9 Basic Defense Mechanisms

9 Basic Defense Mechanisms

“Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” – Carl Jung

We all engage in various forms of self-deception.  Defense mechanisms protect us not only from other people, but from knowledge within ourselves that we are not yet ready to face. Many of our defense mechanisms operate out of conscious awareness or simply happen so quickly that we may not even notice them.

Mindfulness allows us to gradually become more conscious of our automatic “knee-jerk” behaviors, which can result in an increased awareness of moments when we are feeling particularly defensive or guarded.  Within this awareness lies the ability to increase understanding about ourselves and become more capable of making mindful choices of how we would like to respond differently.

Read through the following 9 basic defense mechanisms and notice your own tendencies.  Why do you think (consciously or otherwise) you choose particular defense mechanisms over others?  As you read through these basic defense mechanisms, allow your awareness to expand enough to fully embrace your patterns without rejection.  Accept where you are in this moment and notice what thoughts and feelings come up for you.

(1) Denial

When we are “in denial” there is a sense of refusing to accept reality as it is.  Quite often, reality feels painful and there are truths about ourselves, others, and situations that we would rather not acknowledge.  The fact remains that reality is precisely as it is meant to be.  The more time that we waste fighting against “what is,” the longer it will be until we reach a place of contentment, acceptance, and peace.  Acceptance does not mean approval.  You can accept reality completely without “liking” any of it.  Once you allow yourself to accept the truth as it is, you then have increased freedom to change it.

(2) Repression

Repression involves “forgetting” painful experiences or truths that we would rather not acknowledge or are simply not psychologically prepared to handle in the present moment.  In many instances, repression can be an incredibly valuable psychological mechanism, since many traumatic experiences may be repressed until the individual is more prepared to face them.  Repression can also take a milder form by “forgetting” to do your chores around the house or go to the dentist.  As with most defense mechanisms, this form of repression is a choice to step out of wise mind and mindfulness… seeing things as we want them to be, rather than how they truly are.

(3) Regression

Regression occurs when we revert back to childlike behaviors under stress or tension.  Perhaps you experience a form of regression when you find yourself “caught” doing something you know you shouldn’t do and you try to be “cute” or even whine about it.  Or maybe you experience regression when you are stuck in bad traffic and find yourself starting to curse at other drivers or feel like having a “tantrum” right there in the car.  Regression may even occur when you are feeling emotionally depleted or drained and just want to hide away under the blankets and snuggle a teddy bear.  All of these behaviors involve regressing to more childlike states of dependency and emotional expression.

(4) Displacement

Displacement involves transferring “unacceptable” feelings away from the true target of those feelings onto a more harmless victim or object.  This defense mechanism is not uncommon in families where emotional abuse is present.  The oldest child may be the victim of some form of abuse by one parent.  This child then directs aggression towards their younger sibling.  The younger sibling, feeling helpless, may direct his or her own hostility and frustration toward the family dog or cat.  In this way, the aggression trickles down, creating a cascade of displaced emotions.  The result of ongoing displacement can be a sense of inner turmoil, unexpressed or acknowledged rage, and a cycle of abuse.

(5) Projection

To understand the concept of projection, imagine a quality within yourself that you find unacceptable or unwilling to openly acknowledge.  This idea goes back to the Jungian idea of the “shadow self.”  We all have parts within ourselves that we dislike in some way.  Perhaps there is a part of you, deep down inside, that is whiny and needy of attention.  Imagine that you dislike this inner quality and do your best to deny its existence.  You would be engaging in the defense mechanism of projection if you found yourself “noticing” how other people were whiny and needy.  You may get particularly irritated with the neediness of others and even “see” neediness where it doen’t exist… projecting it.  Generally speaking, projection alienates others and says far more about our own insecurities than any real truths about other people.

(6) Reaction Formation

Reaction formation involves the process of transforming unacceptable or unwanted feelings towards others into their complete opposite.  Imagine that, deep down, you strongly dislike one of your colleagues with whom you know you must have a close working relationship.  Rather than consciously admit these strong feelings of dislike, you may transform those feelings by acting in a way that suggests you strongly like this objectionable colleague. In a way, this defense mechanism is an attempt to make life more bearable for you by transforming difficult or unwanted feelings into their opposite.  In a more extreme example, someone who had unacknowledged feelings of homosexuality may transform those inner feelings into an outward expression of intense homophobia.

(7) Intellectualization

When we engage in the defense mechanism of intellectualization, we are “thinking away” an emotion or reaction that is unpleasant in some way.  For example, imagine that an important romantic relationship has just ended and you do not wish to confront the painful emotions involved with the dissolution of that relationship.  If you engaged in intellectualization, you would be focusing in on all of the “facts” about why the relationship needed to end or why you are better off without that person.  This process of intellectualization serves the useful function of permitting you to (temporarily, in most cases) avoid unpleasant emotional states.  It is important to recognize that with intellectualization, you are not denying that the painful event occurred… rather, you are denying the emotional impact of the event on you.

(8) Rationalization

Rationalization involves an attempt to “explain away” something that we would rather not confront or accept.  This defense mechanism is commonly employed when we have done something that we feel guilty about and we would prefer not to assume full responsibility.  Rationalization occurs through giving many “reasons” or “explanations” about why something occurred (and usually about why we had nothing to do with it or why it wasn’t our fault).  For most people, it is far easier to blame other people or external circumstances than to assume personal responsibility.  True freedom comes with accepting an appropriate amount of responsibility, learning from mistakes, and attempting to avoid the potential of similar future mistakes.  Rationalization often results in the tragedy of lessons unlearned due to a lack of ownership.

(9) Sublimation

Sublimation involves converting unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors into those that are societally or personally acceptable.  This defense mechanism involves converting internal emotional states through productive outlets.  We may take impulses or desires that are consciously unacceptable to use and find a “healthy” outlet for those impulses.  The idea behind sublimation is that we are attempting to satisfy unacceptable impulses or desires in a socially or personally acceptable manner.  For example, someone who had an unacceptable internal impulse to be aggressive toward others may find a socially acceptable occupation (e.g., law enforcement, etc.) where those aggressive impulses could be acceptably discharged.

The common theme behind all of these defense mechanisms is the conversion of reality as it truly is into a form of reality that we find more consciously acceptable.  Mindfulness is a tool that encourages the full and complete acceptance of reality precisely as it is in this present moment.  When we allow ourselves to truly open up to the truth of who we are in this moment, we become more aware of the ways that are psychologically “protecting” ourselves.  In this awareness we allow space to become more awake, alert, and aware of how we are responding.  With this full consciousness, we have greater ability to choose how to respond.

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Whitbourne, S. K. (2011, October 22). The essential guide to defense mechanisms [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201110/the-essential-guide-defense-mechanisms

Featured image: Keep Out by Space Ritual / CC BY-ND 2.0

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