Defence mechanisms refer to psychological strategies or behaviours that people may use to cope with difficult feelings, thoughts, or events.
What are defence mechanisms?
Defence mechanisms are behaviours that people use to separate themselves from unpleasant events, actions, or thoughts.
The idea of defence mechanisms comes from a psychological perspective of personality in which psychological strategies may help people put distance between themselves and threats or unwanted feelings, such as guilt or shame.
First proposed by Sigmund Freud, this theory has evolved over time and contends that behaviours, like defence mechanisms, are not under a person’s conscious control. In fact, most people do them without realising it.
According to these theories, defence mechanisms are a natural part of psychological development. Identifying which type you, your loved ones, and even your co-workers use may help you in future conversations and encounters.
How do defence mechanisms work?
Defence mechanisms are ways you react to situations that bring up negative emotions. According to psychoanalytic theory, when you experience a stressor, the subconscious will first monitor the situation to see if it might harm you. If the subconscious believes the situation might lead to emotional harm, it may react with a defence mechanism to protect you.
Usually, you are unaware of the defence mechanism, though the behaviour may appear odd to others around you.
Many researchers place defence mechanisms on a continuum, with more mature defences improving cognitive processes and less mature ones causing harm.
In the long term, mature defence mechanisms may not be particularly detrimental to your emotional or mental health. Using more mature mechanisms may help you face the anxieties and situations that might normally cause stress and emotional duress.
Other defence mechanisms, however, are not as mature and helpful. Prolonged use of these defences can lead to lingering problems. In fact, they may prevent you from ever facing emotional issues or anxieties because they block you from seeing the root cause.
Some signs that defence mechanisms are getting in the way of your everyday life and mental health may include:
• feeling sad or depressed
• having difficulty getting out of bed
• avoiding usual daily activities, things, or people that once made you happy
• having difficulty forming or maintaining healthy relationships
• communication problems that hinder your professional or personal life
Top 10 most common defence mechanisms
Dozens of different defence mechanisms have been identified. Some are used more commonly than others. Here are a few common defence mechanisms:
Denial is one of the most common defence mechanisms. It occurs when you refuse to accept reality or facts. People in denial may block external events or circumstances from the mind so that they don’t have to deal with the emotional impact. In other words, they avoid painful feelings or events.
This defence mechanism is one of the most widely known, too. The phrase, “They’re in denial,” is commonly understood to mean a person is avoiding reality despite what may be obvious to people around them.
Unsavoury thoughts, painful memories, or irrational beliefs can upset you. Instead of facing those thoughts, people may unconsciously choose to hide them in hopes of forgetting them entirely.
That does not mean, however, that the memories disappear entirely. They may influence behaviours, and they may impact future relationships. You just may not realise the impact this defence mechanism is having.
Some thoughts or feelings you have about another person may make you uncomfortable. When people project those feelings, they misattribute them to the other person.
For example, you may dislike your new co-worker, but instead of accepting that, you choose to tell yourself that they dislike you. You start to interpret their words and actions toward you in the worst way possible, even though they don’t actually dislike you.
You direct strong emotions and frustrations toward a person or object that doesn’t feel threatening. This allows you to satisfy an impulse to react, but you don’t risk significant consequences.
A good example of this defence mechanism is getting angry at your child or spouse because you had a bad day at work. Neither of these people is the target of your strong emotions, but your subconscious may believe reacting to them is likely less problematic than reacting to your boss.
Some people who feel threatened or anxious may unconsciously “escape” to an earlier stage of development.
This type of defence mechanism may be most obvious in young children. If they experience trauma or loss, they may suddenly act as if they’re younger again. They may even begin wetting the bed or sucking their thumb as a form of regression.
Adults can regress, too. Adults who are struggling to cope with events or behaviours may return to sleeping with a cherished stuffed animal, overeat foods they find comforting, or begin chain-smoking or chewing on pencils or pens. They may also avoid everyday activities because they feel overwhelmed.
Some people may attempt to explain undesirable behaviours with their own set of “facts.” This allows you to feel comfortable with the choice you made, even if you know on another level it’s not right.
For example, someone who didn’t get a promotion at work might say they didn’t want the promotion anyways.
This type of defence mechanism is considered a mature, positive strategy. That’s because people who rely on it choose to redirect strong emotions or feelings into an object or activity that is appropriate and safe.
For example, instead of lashing out at your co-workers during a stressful shift, you choose to channel your frustration into a kickboxing class. You could also funnel or redirect the feelings into music, art, or sports.
8. Reaction formation
People who use this defence mechanism recognise how they feel, but they choose to behave in the opposite manner of their instincts.
A person who reacts this way, for example, may feel they should not express negative emotions, such as anger or frustration. They choose to instead react in an overly positive way.
Separating your life into independent sectors may feel like a way to protect many elements of it.
For example, when you choose to not discuss personal life issues at work, you block off, or compartmentalise, that element of your life. This allows you to carry on without facing the anxieties or challenges while you’re in that setting or mindset.
When you’re hit with a trying situation, you may choose to remove all emotion from your responses and instead focus on quantitative facts.
Intellectualisation involves a person using reason and logic to avoid uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking emotions. It can be a useful way of explaining and understanding negative events.
For example, if person A is rude to person B, person B may think about the possible reasons for person A's behavior.
Treatment for unhealthy defence mechanisms
Defence mechanisms can sometimes be viewed as a type of self-deception. You might be using them to hide emotional responses that you don’t want to deal with from yourself. However, it’s done mostly on an unconscious level. You’re not always aware of the way your mind or ego will respond.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t modify or change the behaviours. Indeed, you can transform unhealthy defence mechanisms into ones that are more sustainable. These techniques may help:
• Find accountability. Friends and family members can help you recognise defence mechanisms you may be using. By drawing attention to the self-deception, they can help you identify the moment you unconsciously use self-deception. That allows you to then decide in the conscious state what you really want to do.
• Learn coping strategies. Therapy with a mental health expert, such as a psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychoanalyst, may help you recognise the defence mechanisms you use most often. They can then help you learn active responses to make choices on a more mindful level.
Defence mechanisms are natural. They are often used without any long-term complications or issues.
However, some people do develop emotional difficulties if they continue to use these mechanisms without coping with the underlying threat or anxiety. Treatment focuses on helping you address issues from a mindful place, not an unconscious one.
Sally Edwards Counselling
I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent
I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.
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