PSYCHOLOGICAL SELF-DEFENSE: A BASIC INTRODUCTION
Article by LiveReal Agents Grace and Thomas
Few of us have ever been taught anything about “psychological self-defense.”
In today’s world, however, it’s becoming an essential survival skill.
We explore the basics of those skills here.
A brief glimpse of the contents ahead:
Level I: Foundations, or Basic Building Blocks
Level II: Complex Attacks
Level III: The Ultimate Goal
Fortifying Defenses: 10 Basic Steps
No one deliberately tries to become a metaphorical fragile baby bunny in a world full of wolves.
But unless someone is educated along these lines, consciously and deliberately – or trains themselves – it’s easy to wind up vulnerable.
Martial arts primarily teach physical self-defense.
Physical self-defense is about protecting your body from someone who intends to inflict harm.
Psychological self-defense is about protecting your mind.
More specifically, it's about protecting minds and hearts, mental and emotional health, or our “self.”
These might seem less tangible or concrete than simply “defending my body.”
But it’s often much more real and intimate.
And things can get much weirder.
After all, if someone messes with our body, we typically know it.
But if someone messes with our mind (or heart), we might have no idea that anything happened at all. Sometimes we only realize it later, after the fact. Or, not. The most completely brainwashed is the person who never even suspects he’s brainwashed.
Normally, our minds and hearts control our bodies. This means guarding and defending them isn’t less serious than guarding our physical bodies – just the opposite.
Yet again, we’re often taught next to nothing along these lines.
This lack of preparation risks leaving us defenseless in a world of predators – bad actors that target our minds and hearts.
Minds and hearts are the basic ingredients in our psychological development.
Healthy physical development means a physical body grows to full maturity.
Healthy psychological development means a mind and heart (or “self”) grow to full maturity.
“Growing to full maturity” hardly tops anyone’s to-do list or plans for the weekend.
Yet ideally, from a certain perspective, we’re all “becoming ourselves.”
While our day-to-day experience often focuses on concrete tasks, a bigger overall process is at work. When we approach it from the angle of the Big Questions, we could describe it as “becoming yourself,” “knowing yourself,” or “becoming fully human” in the sense of “reaching our highest potential.” Humanistic psychology by way of Maslow described “self-actualization” or even “self-transcendence.”
To be clear, “self-actualization” doesn’t happen naturally.
We don’t naturally drift into self-actualization any more than we “accidentally drift” into creating a great work of art. It takes effort and skill.
In fact, there are forces that actively oppose healthy psychological development.
More bluntly: certain people don’t want us to “become ourselves.”
Some individuals would much rather us become cogs in their machines, or cannon-fodder for their creepy plans, or worker bees on their grand project to nowhere good. Some want to exploit us in ways that benefit only themselves as part of a grand human strip-mining operation. They want to extract everything valuable from us for themselves, and then discard us.
That might sound a bit ominous.
It’s a darker view than many of our more pampered modern sensibilities. But in harder times, this view of the world was taken for granted. The “tough-minded” worldview might have softened, but the nature of the world itself hasn’t necessarily changed. Better prepared and ready than naïve and surprised.
Psychological self-defense entails strengthening our ability to resist and overcome these kinds of forces.
Our goal is full psychological health and maturity – to become ourselves. Effective psychological self-defense equips us with some of the tools and skills we need for this effort to succeed. They’re necessary, especially if our environment is hostile.
But before we really get rolling, a few disclaimers.
This can be a broad and complex topic.
No one would learn a martial art from reading a single online article. The same applies here.
That said, arguably, we’re living in times of psychological warfare. Many individuals find themselves unprepared and ill-equipped for the mind-numbing, often perplexing conditions they find themselves in.
As a result, we sometimes aren’t aware of even the very basics in these areas. This is understandable. Expertise in this area is rare, and knowledge is often scattered and obscure. This includes us (the folks here at LiveReal.) We don’t hold ourselves up as licensed psychologists, counselors, or experts in these matters. Caution and humility in these areas are necessary at every step. Still, these are topics we all have experience with. In that spirit, we should be able to talk about it as friends in conversation.
And it doesn’t take much. In situations like these, knowing just a few principles of basic self-defense can help.
Here (again) is what we’ll cover ahead.
First, some very Basic Foundations. (“Level I”).
Then, some more Complex Scenarios (“Level II”).
After than, its ultimate End Goal (“Level III”), which can help put the entire process into perspective.
Finally, Ten Basic Tips for “what to do.”
Level I: Foundations, or Basic Building Blocks
6 Key Emotions in Psychological Self-Defense
The basic sense is “I’m under threat.”
Fear is used as a tool for control. (This is the case with all of the following.) It works to either 1) intimidate, which is direct and intense (as in “I’m going to do something bad to you,”) or 2) insinuate, which is indirect and less intense (as in “Coming up at six o’clock: 20 ways your toaster might kill you!”) Someone who is able to cause fear in another person is more able to control them. For example, the classic mafia trick is to 1) stoke fear, and then 2) offer protection 3) for a price. Someone who is afraid of another person or situation is easier to control.
The basic sense is “I’ve done something wrong.”
Guilt is a moral emotion. It’s a condition of failing to live up to a standard or code. It presumes a sense of “should,” as in “You should do this” or “You shouldn’t do that.” It’s also a key ingredient in a person’s sense of responsibility. Whether the moral “code” is real or imagined, legitimate or not, the effect can be the same emotionally. The basic dynamic involves one person making another feel guilty. Someone who can make another person feel guilty is more able to control them. Someone who can easily be made to feel guilty is easier to control.
The basic sense is “I’m bad.”
Shame is different from guilt. Guilt implies that an essentially good person did something wrong. Shame implies that individuals themselves are “wrong” or “bad.” The result involves a person imagining themselves to be fundamentally and irreparably flawed, defective, worthless, or worse. The lines between guilt and shame can be blurry, and often depend on levels of intensity. It can be powerful and destructive, and can have unintended consequences. Entire cultures have been built around it. Someone who is able to make another person feel shame is more able to control them. Someone who can easily be made to feel shame is easier to control.
The basic sense is “I have no idea what’s going on.”
In psychological self-defense, one person deliberately confuses the other through various means of misinformation, disinformation, misdirection, or other ways to scramble signals, create noise, and inflict chaos. Someone who is able to confuse another person is more able to control them. Someone who is confused is easier to control.
The basic sense is “I hate this person or persons.”
Resentment is about stirring hatred. The experience is one of despising another person or persons – “I blame this person or group of people as being responsible for something terrible.” It’s based on hostility and moral outrage. While Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung, Girard, and others have explored the anatomy and potential causes of this (sometimes as “ressentiment”), its role in psychological self-defense is fairly simple. One person can deliberately stoke resentment in another. This basic tactic involves agitating, highlighting, and inflaming real or imagined injustices – putting a finger right on the nerve, so to speak, or “twisting the knife.” The manipulator then points the resulting hostility in a direction that serves their purposes. For example, they might direct it toward their own enemy. They might use it to stoke a civil war in order to weaken competition. They might just do it for malevolent pleasure. (See Leland Gaunt in the movie Needful Things.) Someone who can stoke and direct resentment in another person can more easily control them. Someone who allows another person to stir and direct resentment in them is easier to control.
The basic sense is “I’m under pressure.”
In psychological self-defense, one person deliberately tries to induce a state of strain, discomfort, or tension in another. Someone who is able to make another person feel stress is more able to control them. Someone who is stressed is easier to control.
The above conditions aren’t comprehensive.
Plenty of other factors can come into play: ego, vanity, desire, envy, self-concept, relationships, seduction, lies, one’s sense of uniqueness, one’s sense of responsibility, idealism, and so on.
That said, the above are enough to get the conversation rolling.
These basic ingredients play out in a certain context.
These basic conditions operate within a larger context of pleasure and pain, punishment and reward. This raises the question of “coercion.”
Coercion is the use of force to compel someone to do something.
For example: “If you don’t do X, Y will happen” (or vice versa). (Eg: “If you don’t give me your milk money, I’ll pound you.” “If you don’t make Harvey Weinstein happy, you’ll never work in this town again.”)
Coercion is a brute-force tactic of raw power, which isn’t the focus of this article. The focus here is psychological.
People who mess with us try to target our ideas and emotions. If our ideas and emotions are completely out in the open and completely unguarded for all to see, they’re vulnerable. The idea, then, isn’t necessarily to lock them in a well-guarded inner fortress behind castle walls and a moat. But there is a “sweet spot” – a middle point between being totally exposed, defenseless, and vulnerable and having full shields up at all times.
With that in mind, all of the aspects mentioned above aren’t isolated components. They appear within a greater context. Specific elements of psychology depend on a larger foundation of “philosophical self-defense.”
The Foundation of Philosophical Self-Defense
Psychological self-defense is based on philosophical self-defense.
In other words, psychological strength depends on philosophical strength. A strong psychology depends on a strong life philosophy.
Why? In the same way the upper floors of a building depend on the ones below, one group depends on the other. One comes first, and the others only come after. One set is foundational, the other secondary.
“Defense” presumes that there’s someone or something to defend. It also presumes that there’s a good reason for defending it, an idea that they should defend it, a knowledge of what to defend against and how to defend against it, and the will and ability to do so. In other words, it presumes a metaphysic, an ethic, a teleology, an epistemology, and a psychology. (“Psychology” here refers to human nature or what some disciplines refer to as “philosophical anthropology.”)
With physical self-defense, the matter is clear: “What I want to defend is my physical body. Why? Because I want to survive.”
With philosophical self-defense, it’s less clear.
It raises basic questions. Who am I? What do I believe in? How should I live? What’s worth fighting for? What’s worth living or dying for? – and so on.
Lewis Carroll’s dark poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” illustrates the basic dynamic.
In the poem, the Walrus wants to eat some oysters. But he doesn’t simply storm the oyster bed using force. (Maybe he can’t.) Instead, he uses psychological methods in the form of simple misinformation (or lying.) He persuades the oysters to come along with him for “A pleasant Walk, a pleasant talk, Along the briny beach.” He convinces them that they’re friends, and the point of the walk is for them to have fun together or just enjoy things. The oysters agree, and come along.
Then the Walrus eats them.
This little fable can be understood as a kind of philosophical attack. He “attacks” the idea of who they are, what they’re doing, what they should do, why they should do it, and how they should do it. In other words, the Walrus uses persuasion with elements of metaphysics (“we’re all friends!”), ethics (“you should come along!”), teleology (“we’ll have fun!”), he implies that they could trust him (epistemology), and so on.
In this sense, the philosophical lays the groundwork for the psychological, and the psychological then sets the stage for the physical.
Had the Walrus simply gone straight for the physical, he might have had a smaller meal. (One wise old oyster was more philosophically/psychologically savvy than his eager young counterparts, and lived to tell the tale.)
The point is this: the effectiveness of one’s psychological self-defense is interconnected with the sturdiness of one’s life philosophy.
You can better defend yourself if you’re clear on who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how to do it.
While physical self-defense primarily defends one’s body, psychological self-defense is about defending one’s identity. This raises the question: Who am I, really? What am I? What am I doing? Clear answers to these questions help define one’s identity (or who one is in the world) which serves as the foundation of a healthy and strong ego.
A lack of philosophical self-defense tends to result in someone without a clear identity – someone who doesn’t seem to know who they are, or what they’re defending against, or why.
Part of psychological self defense, then, involves fortifying one’s philosophical self-defense.
With this in mind, we can move on to more complex dynamics.
Level II: Complex Attacks
Here are eight dynamics – in brief thumbnail sketches – that build on the elements above.
1) Passive Aggressiveness
Passive aggressiveness is a combination of deception and aggression. It’s self-interest that wears a mask, or the behavior of a person who pretends to be friendly but is actually hostile. The hostility isn’t expressed directly, but is disguised under a seemingly harmless veneer of helpfulness, politeness, or selfless generosity. Examples include sarcasm, backhanded compliments, denial, sending mixed signals, playing the role of a victim, dishonest framing of a situation, subtle sabotage, “just joking,” deliberately misunderstanding someone, and general frenemy-type behavior.
2) Emotional Blackmail
Author Susan Forward describes emotional blackmail is a relationship dynamic that capitalizes on “FOG” or fear, obligation (responsibility, stemming from ethics), or guilt. This can employ a dynamic involving three basic steps:
- fear of going against someone (eg disagreeing)
- the obligation to give them their way, and
- guilt if they resist.
Forward (with Donna Franzier) mapped four types of threat involved in emotional blackmail:
“Punisher”: Eat the food I cooked for you, or I'll hurt you.
“Self-punisher”: Eat the food I cooked for you, or I'll hurt myself.
“Sufferer”: Eat the food I cooked for you. I was saving it for myself. I wonder what will happen now.
“Tantalizer”: Eat the food I cooked for you, and you just may get a really yummy dessert.
3) Moral Blackmail
Moral blackmail is about assigning responsibility for terrible situations. “If you do X, terrible things will happen.” “If you do Y, people will die.” “If you don’t do Z, the world will end.” It often reduces a complex situation to one that’s overly simple, and can boil a web of multiple causes down to a single cause-effect relationship. It also seeks to define a person (via philosophy/metaphysics) based entirely on a person adopting a specific position. Eg: “If you disagree with me on a topic (which I describe and frame in a very narrow way), then you are a bad person.”
Politicians employ this tactic often. “Something good happened? I was responsible for that. Something bad happened? Someone or something else was responsible.” With this tactic, what actually happens matters less than the story about it afterward.
4) The Straw Man
The Straw Man is about caricaturing someone’s position in a way that misrepresents their actual position. It typically presents the target as defending a position they aren’t actually defending. It often continues to argue against that false position despite all efforts to state otherwise, and refuses to acknowledge efforts to correct the misrepresentation. It boils down to a form of slander.
5) Inducing Cognitive Dissonance
This tactic points out real or apparent contradictions. It mirrors Socrates (as described by Plato), who would routinely put someone’s statements, arguments, or character under close scrutiny. This scrutiny would often revealing contradictions. “You say X, yet your behavior indicates Y.” Human nature naturally seeks unity and integrity – meaning, we instinctively want to know if someone is what they appear to be. (The opposite is one of dis-integration or one definition of “schizophrenia” where “things don’t fit together.” A contradiction suggests that a person isn’t who they appear to be. A person isn’t one, but two (as in “two-faced”) or even more. In a word, this tactic focuses on hypocrisy, real or imagined, and seeks to bring contradictions to awareness. (This can be done in a benevolent way, as in Socrates searching for truth, or it can be weaponized so that it becomes hostile.)
A strong enough contradiction can create an existential crisis in an individual. A major existential crisis can lead to the destruction of identity. If an individual’s prior identity has been demolished, that person is more easily controlled.
6) Attacks on identity
This tactic involves the basic message: “You aren’t who you think you are.” It’s a frontal assault on one’s ego. This can mean mocking, ridiculing, heckling, interrogating, undermining, or any form of questioning the basic foundations of a person’s identity.
Gaslighting is closely related to someone targeting our philosophical fitness. Both deal with someone taking aim at our deepest beliefs, perceptions, identity, and so on, and working to undermine them.
Gaslighting, as classically defined, means causing someone to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories. It leads to confusion, self-doubt, loss of confidence, and in extreme cases, uncertainty about one’s own sanity, or emotional or mental stability. Relentless gaslighting over time can make a psychologically healthy person weaker. In its most toxic forms, it’s deliberate psychological destruction. For fictionalized demonstrations of extreme forms of gaslighting, see the movies Needful Things, Les Diaboliques (the 1955 version, later remade as Diabolique (1996)), or the film that originated the term, Gas Light (1944).
(Side note: Reverse-gaslighting is also possible, and would be an interesting field of study. That would entail the manipulation of reality in ways that bring out one’s best potentials instead of the worst. (See the movie The Game.)
Demoralization means, in essence, “I give up.” It can mean an individual loses hope, at least temporarily. It can happen due to an aggressor deliberately seeking out their pillars of hope with the aim of collapsing them. As a result of an extended period of toxic psychological attacks, misinformation, or various other adverse circumstances, a person can “lose morale” or become de-moral-ized in the sense that they lose their own inner or moral compass. That makes them easier to control.
Level III: The Ultimate Goal
Where does a lack of psychological self-defense ultimately lead?
What are the worst psychological abusers and predators after?
If the basic foundational building blocks (Level I) escalate into complex attacks (Level II) and continue over time without being checked, what is the eventual result?
Call it “self-rejection.”
If “the point” in life is to become yourself – to become fully human, self-actualized, or “fully yourself,” then self-rejection is the opposite. It entails abandoning the effort to become yourself.
Psychological attacks come from another person – up to a certain point. But beyond that point, there’s a turn, and individuals can turn against themselves. Beyond this point, the attacks can come from within. Psychoanalysts coined the term “introjection” to describes some aspects of this.
“Self-abdication” is another term for this dynamic. In the way a potential king or queen can abdicate a throne, an individual can abdicate their own “self.”
Many thinkers have described this basic dynamic in several different ways.
Soren Kierkegaard described the dynamic of “losing oneself” nearly two centuries ago. He described in some depth several different ways to “fail to become a self” (which are briefly explored here.) He described “leveling,” or a process of suppressing individuality or eradicating an individual’s uniqueness, leading to a sense of depersonalization and meaninglessness that Camus, Kafka, Tillich, and others later explored. As Kierkegaard stated: “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
Paul Tillich describes the “loss of being” in his book The Courage to Be. He explores the forces at work in this dynamic, such as “that which tends to prevent the self from affirming itself,” or “nonbeing.” He describes the antidote as having “the courage to be.”
Rollo May described such dynamics as “The Loss of the Sense of Self” and “The Loss of the Center of Values in Our Society” by exploring works from Nietzsche, Camus, Kafka, and Henry Miller, as well as psychoanalytic theory and more. (“He never knew who he was” was a key line from Miller’s Death of a Salesman.) As May says, “Many persons…have lost their conviction of how crucially important the problem of rediscovering the sense of self is.” (from Man’s Search for Himself).
R. D. Laing contrasted “ontological insecurity” with someone who is ontologically secure. In essence, one has a secure self, and the other doesn’t. As he says, an “…ontologically secure person will encounter all the hazards of life…from a centrally firm sense of his own and other people’s reality and identity…” as a “…real, alive, whole, and…continuous person.” But for those who aren’t “ontologically secure” (which can include fundamentally healthy and sane individuals who are just sensitive to this sort of thing) – “…his identity and autonomy are always in question.” The ontologically insecure person “…is preoccupied with preserving rather than gratifying himself…If such a basis for living has not been reached, the ordinary circumstances of everyday life constitute a continual and daily threat…” Along these lines, “…he has to become absorbed in contriving ways…to prevent himself losing his self.” (Quotes from The Divided Self)
Arno Guen, a psychoanalyst and author, describes “the betrayal of the self” and explores how it can sometimes lead to violence in his books The Insanity of Normality and The Betrayal of the Self.
Michael Polanyi describes a condition he calls “moral inversion.” Moral inversion is the outcome of 1) the lack of moral framework (or moral nihilism), and 2) a desire or demand for moral perfection. The result converts a human being into something like a psychological unguided missile (in our words, not his.) A reductionistic, hard-skeptical-materialist worldview can undermine one’s ability to speak about right and wrong to the degree that it makes one morally muzzled, and therefore mute. This can lead to a condition of “homeless moral passions with no outlet.” These passions can then be channeled in various directions – such as into less-than-wholesome ideologies – which can be profoundly destructive.
Finally, George Orwell portrayed self-rejection as the goal of totalitarian manipulators in his classic novel 1984. Toward the end of the novel (spoiler alert), the protagonist gets tortured until he finally relents and states that two plus two equals five.
Why was that? What was going on there? Why was forcing someone to say that 2+2=5 such an important goal?
2+2=5 is obviously absurd. There’s no need for additional “proof” or “evidence” of its absurdity. It’s self-evident, or “common sense.” And common sense is exactly what’s under deliberate attack.
In order for an individual to state that an absurdity is true, that person has to reject their own common sense.
If we surrender our common sense – our deeply-rooted, basic grasp of fundamental reality and our confidence in our ability to know it – we become unanchored. We’re then left with no map or compass, no direction, no reliable reference for what’s real or phony. Once unmoored, we’re vulnerable. In Nietzsche’s words, “What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backwards, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as though through Infinite nothing?” If this is the case, we can then be talked into almost anything, because any direction is better than just spinning our wheels, going nowhere.
This leads to a person rejecting the authority of their own experience. A person in this condition might see something with their own eyes, but an authority figure might tell them something completely different and contradictory. In the case of someone who has rejected themselves in this way, they will believe the authority figure instead of their own experience (or their own common sense, or themselves.) This even happens in small ways quite often. (See especially the Asch experiments.)
In 1984, then, “the Party” brainwashes individuals into accepting absurd truths as a mechanism of control.
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
“In the end, the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense. And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right. For, after all, how do we know that two and two make four? Or that the force of gravity works? Or that the past is unchangeable? If both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable—what then?”
The above are just a sample of seven thinkers on what we’re calling “self-rejection.”
They obviously each dive much deeper than these thumbnail sketches, and many other thinkers aren’t even mentioned here.
Other terms are used to describe this basic dynamic. “Menticide” or a “homicide of the mind,” “psychical violence,” being “depersonalized,” or “de-personed,” “objectified” or turned into an object, are a few. There are many to describe this, but the ultimate aim is the same: a condition where an individual gives up on himself or herself and hands control over to another. It’s a transfer of authority that results in a kind of human strip mining.
Clearly, this is a grim topic.
But there’s reason for hope. Learning even some of the basics of all this can strengthen our defenses by an order of magnitude. And human nature is resilient.
An important step, though, is to fortify our defenses.
Fortifying Defenses: 10 Basic Steps
Everyone can strengthen defenses against aggressors who want to mess with minds and hearts.
Again, disclaimers: no one would hope to master a martial art from a single online article. That applies here as well. As discussed below, becoming capable along these lines involves a certain way of life. This isn’t an area for quick fixes.
There’s also plenty of room for caution and humility in all of this. Joost Merloo stated that “….everybody can be brought to a breaking point regardless of how well-informed and counterindoctrinated he may be.” Training in self-defense doesn’t guarantee a win in every fight, but it does change the odds.
This applies especially in a field of study that hardly exists in the narrow circles of mainstream institutional psychology. Nearly all resources in these areas seem bent on learning how to manipulate other people, not helping people learn to avoid being manipulated. The reasons for this aren’t mysterious. One generally tends to be much more profitable.
“It’s easier to fool people
than to convince them that they have been fooled.”
- Mark Twain (likely)
That said, even a few basic moves can make someone vastly less easy to mess with.
Here are 10 tips that can point us in the right direction.
1) Learn the game
The antidote in much of this is simply awareness. Certain activities can only take place in the dark. Psychological attacks often work like the tricks of stage magicians: they’re only effective when we don’t see what they’re actually doing. Magicians use sleight-of-hand to distract us into looking in one direction while the important stuff happens somewhere else. But the more someone understands the game, the less easily they’re fooled. The naïve and inexperienced are most at risk. Toward this end, learning the basic dynamics described above (and others) can help anyone “learn the language.” The ability to spot multi-layered communication (seeming to say one thing while actually saying another), framing false dilemmas, and implicit assumptions buried within phrases are just a few examples.
2) Develop Spidey-senses for toxicity
One of the key powers of psychological trickery is its invisibility. It can be difficult to spot in the heat of the moment. (“That person just paid me five compliments. So, why do I feel insulted?”) Noticing what happens as a result of interactions can be revealing. If a person always seems completely innocent – yet conflict, drama, and trouble constantly follow in their wake – then something is probably going on. Coincidence only goes so far. Instincts, feelings, and hunches can be trusty guides here. But beyond a point, whenever possible, the best defense is simply to avoid the conflict. Psychological self-defense isn’t about winning arguments or persuasion but self-preservation. Untangling a complex web of deception and misinformation can be draining, but avoiding toxic people can be relatively simple. The same goes for situations. Social media, for example, can be both toxic and addictive. But we can just turn it off and step away. There’s a lot of power and freedom in not getting involved.
3) Practice antidotes
“Antidotes” to psychological toxins are skills that can be developed and practiced. The antidote to fear, for example, is courage. The antidote to guilt is a clear conscience, self-assertiveness, and moral clarity. The antidote to resentment is forgiveness. The antidote to confusion is a high-functioning baloney-detector and a sturdy life philosophy. The antidote to shame involves healthy confidence, a clear conscience, self-assertiveness, and moral clarity. These can sound simple in theory, but in practice, it’s a challenge. That said, “practice” can happen amid routine circumstances by approaching daily life as a kind of gym. Everyday activities can become ways to “work out.” The everyday obstacles we encounter can become “weights” we lift to become stronger. Everyday annoyances can transform into opportunities to practice patience and the ability to stay cool under pressure, for example. We can deliberately speak up up more assertively than usual in order to develop more courage. While each “antidote” can be explored in greater depth, they can all work together in the direction of developing antidotes, or inner antibodies, to various toxic conditions. This can lead to greater self-mastery. In the spirit of the Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
4) Grow more emotional intelligence
Emotional literacy doesn’t happen naturally. A lack of self-awareness isn’t rare (something Einstein noted.) We can experience shame, for example, without ever consciously thinking, “I just felt a sense of shame.” We might experience anger, but blame the external the world exclusively, with no self-reflection at all. We might feel guilty about something but immediately try to distract ourselves from it. We might become confused but bury that confusion right away under a layer of false certainty or bravado. And so on. Emotional intelligence requires degrees of self-awareness, humility, and ruthless honesty. While it’s possible to lose the thread of emotions – especially in moments of high drama, when complex feelings can fire in multiple directions simultaneously – clarity is a key ingredient. Becoming more emotionally literate – so that we detect, understand, and make sense of our emotions – can help us get more in tune with what’s happening in and around us. (See The Psychology Arena.)
5) Fortify your philosophical self-defense
As stated above, psychological self-defense is based on philosophical self-defense. We won’t defend ourselves well unless we know who and what we are (metaphysics), believe we should defend ourselves (ethics), believe defending ourselves is worthwhile (teleology), and so on. Toward this end, it can be extremely helpful to clarify and fortify your life philosophy or worldview. This can mean articulating strong, clear answers to The Big Questions. Existential fitness, inner strength, and a touch of Stoicism, can translate to the psychological. Know thyself, or “know who you are,” and work to make this part of one’s everyday life. Practical skills such as assertiveness training and verbal self-defense can be helpful here.
6) Adopt or maintain a steady contemplative practice
Our best insights often come in moments of quiet. Sometimes this is accidental, like the joke about getting our best ideas in the bathroom. A contemplative practice, however, approaches that deliberately. It harnesses that dynamic in order to a steady diet of “quiet moments” – and the ideas and insights that come along with those – a daily routine. If all goes well, that results in revving up the number of ideas and insights. As Blaise Pascal noted, “I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man’s being unable to sit still in a room.” Goethe said, “A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world’s torrent.” The alternation between “quiet” and “torrent” can serve as the back-and-forth that sharpens us into becoming psychologically tougher.
7) Get tired of bull
The very concept of “truth” is under a lot of fire these days. The idea is sometimes that “nobody knows anything, or that truth doesn’t exist, or even if it does exist, it’s so complex that we’ll never understand it. (“Nobody knows anything.”) Or, the idea sometimes is that “I have a total monopoly on truth, while you have no idea whatsoever.” But these are power plays, not valid arguments. Unfortunately, this type of thing is becoming more common. (It’s now part of living through The Death of God, or the death of “Truth.”) But recognizing these as mere power plays and disinformation techniques can expose them as empty bluffs. It can sap their pretense of authority. After all, contradictions abound. “Do you know that ‘nobody knows anything?’” Is it true that “there is no truth”? While postmodern thought seems engineered to induce confusion and absurdity, there are answers to postmodernism. This can also point toward a less strenuous way to resist. Instead of pitting one individual against another individual in a match of brute strength, individuals can instead work to align themselves on the side of truth, which can be a powerful ally.
8) Stay Weird
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” While we’re all similar in some ways, each of us is also unique, even down to our fingerprints. To become ourselves, or become fully human, or reach our highest potential and etc., is incompatible with becoming a cog in someone else’s machine. While there are plenty of forces at work that want nothing more than to reduce each of us to cogs in their machines, we can, and should, resist.
9) Build support networks
Isolation and loneliness are key ingredients for those who want to mess with us. Keeping people lonely and divided is a strategy to divide and conquer. Standing up when it’s one against many is difficult. When it’s two or more against many, it’s exponentially easier. In a larger sense, it’s all interconnected. It’s possible to study psychological self-defense, but in practice, self-defense is interconnected with everything else. For example, a heroin addict might practice becoming more assertive. But as long as he’s using, there are limits to how assertive he can be with his supplier. We can practice skills to become psychologically, verbally, and intellectually tougher, but our emotions are typically connected with our actions, our relationships, our livelihood, our spirituality or lack thereof, our basic beliefs about the world and ourselves, and everything else. This leads to a holistic approach, or a way of life.
10) It’s a way of life.
Some problems are everything problems – difficult problems that are interconnected with other difficult problems. In some ways, psychological self-defense is an everything problem. Solving these can seem impossible at first because there are so many variables that are dependent on other variables, resulting in a vast and complex web of causes and effects. But this can work to our advantage. Certain changes have a ripple effect. Focusing on small changes can snowball, resulting in multiple changes that lead to momentum. Positive changes can reinforce other positive changes, which can build even more momentum. While becoming proficient at psychological self-defense doesn’t happen overnight, it’s possible to play the long game to great effect. Even knowing some of the basics can be a huge advantage compared to the rest of the world. The net result can mean a way of life that is, for lack of better words, pretty good.
LiveReal, by the way, is about living “this way of life.”
So, that’s a basic overview of psychological self-defense.
Applying the above should make your heart and mind at least a little safer, and your self a little saner.
Efforts in this direction should help make room for the more important stuff – like relationships, joy, and dumb, funny movies.
Thoughts? Feedback? Key points we missed? Send any suggestions here, or join the discussion here.
Bonus Content: Biderman's Chart of Coercion, created originally by USAF social scientist Albert D. Biderman. This was created to demonstrate and explain the coercive methods used on prisoners of war as well as in cases of domestic abuse. (Source: Amnesty International)