Defense mechanisms are patterns of thinking that we engage in to give ourselves psychological protection. Healthy defense mechanisms help us cope with trauma, stress, and challenging life circumstances. However, sometimes we use defensive mechanisms to avoid unpleasant truth or reality, painful feelings, difficult work, or to avoid taking responsibility. When we use defense mechanisms for these reasons, the process becomes unhealthy and we suffer in our decisions and relationships. We can be more successful in our lives as we understand what our defense mechanisms are and how we use them in unhealthy ways.
Common Defense Mechanisms
These are some of the common defense mechanisms we use:
- Denial: We protect ourselves from some unpleasant reality by simply refusing to face or accept it. For example, an alcoholic might deny that alcohol is a problem in his/her life even when everyone else around him/her can see the problems it is causing.
- Repression: This is essentially forgetting; but not forgetting permanently. Instead, the information is tucked away into the subconscious and has the potential to resurface violently anytime. The forgetting protects the person from consciously dealing with painful circumstances and events. For example, someone experiences a traumatic event as a child, and then tucks that information away because he/she was not ready to deal with it. Even when the person is older, he/she represses the memory to avoid the painful feelings that come along with it.
- Suppression: This is a conscious process in which we choose to immediately block or suppress a thought or feeling in order to avoid it. For example, a person has angry feelings toward his brother. But even though he needs to express those feelings, he suppresses them to avoid a confrontation.
- Rationalization: This is when we try to convince ourselves and others that an unacceptable thought, attitude, behavior, etc. is acceptable. When we do this, we justify our thoughts and behaviors and avoid taking responsibility for them. For example, a parent abuses his child and avoids feelings of guilt and wrongdoing by convincing himself that it’s for the child’s own good and that the child deserves it.
- Projection: We deny and avoid accountability for our own undesired feelings and behaviors by attributing them to someone else. For example, an angry wife accuses her husband of hostility toward her when the truth is that she is feeling hostility towards him.
- Displacement: This is when we discharge pent up feelings onto less threatening people and objects. For example, a teen is angry at her boyfriend, but she is afraid to express it to him. Instead, she displaces it later in an angry outburst toward her little brother.
- Reaction Formation: This is turning a feeling into its opposite. To ward of an unpleasant and unacceptable impulse, we may replace it with its opposite. For example, a young boy hates his older brother for his accomplishments, praise and attention. The boy turns this into aggressive love and praise, but his underlying feelings of hatred are still there.
- Regression: The method of reverting back to a behavior that was comforting, enjoyable or protective in youth but is less functional than more mature behaviors currently available. Often, the experience of significant stress can cause one to go back to more childish coping strategies rather than face the more difficult task of responsible problem solving.
- Fantasy: It is normal and acceptable to fantasize, and it can be positive in many ways. However, fantasy and reality are two different things and fantasizing does not resolve conflict or bring about self-improvement. Fantasy becomes unhealthy when it is used to avoid important real experiences and development.
- Intellectualization: The use of a strictly logical or cognitive approach to life’s experiences without the emotions, which may be perceived as threatening, unpleasant, weak, etc. For example, a woman is told she has a life-threatening illness. Afterward, she focuses exclusively on the statistical percentages of recovery and she avoids her feelings of fear and sadness.
- Identification: Increasing feelings of worth by identifying with a person, group, or institution perceived as desirable. We then lose our own identity in the process and merge our identity with the other person or entity. For example, a teen boy feels unaccepted by his peers and unsure of his worth so he joins a gang. The gang accepts him and gives him a sense of power, meaning and belonging, but requires him to do things that are dangerous.
- Compensation: This is a form of denial in which a person covers up weakness and avoids change and accountability by focusing on only desirable traits. For example, a student struggles with interest and motivation in school, but is a good athlete, so he focuses all his time and effort on sports and neglects his schoolwork.
- Acting out: Acting out is reducing anxiety around forbidden desires by allowing oneself to act them out. Acting out allows a person to be impulsive, irresponsible, and out of control. For example, a girl is betrayed by a close friend. She acts out by cutting herself to express the emotional pain she feels.
Identify Your Defense Mechanisms
- Think about a recent situation that frustrated you in some way. It could be a situation at home or at work. Think about how you handled the situation. Did you use any of the defense mechanisms listed above? If so, which ones were they? How did they impact the situation?
- Think about how you behave when something in your life goes wrong, using past experiences to help you. What defense mechanisms do you recognize as driving your behavior in those situations? Make a list of these defense mechanisms.
- Once you have identified the defense mechanisms you are most prone to, practice being aware of when you might resort to these defense mechanisms again and make a commitment to stop using the mechanisms in unhealthy ways. For example, if you often suppress your true feelings to avoid conflict, practice allowing yourself to feel those feelings and bring them up with the others involved, rather than blocking them out.