How do you see yourself? Do you have a style of self-presentation, or is it really a form of self-deception? We see what we want to see, read on to find out more about defence mechanisms.
We psychologists sometimes talk about Defense Mechanisms, which are all about how we distance ourselves from the awareness of our unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. When an emotional problem occurs, the mind usually tries to respond with an increase in problem-solving, it tries to look for rational ways of dealing with the situation. If this can’t be achieved then defence mechanisms are triggered.
Defence mechanisms are a mental process initiated automatically and unconsciously to help us avoid experiencing emotional pain or psychological conflict. Defence mechanisms are our short-term, quick responding, method of dealing with unpleasant situations. They’re a way of blunting or avoiding altogether negative emotions, thoughts, or behaviours that result from these undesirable experiences
The problem with defence mechanisms is that while they can seem to be very effective in the short term, they do nothing to alleviate our core problems, and they can in fact reinforce problems. Instead of dealing with the heart of our problem we have to repeatedly throw up a defence to situations where our sense of stability, and sense of self seems to be under attack.
Defence mechanisms distort reality by changing our perception of the situation. This change in perception makes us experience less intensity in our emotion, and reduces our tension, which of course feels good, and things feel better. Defence mechanisms are seen as a form of self-deception. They keep us from having to face our weaknesses, psychological disabilities, or other troubles.
Different Types of Defence Mechanisms
What follows is a description of the main defence mechanisms identified in psychoanalytic literature.
Denial is a basic building block for many of the other defence mechanisms. It is exactly what it sounds like, denying the truth of a situation. Many of us use denial in our everyday lives to avoid admitting to things we find painful, like;
“I don’t have a drinking problem” “I’m really not an angry person”
Whatever the situation, you’re doing your very best to protect your sense of self-worth by refusing to acknowledge both the core of your problem as well as any behaviour that result from it.
We’re angry at one person, but we take it out on another, this is all about redirecting our emotions to a substitute target. We’re angry at ourselves, but we take it out on the dog. This happens because we’re too intimidated to confront the actual source of our own sadness or anger. Displacement essentially helps the mind substitute a new aim for the dangerous feels, so that things feel safer.
Instead of dealing with pain we use the defence mechanism of over-thinking. For example, someone breaks up with us but instead of dealing with that pain or recognising we might have done something wrong we instead go into deep research mode to figure out why women can get so emotional over ‘little’ things. The problem can’t possibly be us, it’s them and we’ll prove it! Or if a loved one gets a terminal diagnosis we go into research mode, instead of being around their intense emotional fear or having to process our own fear.
Projection is a defence mechanism that turns our own low self-esteem outward, so we attributing our uncomfortable feelings onto or towards others. As an example, we think we’re incapable of being good at things, as good as others are. Nobody else thinks that though, but because we do, we make misinterpretations, seeing an innocent glance as being critical of us, and so we lash out, projecting our sense on inadequacy onto the other person, in essence attacking ourselves through a proxy. Ways in which this might be observed, is being critical of what others do, when in fact the fear of inadequacy lies within ourselves.
Rationalisation (a.k.a. “explaining it away”) is a defence mechanism that involves putting a “spin” on something that upsets us, especially if it’s an offence that we ourselves have committed. We create false but credible justifications to reduce our own hurt. So let’s say we say something that upsets someone else, we were clearly the offender, but we’re too embarrassed to own up to it, so we spin it by saying that the offended person was too sensitive or misunderstood or, she was “too hormonal.” If we get dumped by someone we were really in love with, we spin it around by saying that we were never that serious about them anyway, or they were never good enough in the first place.
In reaction formation we’re also projecting, but we’re projecting the opposite of what we’re feeling, we overact in an opposite way to the fear we are experiencing. Let’s say we spot a yacht in a marina, we think is truly beautiful but we don’t think we’re ever going to be able to afford it. In order to avoid the pain of not ever being able to have this unreachable thing of beauty in our lives we convince ourselves that the yacht sucks, all yachts suck, and only the worst sorts of people in the world could ever like a yacht and own one. We might apply the same reaction formation to how others are dressed, if they are wearing something we only wish we had the confidence to carry off, we will conclude they look ridiculous, and are dressed way to young or inappropriately for their age.
Regression occurs when a person mentally returns to an earlier and seemingly happier state of their life, like going back to acting like you did as a child. For example an adult cracking under the stress of a bad relationship may revert to the behaviour patterns of their teenage years. Regression is also sometimes seen as mimicking a toddler tantrum. Aside from being upsetting to others around the person, it also avoids tackling the source of the stress itself.
Repression is about putting very uncomfortable thoughts in a part of our mind that is simply inaccessible, shut away, and cut off. Repression pushes our most uncomfortable thoughts into the subconscious so we don’t have to face them. It’s often seen as an extreme form of forgetting, although the memories never disappear, we bury them deeply, with the hope that they will fade away of their own accord. Repressed memories don’t disappear though, they accumulate, and in most cases reappear in a different guise, like unexplained anxiety, or dysfunctional behaviour. The higher the level of repression the more intense the anxiety is, and the more disturbing the dysfunctional behaviour also is.
This defence mechanism involves channeling our uglier impulses into something more positive, we redirect our ‘wrong’ urges into socially acceptable actions. For example, if we have lustful impulses for our neighbour instead of acting on them we go out and mow the lawn, and mow it with intense energy. Sublimation can also lead us to blunt our anxiety by channeling our impulses into humour. Instead of acting on those lustful impulses we make jokes to our own partner about that neighbour. The underlying problem remains, but our resulting behaviour curbs the destructive nature of the defence mechanisms. In fact, it can even be helpful sometimes. For example, we failed to get a promotion. So we fantasise about the dream job… and come to the realisation that there is more than one way to get to where we want to go, and apply for the similar jobs elsewhere.
Aside from the main defence mechanism, there are related defensive mechanisms for coping with the difficulties life throws at us. To handle the discomfort of not being able to cope with the difficulties we face we use various defensive coping mechanisms. Some of these are described here, can you see yourself in any of these?
This defence mechanism pops up when people have a tough time withstanding the emotional turmoil of what is upsetting them, they can’t cope, so they give in to the emotional pressure to misbehave. They revert to the physical – taking out their anger on inanimate objects, other people, or by hurting themselves. This is quite often seen as resembling the temper tantrums thrown by children, and is related to the defence of Regression.
You’ve heard the saying ‘the best form of defence is attack’ more often than not, when we feel threatened or under attack (even psychologically, not just physically), we will want to attack back, to try and beat down the person or thing which is threatening us. Attack is a fight-flight reaction, we unthinkingly respond to a sudden threat with an aggressive reaction. We might attack back the person who attacked us, or someone else who is near us, or even attack an object. Let’s say your partner criticises you for something during an argument, you angrily criticise them back. Say you are having problems with your computer, it makes you angry that you can’t complete your work, you redirect your aggressive feelings onto the substitute target and angrily bash the keyboard.
In compartmentalisation we separate conflicting thoughts into separate compartments. We need this defence mechanism to help us explain our poor behaviour or the emotions we feel in one particular area of our life. For example someone might be a completely caring and devoted mother at home, but they set aside their moral base at work and use the compartmentalisation excuse of ‘it’s just business’ to excuse terrible behaviour.
We try to overachieve in one area to compensate for failures in another. This defence mechanism is all about emphasising our strengths over our shortcomings, we make up for a weakness in one area by showing strength in another. While this can have an unhealthy mental aspect – it can feed notions of self-perceived weaknesses that don’t actually exist – but it helps us acknowledge that we’re not going to be superstars in every aspect of our lives. So we steer away from having to try, and possibly embarrass ourselves through failing, at something we know we’re not good at, and that’s not always healthy, but at the very least we’re still looking to make a positive impact.
Undoing makes us take actions that psychologically ‘undo’ our wrongdoings as the wrongdoer. We try to ‘undo‘ an unhealthy, destructive, threatening thought or action by engaging in a way that is opposite. Undoing is like throwing sweet after the sour in the hopes of swinging the scales back in our favour. You accidentally referred to your boss as incompetent, you think you better spend the next hour praising him/her on their exceptional abilities, to stop them from seeing what you really think.
So what can we do about all this? Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy aims to address our defence mechanisms, if you want to find a reputable therapist click here for a link to the British Psychoanalytic Council website. If you are interested in reading more about defence mechanisms, click here for a link to a book.