Knowing When and How to Exit Gracefully

Grace is defined by Merriam Webster Online as, "unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification". I agree with the definition and can wholeheartedly react with disappointment at the notion that grace is a fleeting art form in many corners of our society. Somehow, we have gotten to a place in our time where being uncivil is not condemned. We have moved into a place where we somehow glorify the less than graceful act when it comes to our media - social media, television, radio, podcasts, etc. Yes, somehow speaking your mind has become the free pass for people to act as the living, breathing personification to anti-grace.

A fool 25 years ago still looks like a fool today!

My point? Being foolish doesn't change and looks the same today as it did years ago; as it will look years from now. Okay am I now sounding a bit harsh? Well perhaps that's the less than graceful side of me. I do believe it is foolish to behave in a manner that makes you the fool regardless of the point you're trying to make. Most importantly, I do believe in civility. My beliefs and experiences in the field of human performance and development led me to this article today - WE MUST DO BETTER ON EXITS.

As a consultant and former corporate leader I've seen and been involved with decision-making that led to another person's employment being terminated. Emotions are difficult to manage when there is a sudden change in employment. By policy (not always required by law depending on the state) an employer typically documents employee performance; including improvement plans that demonstrate the path to improvement as well as the path to termination. Legally an employer wants to minimize their legal exposure by exercising good business practices that are within the boundaries of the law. Here's a great clip I found that demonstrated a weird way to fire someone; but thankfully the person getting fired exercised grace. Check it out:

This clip cracks me up for several reasons. First, the temporary student worker thought enough to record the firing - that's amazing. Second, he was being fired for some pretty serious offenses - stealing the corporate credit card; using the card for his own personal expenses; pulling a fire alarm prior to the card having to be physically removed from his person. Yes, the events that led up to this moment were a disgrace, however the exit was about as graceful as it can possibly be (given the circumstances). The terminated worker even asked if the boss would hang out with him after work. You just have to love the calm demeanor. The reality is, exits at work don't always go so smoothly. 

We already know that feelings are interwoven into the ebbs and flows of a personal relationship. If it goes well (or not) is all connected to an overall happiness in each person's life. Whether it's platonic, or the couple type of relationships, things can get sticky on the exit. Inevitably when personal relationships sour they happen in a one-sided manner. Even if both saw the writing on the wall, one will always be ready before the other. Yes it is the imbalance that creates the moments of truth for grace. Every personality is different and therein lies the differences we see play out. 

Psychology suggests that there are a variety of defense mechanisms that emerge when a person's safety or security is threatened. Defense mechanisms are natural, and they are there to help protect you. Unfortunately, not all defense mechanisms produce healthy outcomes for a person. Understanding the psychology driving negative defense mechanisms will help you maintain your grace during these times. As you may expect, defense mechanisms are connected to the ego.

Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud provide the basis for psychoanalysis of ego defense mechanisms defining them as:

psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.

As I studied psychology from many perspectives, this one concept blew me away. You see we generally see a person "acting crazy" and that's how we dismiss the less than graceful behavior. Most people turn their backs on folks acting disgracefully. Most people acting disgracefully in response to sudden change in their life are doing so in defense of their own ego.

People acting disgracefully are often attempting to defend their own ego

When I understood that concept, I saw the entire world differently. I stopped turning my back to the people acting disorderly and either tried to help them or get them help.

What if the defense is directed toward you? Is it that easy to be the "bigger person"?

Of course it's not easy. Even a trained educator on psychology under attack may fail to see the signs as their own ego may kick in to protect themselves. Eureka!

The basis of many quarrels is a result of dueling defense mechanisms.

Yes, and it takes a village for all sides to see the forest from those trees. People spend years in feuds with others as their egos play ping pong. Reminds me of the original Atari, Inc. game - Pong? We had the system, complete with two knobs and a switch. Literally you're hitting a ball back and forth by turning a dial. If you got bored, you would align the rectangles (that were the virtual paddles) in such a way so that the ball would just keep going back and forth constantly.

That's how long-term feuds continue. Both sides position their egos in a way that the ball just keeps going back and forth, never dropping and no one winning. 
In case you weren't around for Pong, here's a video to showcase the example:

Funny to watch this game because it was all that and a bag of chips when I was young. But now that I am "not so young", and wiser with psychoanalysis at my educational fingertips, I ask the fundamental question:

Who wants to play with their time and psyche by going back and forth (and there's no win or end in site)?

Notice something else about this game? You must play to win. But in the game of dysfunctional egos, are you sure you want to win that game; or even play it? Here's a few of psychology's most documented negative outcome producing ego defense mechanisms:

This is the most common defense mechanism we see portrayed in television. One person just doesn't want to see what is clearly in front of them. Denial involves blocking out an experience totally so that the person does not have to experience it. Ever been around someone who just keeps acting like everything is still normal? Well it may not be an act at all. The event they are blocking may be so painful that they act as if it hadn't happened. When the psyche doesn't match up, the psychology will. 

Let's take a common scenario in adult life - a personal relationship breakup. One person wants to move on, the other not so much. For whatever the reasons for hanging onto a hapless relationship, the one who doesn't want a change, will work tirelessly even in a fantasy world to keep up the appearances of no changes. Even when faced with their partner telling them they want out, the person in denial begins to make excuses for their partner's statements. If this is prolonged, the person in denial will exhibit all sorts of unusual behaviors - posting pictures of the couple months or even years after the breakup as if they're still together. It is sad, but these acts are undoubtedly a cry for help in coping with reality.

This common ego defense mechanism is characterized by the person satisfying an impulse such as aggression with a substitute object (another person). I think we've all seen a little displacement on the commute from work. Aggression and emotion needs an outlet. If the ego defense mechanism has stepped in, it may not allow the person to direct their aggression at the real target, therefore an unsuspecting (and often disconnected) target receives the emotions. On the road it just may be you and things can get dicey.

Back to that personal relationship example. A breakup or traumatic event in the relationship can result in one person taking out their frustration on someone else. I've seen this play out when the "ex" goes after the "next". That's got to be the world's worst idea for a few reasons. First, the next partner has nothing to do with a failed prior relationship - therefore the next partner is not very understanding of the attacks. Second, it's just a waste of time to be naive and negligent toward anyone - it's not behavior that moves anyone forward. Does it feel good to the attacker? That's how the psychology of an ego defense mechanism works. The attacker is almost energized by their bad acts toward the next person in their exes life. The longer the acts of aggression last, the more you see the attacker using it as a way to remain close to their ex. This unchecked behavior can wreak havoc on all parties involved.

Has something taken a hold of the attacker? Yes, their ego and it holds a tighter and tighter grip as the circumstance continues. It is this actual defense mechanism where you recognize that they are acting totally outside of their character. It is true, ego defense mechanisms can completely change other's perception of you. Once this particular defense mechanism takes hold, it will consume more of the person as time moves on. When you see people not moving on with their lives, it is often times their defense mechanism keeping them anchored in incivility, attempting to shield them from the pain of the failed relationship.

Most people have seen movies about this ego defense mechanism as it is the "flip-the-script" behavior that makes for good film making. Projection is characterized as an individual attributing their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and motives to another person. There's a particular complexity to this ego defense mechanism because with this strategy, the person internalizes and acknowledges their unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and motives, but then somehow remixes it toward another person - seemingly playing innocent themselves.

That's a ton to digest. It's best unpacked with an example. In my 2016 book, "#Bully - #Woman2Woman" I depicted a story in which a woman was experiencing an emotional breakdown after a relationship breakup. The woman's response was to verbally disparage their former partner's next woman which included a barrage of online attacks. The twist (and there's always a twist), after several months of this bad behavior, the jilted lover began projecting their behavior onto the new woman; literally accusing the "next" woman of the bad behavior she had been up to! How is this possible? Is it even sane?

When an ego defense mechanism steps in, it makes the impossible, possible.

In this example, the person whose ego has taken over begins to believe their new "script" so that they become the victim and can gain support in trashing the other person. Twisted, but quite common with this ego defense mechanism.

This is a dangerous pattern of behavior that cannot be taken lightly. I've seen people believe their "twist" so much so that they attempt actionable steps to harm the other person. And let's remember, the other person is disconnected to their pain (in reality), but reality left the building a long time ago.

This is why having a healthy circle of family and friends around you is so important. We all fall from our own level of grace from time to time - that's human. Our circle should be there to keep us normal and help us return to our own level of grace. No one needs accomplices when they're dealing with this serious mental state; they need true friends unafraid to address reality. 

This ego defense mechanism (similar to denial) works to turn back the clock to a better time. Both Sigmund and Anna Freud characterized this mechanism as a movement back in psychological time when things were essentially less stressful and better. When we talk about people remaining in their "happy place", sometimes that requires regressing in time. Problem is that we live in a time continuum. We must progress through the timeline to live life. Pausing your living can wreak havoc on your psyche. Eventually you will have to travel down that time continuum. If you've delayed the trip too long, you will crash into reality and the pieces will become difficult to pick up.

Back to the ex that has trouble accepting their "ex status". I've seen people of all ages, genders, races, and sexual preferences go to regression as a defense mechanism. Why do they do it? Most often they don't want to have to answer questions to their closest friends and loved ones about why things didn't work out. People hate hearing the "I told you so" or receiving those looks of pity. It is easier for them to go back in time and just stay there. But that's not reality.

I've seen people post pictures of themselves with their ex as if the event had just happened. Remember they're living in the past with this ego defense mechanism - this does not seem abnormal to them. Imagine seeing a social media post of a person showcasing a special symbol (clothing, jewelry, etc.) from their ex a couple of years post relationship. Would you stop your friend? I hope you would! That's a cry for help and attention. Remember, this particular ego defense mechanism happens because the present is too painful for the person to address, so they simply go back in time. For some, that "back in time" moment makes them regress to teenage responses to adult problems. It's a sign, and it should be addressed for what it is - a need for help and guidance.

This common ego defense mechanism is characterized by the person taking their negative, dark thoughts about someone else and internalizing them. This mechanism almost always is executed poorly and fails for the person trying to employ the strategy. I call it the "slow leak" effect and it inevitably happens because pain and experiences fight to come out - that's how the brain works.

I've seen disgruntled people post pictures with guns in response to something that hurts their feelings. Now the picture itself is not showcasing harm toward the person they're upset with, but the timing is used as a subliminal message. These types of acts are employed in an attempt to showcase strength and power over the person they are actually upset with (their target). Much like projection, the person is "flipping the script" in a quasi-response to their own pain. This is dangerous and it has bad outcomes and consequences if it goes unaddressed. As a passive-aggressive strategy, it often flies under the radar from a circle of friends and family. Additionally, these acts can rise quickly and become problematic without warning.

Returning to the origins of this article - grace. If we normalize disgraceful acts, it makes it much more difficult to detect repressive behaviors happening around us. It's sickening to watch witnesses speak after a mass shooting and say the signs they saw, but just didn't take seriously.

We must help people who are hurting - before they hurt people that could have helped them.

The final most common negative ego defensive strategy is to satisfy an impulse with another object. This is hard to identify depending on the person. Take someone who does everything "big"; a shift and focus on something else in a "big" way may seem consistent with their personality rather than an outlier. 

In the case of the disappointed personal relationship, the term "retail therapy" became popular to give people the "high" or "fix" they were accustomed to in their relationship. Again, society has normalized sublimation. Ever watch a friend suggest drowning sorrows in a bottle of wine or two? Sublimation sneaks into every facet of our lives and we don't see it as unhealthy. It becomes a coping mechanism that transforms into a normal routine - and that's dangerous.

The ego is fragile for everyone. I know the self-proclaimed "tough guys" would like to project a super hero image when it comes to their egos, but it is a reality that we are all built with the same components on the inside. People experience pain and don't like it. In response to pain, we subconsciously rush to protect the wound. That protection is our ego; that band-aid is often times the wrong ego defensive strategies that get us to no better of a place. 

Understand with every entry there is an exit. Being realistic from the beginning is the best defense against the negative ego defensive strategies that place you in a rabbit hole. Whether your exit is planned, timed, unexpected, or a combination of those, exits happen. 

Ego will either be controlled by you,  or your Amygdala - and that's a hijack you can't afford to let happen.

When a person succumbs to a negative defensive mode of living, there is no rest for the weary. It becomes a constant battle to protect the ego at all costs. As time moves on in this state, a combination of defensive strategies must be employed to protect the ego. It becomes all about the ego. And when this happens, they've lost themselves. Depression and other anxiety-connected disorders begin to emerge as this game of ego plays out. It's not worth a person's mental health to succumb to egoistic games. Here's some "go to" strategies to keep you above the fray of negative ego defensive strategies:

#1 - Be honest with yourself and what's happening around you

#2 - Empower yourself to accept failures

#3 - Don't personalize failures, simply understand why they happened

#4 - Focus - Orchestrate your come up, instead of a come back

#5 - Prioritize your growth beyond the pain

Always speak up if you're struggling with something painful in your life. Society has grown accustomed to frowning upon having a therapist. It's not only healthy it just makes good sense. If you have a physical injury, you go see a doctor and potentially have to undergo rehab. The same is true for matters in your brain. Be important enough to yourself to reject negative ego defensive strategies to allow the real work to happen within you with a professional guiding the way.
Failure like success is not forever. Life will not be roses everyday, however it is your choice to smell the roses and step on the weeds. Being empowered is easier when you begin to implement these strategies in "good times". Being proactive is the successful person's secret weapon to handling life as it comes. I encourage you all to judge others less for their outbursts and help them by becoming part of their solution. Healthy living includes being mentally healthy. Grace, for the entrances and exits in our lives happens when there is a healthy mental balance. I'd love to hear your thoughts. Have you seen someone exhibiting these negative strategies and behaviors? How did you handle it? Let's talk in the comments. 
The Thibeaux Company takes mental health seriously. If you, or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, please seek assistance. The American Addiction Centers, Inc. is available 24 hours a day to help begin the healing process. You can call their hotline at 1-866-307-4205 or visit their website for more information at
Jennifer "drJ" Thibeaux is an American author, publisher, speaker, and entrepreneur. Leading The Thibeaux Company®, drJ hopes to impact human performance in a variety of industries. Working with executives and key influencers in Fortune 100 companies, drJ has developed a keen sense of performance in action. Earning business and education advanced degrees, drJ continues to insert intelligence into the performance conversation. Hosting and appearing on a variety of radio shows, podcasts, and other broadcast mediums, drJ has no "stop" in sight. To find out more about Jennifer "drJ" Thibeaux or products and projects from The Thibeaux Company®, be sure to visit

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