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8 common defense mechanisms

How we help (and hurt) our emotional well-being

Being rejected from a job you wanted. A social setting you don’t feel comfortable in. A stressful argument with your partner. Everyone experiences these negative situations in life – they’re unavoidable. However, you can learn a good deal about yourself when you examine how you react to hard times.

What is a defense mechanism?

For many of us, any situation that brings uncertainty triggers an unconscious protective measure that allows us to cope with unpleasant emotions – these are our defense mechanisms. And in the short-term, many mechanisms can be adaptive. We don’t dwell. We don’t say or do something with potentially damaging ramifications. We keep ourselves in a better state.

Yet in the long run, the effect is actually the opposite, as routine use of defense mechanisms can actually reduce the effectiveness of emotional processing. This is why it is key to become more cognizant of your personal tendencies. How do you handle stressful situations? Do you live in a state of denial when bad news comes your way? Do you find yourself constantly making excuses for your behavior?

You may never rid yourself of your defense mechanisms. Think of them as hard-wired into your system. But with more self-awareness, you can understand how these processes are helping and hurting you, and how to truly tend to your emotional well-being.

Take a look at some of the most common defense mechanisms:

DENIAL

When a situation or fact becomes too much to handle, you may simply refuse to experience it. By denying reality, you are essentially protecting yourself from having to face and deal with the unpleasant consequences and pain that accompany acceptance. If you tell yourself “I’m just a social drinker,” instead of dealing with your serious drinking problem, or that “Every couple eventually loses the romance” instead of facing your failing marriage, for example, you are utilizing denial as a defense mechanism. And while this may alleviate any short-term pain, in the long run, denial can prevent you from making positive change and can have potentially destructive ramifications.

REPRESSION

There is a fine line between denial and repression. But where denial involves the outright refusal to accept a given reality, repression involves completely forgetting the experience altogether. With repression, your mind makes the decision to bury the memory in the subconscious, thereby preventing painful, disturbing or dangerous thoughts from entering awareness. This is often the case with child abuse or other traumatic experiences that occurred early on in development. While repression, much like denial, may serve immediate purposes, particularly if you were tormented by a painful experience, if you do not eventually process and deal with the experience it can have severe consequences later on.

DISPLACEMENT

Have you ever endured a stressful day at work, then come home and taken out your frustration on your loved ones? What about a time where you had an argument with your partner, then got in your car and found your patience waning with every driver on the road?

With displacement, you transfer your emotions from the person who is the target of your frustration to someone or something else entirely. Subconsciously, you believe that to confront the source of your feelings may be too dangerous or risky, so you shift the focus toward a target or situation that is less intimidating or dangerous. While displacement may protect you from losing your job, burning a bridge or saying or doing something that could cause irreparable damage, it will not help you handle the emotions you are experiencing, and you will also end up hurting someone completely innocent. It’s better to face the issue head on, with the person you’re actually frustrated with.

PROJECTION

Imagine you find yourself in a situation where you feel like a fish out of water. You feel uncomfortable and a bit anxious. You start to see that others are staring at you, with what you perceive as a critical, judgmental eye. They do not say anything or do anything that is objectively negative, but your insecurity about yourself causes you to “project” your feelings onto others. And the feelings may even become so intense that you caustically question, “What are you staring at?”

Most of us have found ourselves in a situation in which we project our feelings, shortcomings or unacceptable impulses onto the people around us. And the reason we do so is because to recognize that particular quality in ourselves would cause us pain and suffering. While projection can also work in a positive way, when you project feelings of love, confidence and care onto others, when it impacts us in a negative way, it only compounds the stress and anxiety and prevents us from dealing with the root of the emotions. This is one of the most damaging defense mechanisms, as it can lead to heightened feelings of paranoia and anxiety.

REACTION FORMATION

With reaction formation, you are going beyond denial and behaving in the opposite way to which you think or feel. Typically, reaction formation is marked by a blatant display. For example, the man who preaches his disdain for homosexuality overtly may be a defense against confronting his own homosexual feelings. By casting stones at someone or something else, you are trying to take the pressure off yourself instead of directly dealing with the issue.

REGRESSION

In times of stress, you may find that your behavior becomes more childish. This is known as regression. With regression, you revert back to an earlier level of development and earlier, less demanding behaviors as a way of protecting yourself from having to confront the actual situation. Imagine, for example, having an argument with your partner, and instead of using conflict resolution tools, you stomp off, slam the door and give your partner the cold shoulder. The problem with regression is that you may regret letting your childish behavior become self-destructive, and this can eventually cause even more problems than you started out with. You might also find yourself relying on regression habits when spending time with people you knew when you were young, like family members or close friends.

RATIONALIZATION

In the simplest terms, rationalization occurs when you try to explain your bad behavior away. Consider, for example, that you have an irrationally angry reaction to a situation in front of someone you like and want to respect you. Then to try to justify your behavior, you blame someone else for provoking you. Even if that may be true, it is not the actual reason for your outburst, it’s an excuse. Rationalization is a particularly common mechanism for those with more sensitive egos. In most cases, this won’t actually help you to pass the blame or justify your behavior. Instead, the opposite effect will occur – those around you will view you as childish or egotistical if you’re unable to own your mistakes.

SUBLIMATION

Sublimation occurs when you transform your conflicted emotions, unmet desires or unacceptable impulses into productive outlets. It’s the situation where you have a stressful day at work, so you go on a long run to cool off. Or you have a fight with your partner, so turn to writing music. When used to handle a situation you cannot effectively do anything about, sublimation is actually a positive form of defense. But when used routinely to avoid addressing an issue that must be resolved to move forward, it can have negative repercussions.

The first step in changing your defense mechanisms is accepting that you’re using them in the first place. Once you identify how you’re coping with stress or negative situations, you can more easily change your state. Over time, you’ll be able to handle your problems more directly, which will help lead you to feeling more fulfilled overall.

Header image © Pathdoc/shutterstock

Ana Yoerg

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