Know Your Defense Mechanisms
“Raise the drawbridge!” “Close the gate” “Man the turrets!”
Such defensive commands are right at home in an exciting Game of Thrones episode, and indeed throughout history.
Have you ever stopped to wonder what your own defensive mechanisms are?
What are you REALLY defending anyway?
Hold on to that one, as we will explore it further throughout this resource.
Raising your awareness of your defense mechanisms could be your critical first step to living a more peaceful, fulfilling, and harmonious life.
What I mean by this is, if your defenses are always up, and your ‘troops are always on high-alert’ how can you ever relax and enjoy yourself? How can you be free to gaze at the stars, dream, wonder, imagine, play, fall in love?
It’s simply impossible.
Imagine it, one minute you’d be gazing at the stars, smiling and contemplating the universe, the next minute you will be on edge, scanning the horizon because you heard a rustling in the bushes.
The picture I am painting here for you, is that by raising your awareness of your defense mechanisms and your environment, the better you can respond and enjoy living in the present.
Let’s jump in and get to know your defence mechanisms
The Defense Mechanisms
The defense mechanisms stem from the work of Sigmund Freud and later by his daughter Anna Freud in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
In more recent times psychoanalysts have added to, and refined the defenses further. For our purposes, learning the main defense mechanisms is a great place to start.
Please Note: If you’ve suffered from a traumatic past – please read with caution and be in a safe place as the content may trigger unwanted memories. It’s important to note the intention here is to raise awareness of our defense mechanisms, which are a natural occurrence and are useful at times in protecting ourselves at certain times during our lives.
So to be clear, this resource is in no way criticising our defense mechanisms, but helping you to be aware of them, to ultimately help you live a healthier, stronger, resilient and happier life in line with the actual environment around you in the present moment.
Please reach out if you would like more information or help in anyway with this resource.
Do you enter a state of denial when you hear bad news? If something unpleasant happens do you pretend it never happened or doesn’t exist? This is denial. It’s often a go-to response, when presented with unpleasant news or trauma, and undoubtedly recognisable in high profile cases that make the news.
Some people are in denial about the corona virus and will buy into theories of a hoax and that it is all made up. How is denial really serving them?
Denial becomes a problem when it lingers and carries on as a common thread through your life. Over time denial can warp your sense of reality. What’s real? What’s true?
Is a distorted perception going to aid or disempower you?
For couple’s, denial can be incredibly hurtful and dishonest. Denial deprives a relationship the chance to grow and thrive.
Denial is about avoiding responsibility, and avoiding the inevitable pain associated with the processing of unpleasant events.
While denial may initially help you avoid pain in the short term, in the long run it keeps you stuck, robs you of growth and living authenticity.
Growth opportunity – Identify a time when you have been operating out of a place of denial?
What movie, book or TV series have you seen where a character or plot revolves around denial?
Repression is about forgetting an experience ever happened or forgetting the unsavoury details you’d rather have not seen, heard or felt.
Repression happens at an unconscious level and depending on your age and stage of development is used as a coping mechanism.
But at what cost? If left unprocessed could it lead to PTSD? What about anxiety, sleep problems, social problems, relationship problems – like Negative Sentiment Override? What else?
With increasing awareness of PTSD and mental health in general we can free ourselves from these burdens and enjoy life and develop healthy relationships.
Clients who work with me, will know about neuroplasticity and the brains ability to change and strengthen new healthy habits.
Growth opportunity – Is there a time in your life where you have repressed memories? If so, make a note of them and decide if they would be better dealt with than buried.
Ask yourself “How would I feel, not having to carry around this crap anymore?”
What is avoidance really costing me?
Displacement / Acting Out
Couples may recognise this one acutely. Perhaps a partner comes home from a bad day at work and “Kicks the cat” – or in other ways displaces their emotions (frustration, anger, humiliation, etc) onto someone or something else.
If you or someone you know has ever lashed out and thrown something, or punched a hole in the wall, blamed someone else, then they have displaced their emotions in defense of having to deal with them in a more mature and productive way.
Children who don’t get what they want, can often act out and provide us another great example of the behaviours we want to be aware of. Obviously, children have not yet learned the more sophisticated skills to process emotions and conflict, providing a great opportunity for growth and positive parenting.
In regards to relationships, the Gottman Institute refer to ‘the four horseman of the apocalypse‘ as being the most destructive traits of a relationship – Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
Therefore, improving your response to criticism, rather than choosing defensiveness is an important skill, and one I help couples learn and navigate in session.
Growth opportunity – Describe a time where you acted out inappropriately or displaced your anger and frustration onto someone else.
Upon reflection, in what way could you have responded better?
Who could I become without all this heavy armor weighing me down?
Is your perception of the world the one and only true reality?
What about how we feel, think and behave? All different right?
Projecting onto others can be helpful and not so helpful. For example an enthusiastic player on a sports team can project positivity, focus and team spirit onto his/her team-mates.
Someone who is thinking the worst, anxious and insecure and uncertain can project their feelings of rejection, insecurity and doubt onto others. Possibly unconsciously, though maybe on purpose in order to protect their ego, bring others down or form a group of like-minded people for support.
Rather than projection – perhaps consider a mindfulness reflection exercise that looks inward. I have one for you – It’s excellent for couples, Its the Naikan Exercise
Growth opportunity – Can you identify a time where you have projected your insecurities onto others? Perhaps even someone you love?
What could be a more useful way to handle these difficult emotions and thoughts the next time you feel you need to ‘project’ to defend and protect yourself?
Typically seen as a manufactured response, opposite to what you really think and feel. For example someone who is feeling resentment or in contempt of their partner may in fact buy flowers or display a gesture of love and connection when underneath their true feelings are shallow and quite different.
If you have ever been dragged along to a party you’d rather not be at and have had to put on a brave face and act like you’re enjoying yourself, then this is reaction formation.
Someone who is unable to deal with grief maturely, may act happy or blasé at a loved ones funeral.
Boundaries work both ways, and is an area I work deeply with clients to help them regain self worth, improve self image, gain confidence and communicate mindfully yet assertively.
Growth opportunity – Can you identify a time when you turned to reaction formation? What were the real feelings you were guarding yourself from? Can you think of a better way to handle the situation?
As yourself “What was the driving force behind your response to the situation?”
I’m totally fine! If I just act naturally no one will ever know!
Similar to repression, dissociation is when you step out of your perspective and the life of your current self.
You may have experienced moments of this during an emergency event or other trauma where you dissociate from the reality of the situation.
Those who dissociate often lose track of time, their sense of self what happened.
In some ways you may disassociate as you are driving a familiar route or on a long journey.
It will come as no surprise that people who have a history of childhood abuse often subscribe to some form of dissociation as a coping mechanism.
In extreme cases, dissociation can lead to a person believing their perceived reality over the actual events. People who use dissociation often feel may feel disconnected from themselves and their role in the world.
A person who dissociates regularly will often ‘live’ in another reality free from clutter, thoughts, and feelings they’d rather avoid.
Dissociation is an excellent way to ‘avoid responsibility’, but is likely to leave you unfulfilled and disconnected.
What about modern daily disassociation’s? Binging Netflix, playing games, reading books, even gardening or arts-n-crafts can be all activities that aid or lead to disassociation or mindlessness. How mindful are you during any of these activities?
Spend a few moments raising your awareness around this topic. – Closely related – See Sublimination below.
Growth opportunity – How can you be more mindful during leisure activities? What responsibility or dreaded feelings could you be really avoiding?
As yourself: “Who could you become if you no longer relied on disassociation?”
Regression is a retreat to an earlier stage in development. Often seen as child like behaviour, where someone else like a parent is responsible for alleviating the problem and satisfying the child’s needs.
Stress endured from a person’s past development may explain a range of current regressive behaviours.
For example acting out to be heard, seen & loved. Crying and sulking as avoidance and to get your way (manipulation).
Regardless, Regression leads people back to an earlier stage of maturity to protect one’s self.
Regression avoids confronting a problem maturely, talking it through, finding solutions, seeking help etc.
In couples this may appear when one (or both) partners storm off, sulk, and give the cold shoulder and become defensive with child like responses to match.
Left unchecked this behaviour can further lead to problems in the relationship such as communication breakdown.
Simple yet powerful strategies like the Gottman Institute’s Soft Startup exercise and Rapoport framework help couples to communicate gently, avoiding ‘coming in hot with your engines roaring’. And structuring difficult conversations to ‘stay in your lane’ and understand each other respectfully.
These exercises are key for helping couples move into healthy and effective ways to communicate. It’s amazing to see such great transformations happen before my eyes in session!
Growth opportunity – Identify a time when you acted immaturely to a problem or situation you could of handled more maturely. Upon reflection, in what mature way would you respond now?
Rationalisation occurs when you try to explain your behaviour or unhelpful attitude away and attempt to justify your actions, that are likely destructive or unacceptable – depending on the context of course.
Rationalisation begins as an unconscious effort to avoid addressing the underlying reasons for the initial response.
Rationalising an event is about ‘saving face’ your reputation, avoiding embarrassment or being burdened with shame or guilt!
It’s common in politics, the justice system, Tv shows and even in relationships – to justify breakups and behaviour.
Rationalisation is deceptive and avoids taking responsibility and making better choices for the future. Left unchecked the selfish behaviour is likely to continue. Over time the excuses and avoidance weaken relationships, erode trust, and stains character.
Who come’s to mind? Lawyers, Slimy salesman, Corporate crooks. Who else?
Couples who work with me often begin by trying to rationalise certain behaviour, such as the causes behind infidelity and broken trust. While my role as a couples counsellor is not to judge or condemn behaviour, working through the process together, clients identify their behaviour for what it is, and then we can begin work on the healing process.
Growth opportunity – Can you identify a time when you have rationalised an event or behaviour to ‘Save face’? What emotions and consequences were you really trying to avoid?
In what way would your character be strengthened by acting in a different way? How would this benefit you in the long run?
It’s not my fault. You shouldn’t have parked so close?
Sublimation occurs when you transform your conflicted emotions and unmet needs into productive or creative outlets.
Sublimation is similar to displacement but rather than destructive behaviour it’s a constructive escapism. So it’s easy for sublimation to fly under the radar, when deep down there are conflicting values and ongoing problems gnawing away.
Outlets can include, painting, music, sport, writing, crafts, organising, cleaning, building things etc.
While not visibly destructive left unchecked the frustration can reach boiling point, resentment can build toward others, affecting relationships.
For couples, sublimation can drive a wedge between you and over time you feel miles apart from each other.
An enjoyable exercise of my Save my Marriage program is to help couples identify ways to ‘have fun together’. Reconnecting and rebuilding ‘Love Maps’ as the Gottman institute refer to it is an essential element of a happy, loving marriage.
Growth opportunity – Is your hobby an escape as much as something you enjoy?
What is the real cost of not confronting the deeper issues at hand?
Ask yourself: “What would your life look like if you could resolve and get through the difficult issue effectively?”
Personally I don’t view defense mechanisms as bad or good.
What I do believe in, is raising your awareness of them, and being empowered to make choices that will serve you (and others) better in the future.
Remember, We are all only human, and it’s natural for us to use our learned and natural defense mechanisms as we navigate our way through life.
I hope the growth opportunity questions throughout this resource help you identify areas you think could be a problem and need improving.
With this point in mind, commit to making a change one step at a time, to lean away from relying on defensive behaviour.
Learning new healthy strategies to process problems, communicate and work through strategies constructively will help you to:
- Live mindfully aware
- Identify triggers and your window of tolerance
- Be more open and receptive to new ideas and listening
- Communicate better by seeking to listen and understand
- Help other’s and create resilient relationships, families and collaborative networks
- Grow in character – and inspire others
- Stretch your personal skills and problem solving abilities
Practical next steps include:
- Watch the Life Values for Relationships video
- Being willing to be accountable, starting with friends, family, the workplace etc.
- Committing to implementing new strategies – either with me in person through a couples counselling program or
- Picking up some books and reading more resources and going at your own pace.
McLeod, S. A. (2019, April 10). Defense mechanisms. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html
The Gottman Institute
Modern Applied Psychology, Defense Mechanisms – Achology
Various works of Freud, S. & Freud, A.