To be is to be vulnerable. – Norman O. Brown
How do you protect yourself?
Life is traumatic. From our earliest breaths to the last one we take, we collect different injuries and scars as a part of being human, constantly confronted with one hurt after another.
It naturally follows that we find ways to protect ourselves from hurt.
These protective measures are what we know as our defense mechanisms. They are formed early in life and become second nature to us, so much so that we forget that they are protective measures and instead see them as personality traits. They become unconscious and often engage without our awareness of them.
To the outer world, who we are, is largely, but not solely, defined by our behavior. When we unconsciously engage our defense mechanisms, we behave protectively/defensively. Ultimately these acts can come to define us, often much to our displeasure, as we are perceived to be guarded, aloof, or even "prickly." We wonder why we behave in a certain way and start criticizing ourselves and others for doing the same.
Alternatively, if we can understand our defense mechanisms and why we engage them, it may help us become more conscious of them and our triggers. This awareness can help us pause and consider how we may want to act, based upon who we are at our core, rather than how we protect ourselves.
Defense mechanisms operate to protect us from experiencing internal pain and discomfort. Common defense mechanisms fall into three main categories. They are outlined below, with examples of each.
1. Inwardly/ Internal Processes
Repression/denial: the lies we tell ourselves (repression) or the refusal to recognize what we know on some level to be true (denial) of our feelings, needs, and what we think of ourselves.
Sometimes it is important to repress/deny one's needs and desires in the pursuit of long-term goals. Similarly, it can be helpful to repress feelings so that they might not overwhelm us or repress/deny shame to allow ourselves to become vulnerable.
Extreme repression/denial, however, may deprive us entirely of what we need. If we do not acknowledge and express our needs, they do not simply go away. They find ways to show themselves covertly, such as little digs, sarcasm, or passive-aggressiveness. This behavior undervalues and damages our relationships, which can drive us towards substances or self-defeating/self-harming behaviors to fill unmet needs.
Displacement/Sublimation: Feelings are directed away from the person who inspired them and put onto another person (displacement) or channeled into an activity (sublimation).
Example: Parents often feel a lot of different emotions towards their children; sometimes, these involve anger and resentment. Displacing them onto their partners is a way to protect the child while working through the emotion with an adult who can understand and handle what is happening (Healthy Displacement).
Example: Conversely, an inability to communicate one's feelings to the appropriate party often leads to us exploding onto friends, partners, or co-workers. Needs may also be displaced from relationships to objects like food, alcohol, and drugs (Unhealthy Displacement).
Reaction Formation: Turning an unacceptable feeling or impulse into its exact opposite.
Example: Feeling intense disgust for cigarette smoke after successfully quitting. On some level, such people may long to smoke again. The disgust, however, keeps them from slipping back (Healthy Reaction Formation).
Example: A man who likes to beat up other men as they emerge from gay bars but has sublimated or repressed awareness of his attraction to them (Unhealthy Reaction Formation).
Projection: Attributing unacceptable internal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to other people or to the environment
Regression: Reverting to an earlier stage of development in behaviors.
Rationalization: Wishful thinking, justification of some feeling, motive, or action.
Intellectualization: hyper-focus on thoughts and complete diversion of feelings.
Compartmentalization: separating feelings from consciousness in different situations and environments.
We all need some level of self-deception through rationalization, intellectualization, or compartmentalization to get through life. Things will work out for the best. It gives us a sense of stability in a world where everything is unpredictable. Thinking helps us escape from unbearable pain and confusion.
That said, overuse of the lies we tell ourselves can become harmful. This thinking is most often seen in people who are struggling with addiction. In its extreme form, this behavior impedes recovery as often the rhetoric is "I'm not hurting anyone but myself by drinking."
We have all of these at our disposal, and we all have our favorites. Understanding why we use them and how to better manage our discomfort is helpful in the long run.
How to use your defense mechanisms
There are a few ways to discern when you are engaging your defense mechanisms. One way is to think about your habitual ways of interacting with important people in your life. Another is the arousal of intense feelings. Often this elevation alerts us to a perceived threat— hence why we would feel the need to defend ourselves.
To understand the difference between a defense mechanism and a strong emotional response, ask yourself: do you engage in mental self-justification of your behaviors? Oftentimes, that self-justification is the surface layer of our defensive structure, with the full battery of defense mechanisms at the ready behind it.
This discussion of defense mechanisms is not to suggest that we need to get rid of them or that they are "bad"—there are many times when our defensive structure is immensely useful. When we consciously use defense mechanisms, they can help us cope with many life challenges.
The idea is to shift from operating without conscious knowledge to bringing the defense responses into awareness, allowing us more control over our behaviors. If you are having difficulty discerning or managing your use of defense mechanisms, therapy can help. Together, we can help you recognize how you can use defense mechanisms to empower yourself and guide your choices in life.