A defense mechanism is a type of strategy that people use to cope with very strong feelings. Whether a defense mechanism is denial, projection, or repression, people use these tactics to protect themselves from feeling any pain.
This action is subconscious — it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction that a person takes to protect themselves from fear, stress, and anxiety. These actions typically come from a need to maintain self-esteem. And they help the person avoid emotional pain. Especially as the world around us has changed considerably during the pandemic, defense mechanisms have become even more top-of-mind for many people.
While defense mechanisms aren’t necessarily bad, it’s important to recognize what your defense mechanisms are. Because they are typically gut reactions, it can be challenging at times to be aware of what is happening, as the defense mechanisms can happen in as quick as a split-second. You may have to work on better coping strategies for any pain or anxiety you feel in your life, and the first step to improvement is understanding what defense mechanisms typically are in the first place. Here are the six most common ones:
Denial is one of the most common and easily recognized defense mechanisms. You’ve probably heard about it by word of mouth or in media. It can be easy to identify but when it’s ignored, it can be obvious.
People who are in denial refuse to accept facts or reality, to the point where they even refuse common sense or facts that are before their eyes. They completely avoid reality even though the facts are obvious to everyone around them. It’s a tactic to avoid dealing with the emotional impact and painful feeling of events; people who are in denial even block external circumstances or events from their minds. People who are in denial will often focus on a small part of the bigger picture to justify their actions, even when the larger picture doesn’t make sense.
People who enter repression mode when they are presented with painful memories or thoughts try to hide or bury them, hoping to forget about these events entirely. They don’t acknowledge or accept events in a healthy way, which actually prohibits them from completely moving on. It’s a common defense mechanism — instead of denying that something happened, people with this mechanism will try to forget that thing happened in the first place. While this may appear to be a good strategy on the surface, it’s nearly impossible to suppress memories forever. Moments will often pop back into the person’s thinking, for example in dreams.
This defense mechanism is actually considered to be a positive strategy. With sublimation, people redirect their strong feelings such as anger towards an activity or object that’s safe. For example, many people take out their frustration by kickboxing or venting to a trusted loved one. If you can funnel your feelings into art, sports, or exercise, this is a positive defense mechanism. On the flipside, this defense mechanism isn’t perfect because it doesn’t directly resolve or address present issue or challenge.
With this defense mechanism, people direct their strong emotions toward an object or person who actually isn’t threatening and doesn’t deserve it. While it satisfies an impulse to react and let feelings out, it can harm your relationship with a person. The best example is getting angry with your kid when you’ve had a bad day at work, and at the end of the day, your displacement hasn’t resolved your situation with either your work or your child. Instead, it only escalated the situation for both parties, causing more strife and challenge in everyone’s life. This can happen in therapy if the client directs their strong emotions towards the therapist, when the mental health professional is actually there to be helpful and insightful.
This defense mechanism is most common in young children and important to look out for. If children are anxious or scared, they escape to a stage of development that they experienced when they were much younger, so they act younger.
If they get scared, they suck their thumb or wet the bed. However, adults can experience regression as well. They might turn to comfort foods, avoid everyday activities, or go back to sleeping with stuffed animals. Research notes that regression in adults can pop up at any age, and fear, anger and insecurity can cause an adult to experience this type of defense mechanism.
This defense mechanism is when you rationalize upsetting or fearful events in your own mind, correlating them with your own set of facts. These facts make you feel comfortable with what happened and the choices that were made, even if you subconsciously know that what happened isn’t right.
For example, people explain away being mistreated at work or abused at home with the thinking of “they just had a bad day,” when in reality people know the behavior is not okay. This is also a popular defense mechanism, because it gets to the core of who we are as humans: We often find ways to adjust the narrative in our mind so that the situation at hand feels different than the lived experience itself.
Now that you have a better understanding of six common defense mechanisms, you may be wondering, “What’s next?” Perhaps you’ve seen these pop up in your day-to-day life. It’s worth noting that not all defense mechanisms are bad. In some cases, they can help the person experiencing the painful emotions, experiences or relationships to better manage their well-being. This can be the body’s natural way of protecting itself, not unlike how many animals have physical defense mechanisms for predators in the wild.
But like anything, defense mechanisms can be harmful when they are overused or used in place of professional help, like a therapist. When a person does not face the situation or emotion head on, the experiences can sometimes fester, growing more challenging and complicated by the day. Distance can be a positive thing in many ways. But because these events are often complex in nature, many people reach out to therapists to unpack their experiences and move forward in a healthy and productive way. To learn more about Dementia, and a therapists role in helping individuals with Dementia, check out some of the articles available here.