Defense Mechanisms: How It Can Affect Our Mental Health

Defense Mechanisms: How It Can Affect Our Mental Health

Our minds are extremely powerful when it comes to protecting us from harm. And if you have ever experienced a painful or uncomfortable thought, emotion or situation, your mind would have probably utilised a defense mechanism to help you cope during that time.

You cannot mention defense mechanisms without bringing up noted psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, and his theory of personality. He proposed that the mind is composed of the id, ego and superego; in which anxiety emerges when the needs of the id clash with the needs of the superego.

In order to reduce the tension, the ego employs strategies aimed to distort reality in an attempt to avoid the discomfort (we will dive deeper into this later). It wasn’t until his daughter, Anna Freud, expanded his initial theory to further define defense mechanisms as “unconscious resources used by the ego” and named 10 main defense mechanisms.

Today, there are currently over 40 defense mechanisms that psychologists have identified and elaborated on; and as you will find out, defense mechanisms are in no way “good” or “bad”. Problems, however, arise when we overuse them and actively avoid challenges, twist our narrative and version of reality and even impact the way we communicate with others.

After all, life has plenty of lemons to throw at us; and it’s about making the best lemonade possible with what you have. 

How defense mechanisms work

Remember that our minds will do anything to achieve “mental homeostasis” and protect us against what might seem threatening and undesirable. Just imagine if we didn’t have defense mechanisms–any setback or obstacle can leave us feeling much more vulnerable and overwhelmed on a regular basis!

Types of defense mechanisms 

According to psychologists, there are different types of defense mechanisms–on the healthier end of the spectrum are what we call mature defenses; while on the other end lies what is called primitive defenses (the ones that are often utilised by children).

Here are some examples of defense mechanisms and how they might look in action (can you spot any that you are guilty of?):

1. Acting Out

To avoid naming or acknowledging negative emotions, a person may instead choose to “act them out”. Usually, this leads to behaviours that are reactive and impulsive. This is considered a very basic defense mechanism that is considered to be more primitive in nature.

Example: Instead of saying that they are angry at their partner, an individual decides to scream at his/her partner and storm out of the room.

2. Denial

This shouldn’t be new to anyone. Denial is, in fact, one of the most common defense mechanisms–utilised when an individual refuses to accept or acknowledge certain facts, feelings and thoughts about a particular situation that are deemed to be negative. This defense mechanisms can be commonly seen in those suffering from a substance use disorder.

By not acknowledging the facts, the individual protects himself from any pain or anxiety–at least temporarily. Oftentimes, people remain in denial until the point in which they suffer extreme losses, such as loved ones, loss of a job or financial debt. Denial is also considered a primitive defense mechanism.

In other words, reality always wins.

Example: Someone who excessively uses alcohol as a coping mechanism might deny the fact that his/her health has been deteriorating and that he/she “only drinks sometimes”.

3. Projection

Projection happens when someone attributes unacceptable or negative thoughts or feelings about themselves to someone else. This can also look like a refusal to accept one’s flaws and attributing these same flaws to somebody else. By not acknowledging their weaknesses and seeing them in other people instead, an individual can protect their self-esteem and self-concept.

The majority of the time, this defense mechanism is maladaptive and harms relationships.

Example: A bully who physically and verbally attacks a peer might be projecting his own insecurities onto the other person

4. Suppression

When we consciously choose to block out unpleasant feelings, thoughts or experiences, we call that suppression. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who suffers from intrusive thoughts after a traumatic event but deliberately pushes these thoughts out of their mind.

Oftentimes, this defense mechanism pops up when we try to suppress our emotions to avoid having to deal with them. But emotions don’t just go away, and often fester and manifest in other ways (whether we like it or not).

Note: This is slightly different from the defense mechanism, regression. Compared to suppression, regression aims to do the same thing, except that it works on an unconscious level. Suppression also does not block the thoughts indefinitely–they are often brought back to awareness at a better time when the individual finds an opportunity to cope with them more effectively (you can see how this might be adaptive/maladaptive in different situations).

Example: Someone who is angry with a disruptive coworker might decide to discuss the issue with him/her at a later time instead of doing so in front of the boss.  

5. Regression

Regression occurs in response to stress or distress where individuals display age-inappropriate behaviour, i.e., they regress or move back to an early developmental stage and adopt immature patterns of behaviour and emotions. This is considered a primitive and maladaptive defense mechanism as it does not tend to result in healthy coping or problem-solving.

In a way, regression is a form of “escape” that can appear in both children as well as adults (yes, adults can regress too). Adults who are struggling to cope with certain events or emotions may return to sleeping with a teddy bear, suck their thumb, watch cartoons, or may also avoid everyday activities because they feel overwhelmed.

Example: Someone who gets into an argument with his/her partner and starts to cry uncontrollably and throw a temper tantrum in order to get his/her way out of it. 

6. Displacement

When you transfer undesirable feelings from the original target to another similar, weaker target, we call that displacement. Oftentimes, the target is someone deemed less threatening, which makes it feel safe enough to satisfy an impulse without risking significant consequences.

Displaced aggression is a common example, in which anger towards a spouse leads to an expression of that anger on to persons or objects that pose little threat, such as children or pets.

Example: An employee who was scolded by their superior takes their rage out on their subordinates. 

7. Avoidance

Many people should be familiar with avoidance, i.e., whenever we face a situation which creates anxiety, a good option is sometimes to simply avoid it altogether. Avoidance, like many other defense mechanisms, only offers a short-term solution that does not resolve the original issue from the start.

Avoidance can be avoiding people, thoughts, places and memories that make us feel upset.

Example: Someone with a fear of abandonment might avoid relationships completely so that they will not have to deal with the intense emotions felt should the person leave them. 

The best way to move forward? Confront your problems directly.

8. Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is simply acting the opposite of how you actually feel. Doing so helps to counteract impulses which may be unacceptable to act out or impossible to fulfil.

A common example is a person who feels they should not express negative emotions, such as anger or frustration. Instead, they choose to react in an overly positive way.

As reaction formation can sometimes show up in subtle ways (it’s much easier to spot them in others), it is important to look closely at your own emotions and how you really feel about certain people or specific situations. If you feel an incongruence between your emotions and behaviours, you might just be using reaction formation.

Example: Someone who feels guilty for cheating on his/her partner might refuse to accept the guilt and instead express anger or outrage to them.

9. Intellectualisation

Intellectualisation is considered to be a mature defense mechanism where people will ignore any emotional cues and consider it solely in intellectual terms. This can often show in patterns of excessive thinking or over-analysing situations in an attempt to distance oneself from negative emotions.

Note: On the other hand, rationalisation is the justification of one’s behaviours through attempts at a rational explanation.

Example: Someone who was rejected by his/her date might intellectualise the situation and say things like “I didn’t really like him/her that much anyway.”

10. Sublimation

Sublimation involves transforming conflicted emotions, unmet desires or unacceptable impulses into more positive and productive pursuits such as art, music or sports. It is considered to be a more adaptive defence mechanism.

When used to handle a situation you cannot really control, sublimation is actually one of the most positive defense mechanisms that can actually help you achieve goals. But when used routinely to avoid addressing an issue that must be resolved to move forward, it can have negative repercussions.

Example: Someone who is trying to cope with loneliness when married might turn to writing music or joining a local sports club.  

Is it bad to use defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms aren’t inherently bad; in fact, they play a huge role in helping us survive difficult and overwhelming physical, emotional and psychological experiences throughout our lives.

However, it can come as a double-edged sword, and problems arise when we are too rigid in our use of them. While they can keep us “safe” in our bubble, they do little in fostering an authentic sense of self-esteem and self-concept in the long run.

If you find yourself often accusing others of doing things that you would like to be doing but can’t admit to, avoiding people, places, or things that upset you, or even getting angry or irritable with family after a difficult work day–it might be worth checking in with yourself (or a trusted friend, lover or therapist) to increase your awareness of it and help you to cope in healthier ways.

Learning about your defense mechanisms can be a useful source of information that can be utilised for constructive action. Remember that as human beings, we all tend to follow certain patterns of behaviours–one of which are defense mechanisms. If something isn’t serving you well, it’s still possible to break the code and rewire more adaptive patterns and habits!

Here are some simple tips to get you started:

  1. Allow yourself to experience and process negative emotions instead of suppressing them.
  2. Incorporate mindfulness and meditation into your routine.
  3. Take responsibility for your thoughts and actions.
  4. Work with a therapist or undergo counselling therapy to learn healthier coping strategies.

A Word from A Space Between

At A Space Between, we have over 60 mental health professionals including life coaches and professional counsellors that will be happy to work with you and talk through your defenses so that you can start taking charge of your behaviours.

“Defences keep us stuck in one unhappy place. It takes truth and courage to abandon them, but once we do we discover a world of freedom and wonderful possibilities.” – Psychologist Dorothy Rowe

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