Originally identified by Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna, defense mechanisms are predominately unconscious strategies we employ to protect us from anxiety. They are particularly likely to appear when something threatens to undermine our self-conception or reveal our weaknesses.
Here are eight of the most common defense mechanisms, along with some advice that can help you see past them.
Denial defends against coping with unpleasant facts or events by excluding them from awareness. The classic case is of the smoker who almost seems unable to see the warnings about lung cancer on the cigarette packets, or the alcoholic who swears they could stop drinking at any time. Whenever you find yourself vehemently denying something that others take to be obvious, ask yourself if you might be trying to hide from the discomfort associated with the truth.
Regressing involves coping with stress by behaving in a childlike way. For example, some people refuse to get out of bed or find themselves stomping their feet like a toddler having a tantrum. Unfortunately, regressing back to an earlier life stage can prevent the meaningful resolution of conflict. If you feel like your mental age drops by decades when emotions are running high, spend some time reflecting on whether there are more helpful ways to react. For example, might you be more likely to meet your overall goals if you took ‘time out’ from an argument until your emotions calmed down?
If you dislike something about yourself, you may project this feeling or belief onto another person and then attack it. For example, if you’re at least vaguely aware that you can be arrogant about your successes, you may be quick to attribute arrogance to others and then find yourself ranting about how distasteful it is to be smug about one’s achievements. Similarly, if you are insecure about your intellect then you might find yourself accusing others of treating you like you’re stupid. There is no quick fix for projection, but a commitment to personal development and increasing self-awareness will lessen the frequency with which you use this defense.
When you cannot express anger to its real target, you may defend yourself by becoming angry at someone else. If you are struggling with an unfair boss, you might return home and shout at your child for a minor (or imagined) indiscretion, getting all of your anger out by attacking a ‘safer’ target. If you notice you’re taking your negative feelings out on others in this way, think about more positive, productive outlets for your regression. We’ll revisit this idea when we discuss the defense of sublimation.
Rationalization takes place when excuses are made to justify unpleasant emotions or potentially shameful actions. For example, think of the cheating wife who says that she slept with someone else because her husband doesn’t understand her, or consider the husband who breaks a vase out of anger and then says his wife ‘made’ he do it. Working to accept that you are fallible just like everyone else can help you to own your mistakes more readily, especially if you can come to recognize that being flawed does not undermine your worth as a person.
6. Reaction formation
An initially tricky concept to comprehend, the defense of reaction formation transforms uncomfortable thoughts or feelings into their opposite. Suppose you feel incapable of expressing how much you love someone, perhaps because they are an inappropriate target for your affections. You might instead be actively unfriendly or mean to this person, making a public show of your dislike for them. Once again, part of moving away from using this defense involves acknowledging that you won’t always like what you feel and reminding yourself that you cannot readily control your emotions—only your behaviors.
When you hurriedly dish out compliments or lavish someone with gifts after you say something unexpectedly cruel in an argument, you’re using the defense mechanism of undoing. The idea is that you might counteract the harsh truth (often a truth that you weren’t previously aware of) with something positive. If you think you often try to smooth over your guilt in this way, consider that you might make more progress if you were willing to honesty but tactfully engage with your reasons for speaking or acting in the way you did.
Finally, if you purge yourself of feelings of frustration by hitting a punching bag or alleviate feelings of misery by writing a song, you’re engaging in sublimation. In other words, you’re getting rid of uncomfortable emotions in a constructive way. It’s worth noting that sublimation is typically thought to be one of the more mature defense mechanisms, so you may not want to rush to get rid of this one! Unlike displacement, it allows acknowledgment of the true sources of a feeling and promotes productive use of that feeling.