What are Defense Mechanisms and How Do They Affect Us? Take the example of Alice..
Alice leaves Busselton after a terrible relationship breakdown. She once revelled in what seemed to be an amazing relationship with John for three years until one day; she found a note from him saying he would be leaving for Sydney with someone new. As you may expect, this left Alice shattered.
Years after this incident, Alice slowly develops feelings for a new colleague at work. But to give a thought to the idea of a new relationship, Alice has to tackle recurring thoughts and emotions of her terrible breakup with John and fears of the same thing happening again. Unconsciously, Alice develops a defensive strategy to avoid these thoughts and remain optimistic that this new relationship may make her happy ever after.
Defense mechanisms are a widely-studied area of human psychology. They were first described by Sigmund Freud, and later elaborated on and developed by his daughter, Anna. Anna Freud described defence mechanisms as responses to signal anxiety, which occurs as a result of an anticipated instinctual tension. Simply put, humans will put up a mental defense to whatever potentially stresses their ego, a component of personality that guides and modifies our actions.
Defence mechanisms are entirely a normal part of human psychology, and while they are self-serving in themselves when employed to the extreme may suggest more pathologic tendencies.
There are different types of defence mechanisms, many of which were described by Sigmund Freud and expanded on by his daughter. These mechanisms include repression, intellectualization, regression, rationalization, sublimation or displacement, denial, avoidance, and projection.
Let’s take a deeper look into each of these:
One common strategy we use is that we repress negative emotions. Repression is the defence mechanism Alice employed to avoid the anxiety that comes with thinking about her past hurt. Repression is a strategy the ego uses to block disturbing or threatening emotions and thoughts from gaining entry into our conscious mind.
This may also include blocking traumatic experiences and memories such as car accidents, robbery incidents, assaults, or an embarrassing moment that might trigger signal anxiety or mental tension.
When we try to hide from the emotions of a negative experience and focus on its intellectual components, we use a defence mechanism called intellectualisation.
For example, when Alice decides to share her experience of heartbreak with her friends or her love interest, she may state the facts alone while detaching herself from the negative emotions and anxiety that arises from the event.
While intellectualization may make one appear brave, overusing this mechanism leaves these negative emotions unprocessed, predisposing one to emotional and psychological disturbances including anxiety disorders.
You have probably used this defense mechanism many times before. Have you had your desire denied and you immediately spiral into childlike behaviors, such as crying, cussing people out, or breaking things? Same way children throw tantrums when their desires are ignored, adults too can regress when under stress.
Have you ever wanted something so bad and not get it, then say to yourself: “It was not meant for me”? Yes? In psychology, we call this rationalization and humans use this as a defense against the sadness and hurt that naturally comes after one does not get what they want.
Now, while this may be helpful as a coping mechanism, if it is overused or used in unnecessary situations, it may prevent us from introspecting and learning from our mistakes.
I remember getting to work a few minutes late, and my colleague who was supposed to hand over patient files to me went ballistic. While it was not out of place to get angry at a colleague for coming late, it definitely goes overboard if one screams about it. I got to find out much later that he was not primarily angry at me, but at the manager for talking down on her moments earlier.
This action is called displacement and it is an unconscious transfer of one’s negative emotions onto someone else who is not directly linked to one’s stressor.
If Alice begins a new relationship with Bryan and notices certain behaviours that suggest he is cheating, she may choose to ignore these signs and remain optimistic. This defence mechanism is called denial.
While denial may shield us from the anxiety that negative emotions and thoughts bring, it prevents us from seeing things as they are. This exposes us to the very threat that we try to hide from.
A bit like denial, avoidance takes into awareness that a threat or problem exists, but we refuse to do anything about it; Instead, we try to stay far away from any potential solution.
One example of avoidance is procrastination. Your friend calls you to repay a sum of money you owe him, but while you have the money to pay back, you push the thought of repayment off and hope everyone just forgets about it.
Projection is a common defence mechanism in which the emotions and thoughts we have about ourselves are thought to be the ones others have about us or themselves.
A case in point is situational anxiety. Have you found yourself anxious about a class presentation and think others are feeling the same way, even when they are not? That’s projection. What’s more, thinking your boss always criticize you even when he or she is just correcting you is a typical example of projection.
There are several other types of defence mechanisms that are part of our everyday life. However, while these are subconscious responses to protect us from potential threats, they may not always be of benefit to us. Therefore, examine your thoughts and emotions, with the help of your psychologist and find how you respond to situations. Learn what defence mechanisms you employ and how best to change your ways of coping.