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Who am I Becoming?Views: 790
Nov 24, 2008 12:40 amWho am I Becoming?#

John Stephen Veitch
George E Vaillant's book, Adaptation to Life, was published in 1971, and is now out of print. A good library might have one in stack. It's one of the most influential books in my life. I try below to give you essence of what it's about.

It's a very difficult book to read, written for a professional audience of psychiatrists. I had three goes at it before I understood what it was saying. Some of the chapters were unreadable, for me, until I understood the purpose of the book, and what exactly "defenses" are.

Vaillant was the lead researcher in the "Grant Study" which in began one of the very first long term studies of human life. The idea was to choose a group of young men, the top 2% of the population from the very best schools. The selection was made in 1942 when these men were 19 or 20. A large number selected originally for their academic ability were reduced to 256 men, because they also had to be socially popular, and athletically talented and acknowledged as leaders to be accepted.

Of course some of these men ended up serving overseas, some seeing action, but none of them were killed. The study interviewed these men every 5 years, so they had been in the study for 40 years when the book was published, and were now aged 59 or 60.

The main point of the book was the psychological defenses can't be controlled. They are spontaneous for each individual. They change over time. Vaillant describes our defenses as immature, neurotic and mature. Defenses become more mature when we have good models and when our own mental health is in good order. But we are all capable of behaving in immature ways. It's inappropriate to offer credit or criticism for the way anyone responds. They do what works for them.

However, neurotic defenses are the most common coping mechanism among mature adults. (We worry a lot.) If this results in us getting off our tails and doing something useful, worry is good. If worry stops us being effective, worry is bad.

Immature, defenses totally protect the user. Teenagers are experts. Walking out, self-harm, revenge, fantasy, or blaming others would be typical. This WORKS, for the user, but it drives everyone else bonkers. (Excessive use of these tools my be a sign of mental illness.)

Mature defenses I see often on Ryze. Planning, helping other people, ignoring hurtful comments, laughing at your own disaster. The MOST used mature defence, is one we might not see as "good" today. The English idea of the stiff upper lip. "I see the problem but I can't change it, so I CHOOSE not to let it get in the road of my, duty, life, work, or pleasure." (Suppression) Lots of people do it and most of the time it works very well.

Two defenses are very elegant. Altruism: taking the pain you have experienced yourself and using that energy to offer help and healing to others. Humour: seeing the results of your very best efforts turn to custard, having the capacity to see the disaster clearly, realize that the milk has been spilt, and to laugh that disaster away as you begin again.

Of the 256, two were killed in accidents, two at the time of writing were in political disgrace (no personal fault in either case apparently, part of the wrong group.). For the rest all and had both success and failure. Life offers everybody challenges you cannot anticipate and cannot plan for. Things go wrong. The secret to success is how you ADAPT. Those with more mature coping mechanism (defenses) feel more pain, but change more quickly and easily. Those who invest too much energy in worry, or who use immature strategies like blaming, make less progress and struggle for longer.

You can't control the defences you use. Nor can you understand your own use of defenses. Such insight is hidden from us. Nor according to Vaillant is there any value in trying to do so. What is of value, is the knowledge that in the experience of pain, in talking about your problems, in the process of working with other people in groups and in trying to help each other to solve problems, people are learning good role models, and they are practising the use of mature defences. That is a little tip worth knowing.

John Stephen Veitch
Open Future Limited - http://www.openfuture.biz/
Innovation Network - http://veech-network.ryze.com/
Building an Open Future - http://openfuture-network.ryze.com/

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