By: Thomas Leuthard
by Andrea M. Darcy
Defence mechanisms are a central concept in psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapy. But what are they, exactly?
What are defence mechanisms?
Unconscious strategies we use to defend ourselves against anxiety and emotional pain, defence mechanisms are also a way of self-monitoring behaviour to ensure we are ‘acceptable’ to others.
We all practise this sort of self-deception now and then. It allows allows us to maintain the image we have of ourselves that we are comfortable with.
But if your defence mechanisms mean your relationships are problematic, or you have truly lost self of who you really are? Then they become a psychological issue you might need help with.
7 Common defence mechanisms – sound familiar?
Read this defense mechanisms list and see if it sounds close to home.
Denial involves acting as if an emotion, a thought, or even an event did not really take place, despite obvious evidence to the contrary.
It might be grand-scale denial, like a woman denying her partner’s obvious affair, or an alcoholic denying there is a problem.
But it can also be persistent ongoing denial of self. This can look like constantly protesting we are a happy person who likes everyone, while deep down we are full of repressed anger and resentment.
Repression involves burying painful thoughts, feelings, and experiences into our unconscious, ‘forgetting’ they exist at all.
It often leads to dysfunctional relationships and behaviours because we play out patterns related to the buried emotions or trauma without realising why.
Repression is often a pattern caused by a serious childhood trauma like abuse that has been buried.
Those who have learned to rely on this defence mechanism often forget things that caused them stress. You can forget that you were once fired from a job, or forget all the things an emotional abuser said to you in a relationship, or even forget things like a doctor advising you to book a consultation with a specialist.
If you are very good at explaining your behaviours, or find yourself often making excuses, you might be caught up in this defence mechanism.
Rationalisation is when we rewrite the facts, even just slightly, so that something we think, feel, or experience feels less overwhelming.
Rationalisation can become such a habit, used to cover up sensitivities or shame, that many people can’t admit to doing it. Yet it is a form of deceit both to yourself and others.
Simply put, this means that when stress hits, or something doesn’t go the way you want, you revert back to childhood behaviours.
This can look like the stressed out eleven year-old who wets the bed, but also the fifty year-old man who flies into road rage when he is cut off, or the businesswoman who secretly goes the washroom at work and curls up in a ball in a cubicle whenever she feels overwhelmed.
This one is common amongst those who had traumatic childhoods or suffered abuse.
Dissociation involves mentally and emotionally leaving the scene when stress hits (or even for days at a time if life is being challenging). Sure, you might seem calm and like you are intently listening or carrying out your work, but really you are miles away.
It can feel like you are ‘watching the scene’ from above every time someone gets angry or demanding with you. Or it can mean always feeling numb and like there is fog in your brain when you are under stress. You might only understand your emotions and what you want to say a day or more later, when it’s too late.
In a modern world that focuses heavily on self-image, projection is a very common defence mechanism.
Projection involves making someone else responsible for how we think and feel, because we are ashamed or not ready to face our own thoughts and feelings.
For example, you can be telling everyone at work that a new colleague at work doesn’t give you a chance or like you. Deep down it’s you who doesn’t like them or want to know them. Admitting this would mean looking at your own tendency to judge and be unkind, which you might be loathe the face.
7. Reaction Formation
Reaction formation is when we turn our unwanted thoughts and emotions on their heads, claiming the exact opposite. It might really ring a bell if you are prone to codependency.
For example, if you are in a relationship with a lazy, abusive partner, perhaps you can’t face the shame you feel at your mistake and dread the idea of being alone. The more you worry inside, the more you will treat this partner like royalty and tell everyone how wonderful he or she is.
Are your defence mechanisms running your life?
Using defence mechanisms is not ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. Sometimes they can be helpful if we are, say, truly overwhelmed by a situation.
But if you are using defence mechanisms in ways that are negatively affecting your life, it’s worth seeking support. It is often only through the process of psychotherapy or counselling that we can gain the courage to identify defence mechanisms, find the self we truly are, and find better ways of coping that allow us to be that true self.
Have a question about defence mechanisms we haven’t answered, or want to share your experience with our readers? Share below.