How Defensive States Prevent Self-Knowledge

Dr. Keith Witt Perspectives, Psychology, Video, Witt & Wisdom: Live with Dr. Keith 4 Comments



r. Keith and Corey navigate the psychological minefield of defensive states and shadow impulses that often diminish our capacity for wisdom, empathy, and self-knowledge.

Defenses block us from self knowledge

Mostly I focus on defensive states being distorted reactions to lack of safety that result in amped emotions, distorted perspectives, destructive impulses, and diminished capacities for empathy and self reflection.

The interpersonal purpose of all this is to protect us from the dangerous other by disconnecting emotionally and preparing for flight/fight, but there is also an intrapersonal aspect, reflected in our diminished abilities to self-reflect.

If we can’t effectively self-reflect when instantiating defensive states, we risk being locked into a rigid response to the feeling of certain threats and thus create a psychic block to growth and integration. This block constitutes a frozen part of our self–becoming more firmly programmed with each repetition–which blocks self-awareness, compromises intimacy, and inhibits personal evolution. In a complex system rigidity (like a locked perspective) and chaos (like an escalating conflicts) resist greater complexity.

Defensive states resist awareness of me acting badly.

Such defensive resistance to self-awareness is inevitable give the nature of human development. Our foundation moral systems are developed when we are preoperational and concrete operational–preoperational being non-logical/magical/non-linear cognitively, and concrete operational being black/white, either/or, not relativistic cognitively. Neither of these comprehends relativistic moral values like, “Good people can do bad things, but then turn them into good things with moral adjustments and right actions.” In a black/white moral system, if we act badly, we are at risk of being bad. If we do a shame-inducing act, we are at risk of being a shameful/worthless person. These values are our primitive deep moral programming and show up in states of diminished capacities like defensive states.

Our young and primitive adaptive unconscious defends against being bad or worthless by separating from the dangerous other (generating negative stories, destructive impulses, and diminished empathy), and resisting awareness of our own damaging acts/thoughts/intentions (lack of self-reflection) through a variety of defenses–all designed to disconnect from the other and avoid self-awareness of our own destructive thoughts/beliefs/impulses/behaviors.

Music by Justin Miles and Stuart Davis

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Dr. Keith Witt

About Keith Witt

Dr. Keith Witt is a Licensed Psychologist, teacher, and author who has lived and worked in Santa Barbara, CA. for over forty years. Dr. Witt is also the founder of The School of Love.

Corey deVos

About Corey deVos

Corey W. deVos is the proverbial "man behind the curtain". He is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996.

Notable Replies

  1. Let us know what you think of the discussion!

  2. Defensive states, by definition, probably inhibit all knowledge as they skew perspectives to become biased in favor of that defensiveness.

  3. I do my best to watch as many of your Integral live streams as possible (especially ones with Keith Witt), but somehow managed to miss this one.

    Not sure if it’s relevant, but it might be, so here it is:

    Compassion Prison Project - Childhood Trauma


    Just putting it out there!

    Thanks Bro!

    ps. Big respect for setting all this up and for hosting the live shows. I love the way you prepare questions, sum up key points and sit patiently during streams when the speaker waxes lyrical!

    I also attentively listen to your own points of views. eg. Your take on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which you mentioned again recently in a show with Ryan Oelke (Which i wouldn’t mind reading about somewhere if you have typed it out somewhere?)
    pps. have you ever thought of doing your own (live) show?

    Peace, and stay healthy!

    Greg B - fellow Dad

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