Psychological Defense Mechanisms: What for?
Our minds have various wonderful unconscious tools they use to help protect us from danger by providing temporary shelter from a threatening reality. These tools are called Defense Mechanisms (DMs).
With DMs, we can protect and distance ourselves from anxiety and various emotions or impulses that could overwhelm us as we strive to keep our self-image intact.
DMs help us block out or minimise our emotional reactions in situations where we can’t let these feeling run the show––for instance during interpersonal conflicts in business or home situations, or when we are experiencing inner conflicts but need or want to avoid awareness of them. For examples, think of the following types of situations:
- You are caught in a house fire, and need to find the exit route quickly. Fear, panic, hopelessness and other feelings must be delayed.
- You had a heated argument with someone, and feel betrayal, anger, guilt, and embarrassment.
- You feel sexual or aggressive impulses and tensions that are not appropriate to the situation at hand, such as an urge to lash out at your loved ones in social settings or to lavish attention on that hot sexy person in a bar.
You may feel anxiety at any point in these events––one of the first signs of the onset of a defensive reaction. Anxiety is a natural biological response designed for our survival. Felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension, it signals us to start taking defensive action towards a perceived danger, whether it’s a conflict, a physical threat, or even an internal thought of guilt, etc. This tension warns that an instinctual reaction is to be expected….. now! What we do then is put the sum of all feelings and impulse at the back of our mind temporarily.
Sooner or later, your mind will return to the reality of the event and your feelings about it, so that you can face and review the situation consciously and clearly. You may feel pain as the thoughts and feelings are let out. But the delay your mind has given you, whether minutes, days, or weeks, allows you time to draw on some resources and healthy ways to handle the origin of the pain and let it go. Once released, it is like a clock reset, so to speak.
Sometimes, however, we refuse this temporary measure and instead bury the pain deep into our minds, until its origin is lost. We use those same DMs not as temporary remedies but as psychological painkillers that treat or mask the symptoms of emotional and psychological pain over the long term. In such cases, these defenses become automatic; while they were meant to alleviate pain temporarily, they instead become a substitute for addressing the cause of the original pain, and similar pains that come afterwards. They disrupt our ability to recognize our real feelings and thoughts. This latter type of response is dysfunctional.
If our DMs separate us from our true feelings and from reality for very long, they essentially become lies. These lies create more problems down the line through maladaptive coping behaviours, while the original pain will still scream to be let out, compounding problems. This is when defense mechanisms become pathological.
Let’s look at various ways of coping and how DMs are distinguished along a continuum ranging from healthy to pathological.
There are two ways to cope with danger, whether it’s external or internal danger:
- Avoiding the danger reduces stress. Avoiding, repressing, withdrawing, denying, looking away, escaping from the situation, or letting someone else take the blame are all useful means when a situation is out of your control. However, using DMs this way also leads to a lack of awareness and understanding.
- Approaching what threatens you increases the chances for coping with an event. Approaching, learning more, and taking charge are best applied when something can be done about the problem. This method permits more stress and worry than choosing avoidance, but it also promotes awareness and maturity––otherwise known as ‘growth.’
Defence mechanisms support both of these ways of coping. Some of them are healthier than others:
- Pathological. A DM becomes pathological when it is used in a rigid, inflexible, and exclusive manner. These kinds of defenses can lead to mental illness. They are common in overt psychosis, in dreams, and during childhood. They allow a person to rearrange external reality so that they don’t have to cope with a real threat and/or it prevents a person from perceiving reality. For the observer, the users of these mechanisms may appear crazy or insane.
The motivation for using the defense comes more from past needs than present or future reality. Because the defense severely distorts the present situation, it distorts your real emotions and feelings, instead of rechanneling them effectively. This leads to significant problems in relationships, functioning, and enjoyment of life.Too much unconscious activity causes the use of too many defenses in handling a situation or, too few defences are employed in coping with threats.
Pathological defence mechanisms may include: distortions, delusional and paranoid projections, regression and denial.
- Immature. The immature defenses are used in childhood and adolescence and usually abandoned by adulthood. They can lead to socially unacceptable behaviour and also prevent the adult from learning optimal ways of coping with reality. While are common in adolescents, these methods are sometimes seen in adults who suffer from severe depression and personality disorders. The immature user alters the distress and anxiety caused by reality or by other people. People who act this way are often seen by others as socially undesirable, immature, difficult and out of touch. Defences considered “immature” almost always lead to serious problems in a person’s ability to cope with the world.
Immature defence mechanisms may include: fantasy, projections, passive-aggressive and acting out behaviours, and hypochondriasis.
- Neurotic. Almost everyone has some kinds of neurotic coping mechanisms. They are fairly common in adults and they can have short-term advantages, but they often cause long-term problems in relationships, work, and enjoyment of life for people who primarily use them as their basic style of coping with the world.
Neurotic defence mechanisms may include: intellectualisation, rationalisation, repression, suppression, withdrawal, reaction formation, displacement, compartmentalisation, and dissociation.
- Mature. These are the mechanisms used by “healthy” adults. They increase our ability to have normal relationships and enjoy our work and lives. These responses are adaptive. Although many of them have their origins in the “immature” level, they have been honed by the individual to optimize his/her success in life and relationships. Use of these defenses gives the user pleasure and feelings of mastery. These defenses enable us to integrate many conflicting emotions and thoughts and still be effective. For the beholder, using these mature coping methods is viewed as a virtue.
Mature defence mechanisms may include: sublimation, fantasy, altruism, compensation, suppression, anticipation, humour, identification and undoing.
The use of the immature defenses is related to poor adjustment as an adult, marital discord and higher divorce rates, poor friendship patterns, a higher incidence of mental illness, a greater number of sick leave days taken, and poorer health generally.
On the other hand, research shows that people who rely on mature defenses tend to experience excellent adjustment as adults, higher self-reported levels of happiness, more satisfaction, rich friendships, a lower incidence of mental illness and better overall health…leading to fewer hospitalizations over the course of their lives.
It is useful to become aware of the defense mechanisms we use and how they compare with others. If you identify your patterns as immature or neurotic, there is work you can do to develop mature mechanisms instead.