Defense Mechanisms: Sometimes, it is okay to let your guard down

The drive to survive is inherent in all living things; we generally have a basic, fundamental tendency toward self-preservation. Things that happen in life can be awful and distressing; sometimes these experiences and the accompanying pain and feelings can get so overwhelming and disabling we instinctively develop ways to cope with them. 


Defences are psychological responses that help us avoid and manage situations perceived as dangerous and/or painful; they may do so by distorting or leaving out certain information and emotional experiences (Lemma, 2003). They are largely unconscious and tend to be mobilised without one’s conscious realisation; examples of such include denial, projection, and the use of humour (Vaillant et al., 1986).


They may protect us from unpleasant affects arising from intra- and inter- personal conflicts. However their constant use overtime can become characterological and part of one’s personality, at times leading to a state of perpetual low mood, withdrawal from loved ones, disinterest in relationships, with the person none the wiser as to why he or she might be feeling or behaving as such.


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Defences are protective; but what they do protect is the heart of the matter. Our memories contain pain, shame, disappointment, and other less than pleasant affects and sensations; our desires hold unfulfilled wishes and longings. When we acknowledge these, enter a dialogue about them, they become real. It can be terribly scary because we are exposing ourselves to the risk of possibly getting hurt and disappointed, and not getting our heart’s desires.


The more we defend against the vulnerabilities of truly feeling and experiencing, the further we get from what actually matters. When we allow ourselves to be curious, we open our hearts and minds to possibilities, opportunities, experiences, places and spaces not privy to us before; only then can our inner and external worlds become more integrated, textured, and multi-dimensional. Ignorance isn’t always blissful; our needs need attending to.   



Lemma, A. (2003). Introduction to the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. 

Vaillant, G., Bond, M., & Vaillant, C. (1986). An empirically validated hierarchy of defense mechanisms. Archives of General Psychiatry, 43 (8), 786-794. 

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