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Defense Mechanisms

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

In this blog we’ll take a look at what defense mechanisms are and explore a handful of commonly used defenses.

Contrary to popular belief, defense mechanisms are usually adaptive and benign. They serve to protect the self from psychological threats. By employing defense mechanisms, we are able to avoid or manage overwhelming and threatening feelings. Consider powerful feelings such as anxiety, shame, grief and envy; if we didn’t employ this coping strategy we would likely become overwhelmed by these feelings to the point where functioning in life would be challenging. Additionally, by managing these powerful feelings, we are better able to maintain our self-esteem.

Defenses function outside of our conscious awareness. We do not consciously pick and choose what defenses to lean on and when. Rather, we usually rely more heavily on a specific constellation of defenses based on what was modeled to us, which particular defenses were reinforced, and the nature of stresses that occurred in early childhood.

Although defenses are utilized as a way to cope with stress, they can sometimes prevent us from facing reality in a way that harms us. This can occur depending on which defenses we rely more heavily on and when they are utilized. For instance, it's an adaptive use of denial to tell myself I’m not feeling hurt in a moment when it’d be inappropriate to cry. In contrast, it is maladaptive to deny that I have a drinking problem despite it causing significant issues in my personal and professional life.

Let's take a look at some common defense mechanisms:

*Many defenses have become popular and part of our cultural vocabulary; e.g. denial, repression, rationalization, and compartmentalization. I’m choosing to focus on common defenses that I see in the therapy room, but that you may be less familiar with. If you’re curious to explore further, know there are several resources online that will have extensive lists of defenses.

Regression: When faced with a stressful situation people will sometimes slide backwards into old habits of thoughts, feelings and behaviors associated with earlier development. Regression can be summarized by the saying - "two steps forward and one step back."

Example: Taking an assertive stance with a boss followed by unconsciously slipping into a compliant, childish way of relating to your boss.

Reaction Formation: Turning a specific feeling, impulse or behavior into its total opposite as a way to manage the anxiety with that feeling.

Example: Feeling envy towards someone and transforming it to admiration.

Displacement: Redirecting feelings or behaviors from the original source to a source that feels safer and less anxiety-ridden.

Example: A father who was humiliated in a meeting by his boss returns home after work and yells at his kids.

Splitting: People or situations are seen as all good or all bad with no room for ambiguity and nuance; this is black and white thinking. Splitting always involves distortion and makes it hard to integrate the complexities of others.

Example: Being in the honeymoon phase of a relationship and seeing your partner as “all good” vs. breaking-up and suddenly they are “all bad.”

Acting out: Putting into action what one lacks the words to express.

Example: Rather than tell someone you’re angry with them, you act out that anger by giving them the silent treatment.

Intellectualization: One intellectualizes feelings; that is they may theoretically accept their emotions, but detach from the actual expression of these feelings.

Example: Recounting a painful experience to someone in a seemingly emotionally detached way.

Reversal: Coping with overwhelming feelings that pose psychological threat by switching positions from the passive object to the active subject.

Example: An individual who feels ashamed for their desire to be cared for chooses a career path in which they are caring for others.

Moralization: In a sense one believes it is their “duty” to act a certain way.

Example: A teacher ruthlessly putting down a student on the grounds that it’s her responsibility to help the student improve and build character.

We all utilize defenses. They can be both good and bad. Utilizing a self-reflective space such as therapy can help us understand if we are stuck overusing certain defenses. Additionally, this space gives us the opportunity to consider if these defenses or ways of coping continue to serve us or hinder our growth.

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