaphorically, she gets the right to not like spinach- to not ingest the poison.  The therapist models the overt communication styles and words that the individual has heretofore never had much experience practicing.  This reveals the covert and dysfunctional communication styles that have arisen in the relationship.  Pietr readily confirmed that he felt manipulated by her, and also disabled by her passivity.  Her behavior did feel like a major negative attack- a "screw off!" on him.  From this foundation, the therapist can now teach the couple and Gretchen in particular, how to fight with boundaries and ownership, with respect and dignity, and to connect, to understand, to feel, and to unite.

Cramer's comment bears repeating, "The use of defense mechanisms is a necessary part of normal development, and that defenses may be considered pathological only if they are used with too great intensity, or if they are age-inappropriate, or if they continue to be used in situations where they are no longer needed" (page 931).  Defense mechanisms and specific defense mechanisms should also be considered problematic if they are no longer effective, especially in desired intimate relationships.  They are problematic when they create and exacerbate negative dynamics and consequences.  Defense mechanisms are also cues to the therapist for diagnosis and for the direction of the relationship-focused therapy.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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