We all have different ways of dealing with our unpleasant emotions, however, one of the most recurrent ways of dealing with them that we all use are defence mechanisms. They are so common that they have become a huge part of our everyday life, without many of us realising how many different forms of self-deceptions we engage in at least some of the time.
Defence mechanisms are unconscious protective measures that develop very early in life. They have been adopted by the brain to shield us from painful feelings and additionally they keep our unwanted thoughts from entering our consciousness.
The most common defence mechanisms are:
People who refuse to accept the truth of some fact or reality of their experience use denial as their defence mechanism. Employing this defence mechanism helps them to protect their ego from potential damage caused by their guilt and inability to accept their feelings or previous actions.
For example, people who use alcohol excessively would often say things like, ‘I’m just a social drinker’, while at the same time they will point out how well they function in their job and relationships. Another example is people only taking credit for their successes and blaming others for their failures. By doing that they are failing to acknowledge their own behaviour and possible consequences.
Repression is an unconscious defence mechanism that helps people to push any disturbing, threatening or uncomfortable thoughts in the subconscious. However, these repressed memories and thoughts do not disappear, they reappear in the form of unattributed anxiety or dysfunctional behaviour.
For example, some victims of sexual or physical abuse who have been subjected to horrific things might have no recollection of what happened to them. Nevertheless, the abuse is later on associated with their inability to form relationships.
Projection means attributing uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and motives to another person.
For instance, you might hate someone you work with, however, you realise that such hatred would be considered unacceptable. So instead you project your feelings onto a person you hate and persuade yourself that they have hostile thoughts about you.
Introjection is the opposite of projection and it occurs when a person subconsciously adopts attitudes, messages, expressions and even the sound of the voice of another person.
For example, people might interject religious ideas or political opinions of their friends.
Displacement is a redirection of feelings, such as aggression, onto a powerless substitute target, a so-called ‘dumping on’ someone.
For instance, a person might become frustrated with their boss, but they can’t show their anger towards him or her as that kind of behaviour would be socially inappropriate. Therefore, they transfer their feelings towards a more ‘acceptable’ object, a family member or animal.
People use this defence mechanism when they find it difficult to accept some actions or things they have done and they create excuses or justifications to make their behaviour seem more logical.
For example, people who have failed to get into a chosen university due to their results not being good enough, would try to convert their negative emotions of feeling ashamed and embarrassed into a neutral set of thoughts and will say that they didn’t want to go there anyway.
Some people might find it emotionally difficult to deal with offensive behaviour or unacceptable situations they are presented with. In order to deal with their emotions, they start to put more emphasis on thinking and they start to intellectualise their emotions.
For instance, a person who has just been told that they have cancer might focus on collecting as much information as they can about their diagnosis, rather than dealing with their feelings of sadness and grief.
When people are frightened, troubled or stressed by something it can affect their behaviour and they might revert back to a childlike emotional state as a result of it. This movement back in psychological time and acting like a child is called regression. An example of people using regression as their defence mechanism is a person who suffers a mental breakdown assumes a fetal position, crying and rocking.
People who experience aggressive or violent impulses might try to avoid them as expressing those emotions is considered socially unacceptable. However, this might be difficult to contain and their aggression might start to manifest itself in other forms.
For example, a passive aggressive person might start to be uncooperative in carrying out their duties at work and they might deliberately ignore others when spoken to or they might adopt a negative view of their colleagues.
Reaction Formation is defined as over-compensation for fear of the opposite.
An example of this defence mechanism is a person who is overly nice, but has a lot of repressed anger and rage which they might not be completely aware on a conscious level. Consequently, one part of self (being nice) is strengthened, while the other one (being angry), is repressed due to the person’s fear of that part of self.
Idealisation is a defence mechanism that helps people to adjust the way in which they perceive the world around them.
For example, people might idealise their memories from childhood. They focus on the positives, but fail to recollect struggles and stresses they experienced during their childhood.
People use this defence mechanism in order to escape reality. Fantasies can help people explore what they can do to change their situation and be happier. However, if they set themselves unrealistic expectations and fail to fulfil them it can result in them losing touch with reality.
Some people might try to look for a funny aspect of some tense or stressful situation they can’t control in order to deal with their emotions.
Some of the above described defence mechanisms can be helpful, however, some might not be and they can make people's life even more difficult. All defence mechanisms are learned behaviours and as all learned behaviours they can be replaced. It is therefore important for people to be aware of what defence mechanisms they are using and when they are using them. This increased self-awareness will help people understand how defence mechanisms are helping and hurting them. Consequently, having awareness will help to break down unhelpful defences that reduce their flexibility to respond to change.
It is essential to point out that people's defence mechanisms were adopted to protect them from emotional pain that they couldn’t cope with. Once they start talking about their defence mechanisms they become conscious and the pain they feel will subside, taking away the need for this defence.
So which defence mechanisms do you use?