In his Introductory Lectures to psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud used a very simple analogy to explain the relationship between the id (our animal instinct) and the ego (our common sense). He described it to be like the relationship between a rider and a horse, which sounds simple enough. The animal is the id, the rider atop the animal is the ego. What was, and still is, unpopular about this analogy is that, for Freud, the horse—not the human—is the one in charge. Much as the rider may have the pretense of guiding the horse forward, to the destination he or she wills, it is the horse who carries all the power. Our lives, more or less, are directed by the beast (to get Freudian) between our two legs. One of our favorite shrink-philosophers Adam Phillips wrote that this understanding “makes a mockery of our ideals of purpose, of progress, of autonomy.” He goes on to explain, in this scenario, what use the ego is at all. In short, not much:

The rider is at once masterful—he looks masterful, as the great portraits of the mounted kings and emperors suggest—and helpless, competent but fundamentally incapable. Where then, Freud wants us to ask, does our competence reside, what is our skill or our talent, what can we do if the rider is too often obliged to guide the horse along the path it wants to go in? And Freud’s answer is very simple: the competence of the ego is in its capacity to defend itself; and to defend itself, above all, as Freud’s image of the rider and his horse intimates, from the knowledge of this helplessness. Like all simple answers, this has complicated consequences.

The consequences, of this massive cover-up project against helplessness, make up the wide world of defense mechanisms. We could say that our defense mechanisms are the ways we keep riding the horse and looking the part. Even when the inkling surfaces that we might be in serious danger, or that the horse may be taking us where we do not want to go, defense mechanisms are the ways we defend ourselves against reality. Whether that inkling is “She doesn’t love me,” or “I have let this get out of control,” or “Oh my god, I am going to die,” we shield off these thoughts with subconscious evasive tactics. It doesn’t take us off the horse, it doesn’t even change our fate, but it allows us the cold comfort of a more pleasant lie. For Freud, what we are always defending ourselves against is helplessness.

While some defense mechanisms come developmentally later, some we get early on. Regression is the term designated for returning to earlier developmental defense mechanism. You know the sort: kicking walls when your team loses, whining pathetically about the caked-over baking dish, crying (literally crying) about the clothes that got left wet in the washer. If you’ve ever been told to “stop acting like a baby,” or you have issued that command to someone you love, you’ve lived near regression. Regression means taking the position of a child in some stressful scenario. It is an attempt to retreat into a time when these sorts of stressors did not exist or did not demand their responsibility. Rather than pretending you are a strong rider riding a well-trained horse, you return to a day when such questions meant nothing. You fall off the horse, and wait for someone to pick you up and carry you to bed.

We all do this, in some shape or form. Maybe you don’t kick and scream and sleep with your teddy, but you do something. Maybe you inadvertently pork out on a friend’s curly fries across the table. Maybe you smoke. Maybe you go to your room and stress-clean. Maybe you watch the same Friends episode you’ve seen a hundred times before. Freud believed there are fixations we have and return to when the going gets tough. The difficulty with these regressive acts, these retreats into the past, is that they do not fit with the “responsible adult” astride the horse we are supposed to be. They appear childish. Much as we may like to have the perspective and autonomy of a real adult, taking on the challenges of life with purpose, we don’t. The demands have outweighed our capacity to withstand them, so we flee helplessly into the past. We set out for a child’s time, a never-never-land of simplicity, where such problems were always dealt with without us. In other words, we start acting like a baby precisely because we feel like babies—completely helpless before the problem at hand. We just have the disadvantage of looking like capable adults.

Regression is not a useless mechanism. Like displacement, these outbursts of immaturity key us into what we’re really upset about, and it is not about our sub-par NFL team or our mildewed laundry. It is the total unmanageability of life itself. Like way back then, life is still unmanageable. Regression keys us into the fact that we are still children, that despite our adult preoccupations and tidy self-perceptions, we are still powerless.

But what do we do with this? How do we deal with a life (and others’ lives) that may appear to be in control but is totally lacking it? I am reminded of one of Alain de Botton’s adage to treat each person (and one’s self) like a small child. As opposed to adults, with small children, we are generous in our interpretation of their suffering.

We don’t look like children—but we are inside. And we’re so aware of how patronizing it is to be treated as if you are younger than you are, but we forget how generous, how kind, how truly loving it is to treat someone as if they are younger than they are. Because this is what it means to truly love someone: to be generous in one’s interpretation of another person.

Maybe this is what Jesus’ injunction to be more like children was all about. “Don’t stop acting like a baby,” he seemed to be saying, “Start acting like one. Start seeing each person like one. Because you are one.” Remember that this life is unmanageable, that you are helpless, he asked us, and call upon your Father for help. Freud would have said this was yet another defense mechanism altogether, the Ultimate Defense even, but that’s not how Jesus saw it. Faith itself, after all, requires a generous interpretation.