Why most defence mechanisms fail

In psychoanalytic theory, a defence mechanism is an unconscious psychological process that occurs to protect a person from anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings related to internal conflicts and outer stressors. The goal of these defence mechanisms is to separate the person from the unpleasant events, actions, or thoughts. They help people to distance themselves from threats or unwanted feelings, such as guilt, anger or shame.


Defence mechanisms are a natural way of being for humans and other animals. For example, sea slugs (main pic) squirt out their own intestines to make a veiled escape. Birds like peacocks and turkeys ruffle their feathers. Small animals like bugs and frogs carry poisons and colours on their backs to scare away predators—or punish stubborn ones. When it comes to people, unconscious patterns of behaviour provide protection against perceived threats. Unfortunately they also have the impact of separating us, when all we want is to connect in the long term. 


Here are 6 of the most commonly used defence mechanisms


#1: Denial: Sometimes an event or circumstance is so cataclysmically devastating, we just tune it out, and don’t even know we’re doing it. You can become aware of your denial when you’re unable to recall the conversation completely or when other people around you call it out to you, bringing it to your attention.


When I worked in an office, I often wondered how people could be so unaware of their behaviour and its impacts. Now I realise most of it could have been blocked out for them, by them. So, ignorance truly is bliss!


#2: Repression: This is like denial, but it involves burying a thought or feeling deep inside with the intention of ignoring it and never letting it see the light of day. Unfortunately, what we’re denying tends to pop up in the most creative ways because nothing can stay buried forever. For example, you could be furious at a colleague at work, and unable to release your anger there because it would be highly inappropriate. However, when you go home to those who love you unconditionally, you become snappy and argumentative or worse, you direct the angry feelings towards yourself.


Many of the clients who come and see me have been successful at repressing unwanted thoughts and feelings, until they experience a situation where they are forced to acknowledge and process them. One client felt 'not lovable enough' by her mother and because it would have been unacceptable to express that within her family, she directed the feelings toward herself and developed an eating disorder. Now, as an adult, processing what she repressed has helped her to change the relationship with herself, and start to recognise the importance of expressing her needs in relationships.


#3: Projection: It’s often easier to identify and pathologize about the faults of others however in order to recognise them in others, you have to have them in yourself! Projection is a misattribution of your faults onto another person, whether they are true for the other person or not. It is a strategy to feel comfortable with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable. What you are really saying is, “You have this problem, I don’t, therefore I am superior to you”. It’s a way of keeping you safe because looking at that trait in yourself is too challenging for you right now.


For example, you may be angry at a co-worker for not listening, however it is you who doesn’t listen. Frustration at another person is often a flag to look within, to acknowledge and gain insight of your own motivations and feelings.


#4: Rationalization: This one involves taking a wrongdoing (by you on others, or from others onto you) and reasoning it out to be acceptable. To do this you may need to get creative and devise a new set of logic in order for the reasoning to work and for it to be acceptable to you. Looking at history, there are lots of crimes that have been justified this way.  


I often know when I am rationalising because when I talk a decision through with a trusted colleague, I find myself feeling like a young child; a bit ‘naughty’ or ‘shy’. Perhaps you experience that too?


#5: Regression: Regression involves taking a step back developmentally, to a space where it’s physically or emotionally safe. Adults can regress after a setback or when they’re experiencing high levels of stress. The goal is to conserve emotional energy by engaging in a well-honed past behaviour like a tantrum instead of using emotional intelligence skills to resolve an issue.


#6: Reaction: Sometimes the primal instincts take over, and we get ready to fight, flight or freeze. In situations where time is limited you can quickly jump to a reaction and act it out before you have considered what might be the optimal way to respond. For example, if someone gives you feedback you disagree with, you could quickly defend yourself by escalating the situation into a shouting match. When perhaps a more effective option would be to remain calm and listen.  


If you recognise yourself using any of these defence mechanisms, they are an opportunity for you to explore what your are avoiding or potentially what you are afraid of. Take the opportunity and develop greater insight into what motivates you by asking yourself these 3 simple questions: 

1. Am I separating myself from the person or situation?

2. When last did I dismiss how I felt? How can I be ok with those feelings?

3. When did I last react way in excess of the situation and surprised everyone, including myself? 


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