Ultimately, identifying and understanding defense mechanisms are important skills that aid in the assessment of and intervention with a client's adaptive and maladaptive responses to the environment. The utility of art therapy was aptly described by Levick (1983) when she said that art therapy "also provides an opportunity to re-experience conflict and then to resolve and to integrate the resolution" (p. 9). The employment of art not only served to identify the defenses but also allowed a safe forum in which the disquiet, trauma, and fear could be expressed while providing ample boundaries so that the anxiety was not overwhelming. In other instances it served to underscore the unconscious conflict and allowed a partial ego regression, which ultimately proved beneficial. In time, what makes the art therapy experience so valuable is the ability to vent repressed material, experiences, and emotions through the process.
It is important to make a distinction between a coping mechanism and a defense mechanism. In the examples provided, the individuals employed a rigid, unconscious style of thinking to protect themselves from anxiety, whereas a coping mechanism implies a desire to meet the troubles and contend with them on a conscious or, at worst, a preconscious level. A mal-adaptive defense mechanism is never utilized deliberately or consciously, while a coping mechanism can be called upon to master the problem rather than masking it.
We are now ready to examine adaptive adjustment through a discussion of how behavior develops in typical and predictable sequences and how these stages apply both to art therapy and to defense mechanisms. Finally, I will offer practical suggestions to enhance treatment.
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