If you’re human, you use defense mechanisms even though you might not consciously know it; and so does everyone you know. And when you can actually see them, your communication, problem solving skills, emotional health and relationships improve.
Let’s break this down – what they are and how they work – so you can identify the ones you tend toward.
What are psychological defenses?
“Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.” (Mcleod, Saul. “Defense Mechanisms In Psychology Explained (+ Examples).” Simply Psychology. March 8, 2023. https://simplypsychology.org/defense-mechanisms.html)
These defenses kick in automatically when we feel threatened or overwhelmed in some way. It’s a way the psyche separates you from something you don’t think you can handle.
What are the most common ones?
There are many defense mechanisms. Here are a few that you’ve probably heard of because they’re more common.
One of the most common defense mechanisms, that most people have heard of, is denial. It is common to hear someone say “you’re in denial” when a person refuses to accept something that is so obviously true to everyone else. Denial can result in a person unknowingly blocking things from their mind so they don’t have to deal with a situation or emotions that can cause stress or be painful. (Holland, Kimberly. “10 Defense Mechanisms: What Are They and How They Help Us Cope.” Health Line. June 21, 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/defense-mechanisms#common-defense-mechanisms)
An example of denial can be when a person in an abusive relationship makes excuses for their partner’s behavior and won’t admit that what their partner is doing is wrong or hurtful. On an unconscious level, the psyche decides that excusing or denying the real problem is less overwhelming than confronting it.
Britannica defines Projection as a form of defense in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world.
Admitting that we are wrong or demonstrate undesirable traits can be hard (and we’re not taught how to deal with this) so it can lead us to unconsciously project, or attribute it to others. (“How Does It Work?: Projection Defense Mechanism” Better Health. March 22, 2023. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/defense-mechanisms/what-is-the-projection-defense-mechanism-and-how-it-works/)
An example of this can be when a person with angry feelings accuses someone else of being angry; or a cheating spouse constantly suspects that their partner is being unfaithful.
We may feel overwhelmed or threatened by our feelings or flaws so we’re not able to own them, we actually believe those around us that they are the ones who have the problem in order to alleviate those negative feelings within us.
If you have ever heard someone say that they “blocked out” something that happened to them, then they have used repression as a defense mechanism.
The national library of medicine says that repression is subconsciously blocking ideas or impulses that are undesirable. An example can be when a person has no recollection of a traumatic event, even though they were conscious and aware during the event.
Repressing memories of hurtful or unpleasant things that happened to you is a way to protect yourself. And although it may be a temporary way to escape painful emotions, it usually leads to stress, anxiety or physical symptoms in the future.
Some physical symptoms thought to be related to repression are:
- High blood pressure
- Skin conditions
- Back, neck, chest, and abdominal pain
(Cherry, Kendra. “What is Repression?”. Very Well Mind. March 16, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/repression-as-a-defense-mechanism-4586642)
There are several other defense mechanisms that are commonly experienced, see a list of more HERE.
What should I do if I notice I’m being defensive?
First, recognizing it is a massive win. You might only recognize in retrospect at first, and that’s OK. That’s part of getting to know yourself. It’s never too late to become self-aware and make positive changes in the future.
Second, do your best to bring yourself into a regulated state. Focus on these 5 basic essentials that we discussed in a previous post:
1 – Food
2 – Water
3 – Rest
4 – Movement
5 – Mindfulness
*Read more about each HERE.
Third, once you are in a relaxed state, reflect on what might have been overwhelming to you. You can even make a list, sometimes seeing it on paper helps.
Fourth, bring this to your therapist. Let them know “I noticed my defenses go up when I am in x situation”.
Knowledge is power and when you know what is contributing to your defenses and you share that knowledge with a professional, it can lead to more productive sessions and healthier coping skills. This is the beginning of some transformational work in therapy.
Using a defense mechanism to cope is not necessarily a negative thing, it’s a way that we protect ourselves. However, if you don’t really get to the root of the problem and figure out how to move past it in a positive way you will always struggle with the problem or give it power over you. That’s why identifying and understanding your defenses are essential to growing and developing healthy coping skills.