How Mental Illness Protects Clients Wounded by Trauma By Tom Medlar, LMHC on 1/12/23 - 2:02 AM

All persons, those with and those without a mental disorder, exhibit both conscious and unconscious defense mechanisms. Conscious defense mechanisms are organized by, and act in service of the ego and seek to preserve the integrity of the person’s self-image. Unconscious defense mechanisms are organized by the unconscious mind — the mind’s mind — and serve the integrity of the whole person.

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Rationalizations and Reflections

Rationalizations about the symptoms of a mental illness (for one with a mental illness), or about the vagaries of one’s actions (for one without a mental illness), are a form of conscious defense. Reflect briefly on the excuses you make, and you can see examples of a conscious defense in service of your projected or preferred self-image.

In my clinical experience, some persons with a mental illness devise alternate explanations for their diagnosis in ways that help preserve a sense of personal integrity. “I don’t think I have schizophrenia, I am a psychic,” said one female resident at a nursing facility where I provide counseling. “I don’t use the word schizophrenia, I think I have time-travel and mind-travel,” said a male resident. “It’s not right to say I have schizophrenia,” said another woman. “I have PTSD because of the things I’ve heard and seen being done by the government and the mafia.”

If the person admits to the disorder of their mind as an illness, it could imply that they cannot rely on their mind for coherence or integrity, and so feel like a kaleidoscope of fragments without coherence. That would truly be terrifying.

The defensive rationalization might provide an explanation that bestows a special significance to the person—I am gifted; set apart from others, unique, contending with things others know nothing about. Such rationalizations exist in a borderland between the conscious and unconscious mind; they are partly delusion and partly ego repair. Rationalizations are at least partially conceived by the conscious mind, while delusions are sensed as received, and incontrovertibly true; they have the authority of otherness.

Delusions, like defensive rationalizations, tend to serve a purpose yet they may originate from a deeper element of the psyche. Delusions can sometimes offer a glimpse into the working of a broader intelligence within the psyche. Fortunately, we are more than the contents of our conscious minds. We each are served by a deeper source of intelligence and creativity, the unconscious mind that envelopes the ego and seeks to broaden its understanding and foster its wholeness.

Manifestations of the individual unconscious can be seen in dreams, and the power of the archetypes of the collective unconscious can be seen in large social situations—witness the power of the archetype in the world-wide response to the recent death of Queen Elizabeth, for example (I think it is important, though, to view Queen Elizabeth as a rare living exemplar of the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude).

Dream-Digging as Archeology of the Soul

Many years ago, I wrote a master’s thesis entitled “Dream-Digging: Archeology of the Soul,” in which I excavated through a stack of journals in which I had been writing my dreams over a 17-year period, examining the appearance and actions of a particular recurring image, that of a snake.

As part of my preparation for practicing psychotherapy, I had undertaken a two year long Jungian dream analysis. Each week I would type — on a manual typewriter with a sheet of blue carbon paper between two sheets of paper, so that I would have a copy — the dreams I had collected that week in my journal and would explore their meanings with the analyst.

Noticing the sometimes-ingenious incursions of the unconscious mind into daily life is not limited though, to dream analysis or to the study of archetypes. One can even notice the protective functioning of the mind's mind in the tragic consequences of trauma with dissociative features. Consider the following examples from my clinical work in nursing facilities.

Hazel’s Front Line Defense

Hazel was a 94-year-old lady living in a nursing facility. She was alert and quite talkative and actively wheeled through the building daily in her wheelchair—and always wore a red terry cloth bathrobe over her clothes. In childhood, she and her sisters were repeatedly sexually assaulted by their father who eventually went to prison for his crimes.

Hazel had an encapsulated psychosis with delusions involving possible threat from demons. She believed that many years ago demons had entered her childhood bedroom through hidden doors, and she claimed that one time while brushing her hair, she saw in the mirror that Satan was in her bedroom doorway. She felt the need to be perpetually on guard to notice and defend against any re-occurrence of demon activity.

Through the unconscious and protective functioning of dissociation, she split off awareness of her father sneaking into her room or looming ominously and projected it as having a supernatural source from which she might thereafter protect herself, if adequately vigilant. Her omnipresent red bathrobe also pointed symbolically as a sort of alarm, a warning about the earlier scene of the crimes.

Lucy’s Isolation as Protection

Similar in many ways to Hazel, Lucy was serially raped by her father and uncles over several years in her early adolescence. Lucy described leaving her body and floating at the ceiling and watching what was happening to her body below during assaults.

Due to severe trauma, she subsequently suffered from mental illness with dissociative features. She rarely chose to tell others of her thoughts and feelings because, “they’ll think it’s just all schizophrenic stuff.’ She isolated herself in her room at the nursing facility, wearing only hospital gowns, and kept the curtains drawn around her bed. She complained periodically that something had gone wrong with her mattress, and that she needed another one or it would make her ill. Lucy believed that she was supernaturally ordered not to wear clothes, and that they would make her ill if she did.

Lucy told me that the men who assaulted her were not actually to blame, because they were under the control of an evil spirit who made them do what they did. Again, we see how the symptoms of wearing only nightclothes and the sometimes-sickening mattress point to the earlier scene of the crimes. Her unconscious dissociative and psychiatric symptoms allowed her to imagine that her persecutors were not responsible for her abuse, and that she might be safe now if she lived within restrictive parameters.

Her goal in psychotherapy was simply to sustain her daily stability with as little change as possible in her daily routines. Lucy described living in her own world, which was more satisfying for her because the outer world had been so painful for her. She viewed psychotherapy conversations as a kind of visiting at the doors of our different worlds, where she could greet me and offer a report about how she was doing in her world.


The symptoms of mental illness can sometimes seem chaotic, yet while irrational, they may still be filled with meanings, and can point to their origins and to the unconscious strategies that help sustain a broken psyche. As a psychotherapist, I have come to notice and work with the often-clever manifestations of the “mind’s mind” as I have tried to decipher the hieroglyphic language of disordered thinking and acting that has been brought about by trauma, and by the creative efforts of the unconscious to try and manage the destruction.  

Questions for Clinical Thought

Can you think of clients with whom you’ve worked where this perspective might have helped, or may help?

How useful or not are the unconscious mind and ego defenses as therapeutic concepts?  

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections