Understanding Defense Mechanisms

Has anyone said to you, “You’re defensive” or “Stop projecting yourself onto me!”  Our personalities have a natural response using our defense mechanisms.  However, think about it, is it a healthy defense response, or is it an unpleasant characteristic of your personality?  One component to help live a mentally healthy life is understanding how you respond and cope in troubled waters.  

What is a defense mechanism?  It is a protective psychological response subconsciously used to protect yourself from anxiety, guilt, shame, defending your personality and image, and shield you from facing your weaknesses and shortcomings.  Once you release your defensive behavior, it is natural to distance yourself from uncomfortable interactions. Psychologists have labeled defense mechanisms based on how primal they are, the more primitive, the least effective long-term.  On the contrary, the more primitive the defense mechanisms are is more effective in the short term.  Children tend to use an unsophisticated defense because it is their initial exposure to coping strategies in a time of stress.  Many adults never learned the proper way to cope and handle cumbersome situations.  Hence, they habitually use these modes to release negative feelings.  At times this can lead to emotional, verbal, and physical abuse upon someone else.

According to Anna Freud, psychoanalyst and daughter of Sigmund Freud, she has clarified the meaning of defense and its mechanisms, the converted measures to cope with unwanted feelings.  In 1936, Anna Freund published a book, “The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense”. Social Science’s online media publication explains much about Anna’s biography, research, and the evolution of defense mechanisms in the article, Anna Freud and Ego Psychology.  Here are a few common defense mechanisms that Anna has defined:

  1. Denial: This is the act of refusing to accept the reality and truth of something emotionally painful.  It is the most common defense we all have used.  Many times individuals are in denial because they are ashamed or guilty of admitting something unpleasant.  In the person’s thought process, they protect their character and image from any negative opinions or confrontation. They cannot cope with the anxiety and stress they are facing.  An example of denial is if someone abuses alcohol and loved ones are having an intervention, the alcoholic’s initial response is, “No, I am a social drinker.”  They are not ready to admit or cope with the issue at hand. It is too overwhelming and painful for the alcohol abuser.  Also, they may believe they are social drinkers who are not allowing themselves the ability to accept the truth.
  1. Displacement:  This method transfers your anger, rage, and anxiety onto a powerless target, person, animal, or object.  Generally, the person who is a victim of displacement is vulnerable.  From a therapeutic perspective, this happens when your Id (instincts) wants to react, but your superego (moral) will not allow it to release.  Therefore, your ego (reality) transfers its rage onto weak prey.  An example of displacement is if someone had a bad day at work and had a conflict with their superior. Instead of addressing the problem with their boss in fear of rejection or even getting fired, the employee comes home and lashes out onto a loved one, animal, or thing.  Possibly physically harming a pet or a person and becoming verbally abusive or destructive to things. Our Associate Therapist, Caroline Brown, LMSW, explains a bit more about egos and defenses in her blog,  “Understanding Your Ego and Defenses.”
  1. Regression:  During a frightened or trying time, it is when you revert to your childhood behavior in a stressful situation, like fear, anger, and anxieties.  Regressing is a feeling of being safe or behaviors that are unfitting.  An example of regression relies on dependency on a safe place, having a bad day, coming home, and lying under the blankets. Another form is acting out, child-like tantrums, which result from road rage.  
  1. Reaction Formation:  This state is extreme denial, converting unwanted and harmful thoughts, feelings, and impulses to the complete opposite.  It is an exaggerated action such as showing off or compulsivity.  For example, if a woman is dissatisfied or angry with her boyfriend, possibly does not want to remain in the relationship, she will overcompensate for those feelings.  She will act excessively loving, doting, generous, and communicate how much she loves him because she can not express her true inner feelings.    
  1. Rationalization: The cognitive falsification of facts appears less threatening and changes its reality.  In layman’s terms, making excuses to make yourself feel better.  People often do this to mend their insecurities and sit with negative emotions.  It is easier to blame someone else than owning your faults and insecurities, especially if you would be embarrassed or shameful. An example is if your significant other decides to end the relationship. Instead of mourning the loss or accepting the reality, you convince yourself you were going to leave him, and he did you a favor or even belittled your X by name-calling. 
  1. Projection: This is the approach of avoiding repressed feelings, thoughts, and impulses to another person who is not experiencing the same. It happens when the person knows the actions, thoughts, and emotions are deplorable, and they are unable to express or feel entirely unsettled to avoid any repercussions.  For example, someone may have the feeling of cheating on their significant other or desire to do so.  To release the emotions provoked by the betrayal or ill-suited idea, the person will accuse their significant other of infidelity, often causing arguments blaming the non-cheater as often as possible. It will redivert any red flags that may be obvious.  

I identified the most commonly used defense mechanisms. However, understanding that these channels can become exasperated long-term.  These mechanisms appear in the most severe psychological disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or psychotic conditions. 

Projective Identification, introduced by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein clarifies that Projective Identification differs from projection.  It is a step beyond defense mechanisms that raise mental health concerns.  It often merges with many facets, such as paranoia, and many times a symptom of narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.  It is very sneaky how it exploits the mental health and the receiver of the projection.  The projector often manipulates and pressures the victim’s mind to believe the projection is authentic to the extent where the person starts behaving as if it is true.  

As you recognize these defenses, you will see they are holding you back from achieving your goals and living a healthy, balanced life.  It comes with emotional maturity. You can work through each one to care for your emotional well-being and reconnect with damaged relationships.  

  1. Become self-aware and mindful:  Recognize the mechanism you are doing and accept it.  Sit with your feelings and feel each emotion.  Take a deeper look into each emotion and why you think that way.  Try to get in the habit of being in the present, in the now.
  2. Take responsibility for your actions:  Remember, defense mechanisms make you think you are the victim, or someone else is taking the blame.  It would be best if you accepted your actions and behaviors.  You can only control yourself and your emotions, no one else.  Separate your feelings from the situation, and put them into perspective.
  3. Ask yourself questions:  “How is my behavior getting in the way of healthy relationships?”, “What has been the consequences and losses as a result of my actions?”, “What do I feel doing this?”
  4. Do the opposite:  Stop, think, and react.  Do the complete opposite of how you would typically respond to a situation.  Take a different approach.  
  5. Seek professional help:  If you have difficulty recognizing your defenses and unable to take control, seek help from a licensed mental health professional specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Once you take the time to re-evaluate your emotional well-being, take charge and make a change for yourself.   

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