We’ve all heard of defense mechanisms, but what exactly are they?
Defense mechanisms are the ways we deal with anxiety-provoking and stressful situations. They’re subconscious coping mechanisms that help us preserve an individual’s emotional stability and well-being. While they can provide temporary relief from anxiety and stress, relying on them too heavily can lead to negative consequences and prevent individuals from addressing the root cause of their anxiety.
At PIVOT, we call these Survival Patterns because often, many people will use defense mechanisms to manage and tolerate painful feelings.
For most people, defense mechanisms are spontaneous rather than involuntary. This means that they are driven by internal impulses or motivations, rather than external stimuli or physiological events. In other words, they are not necessarily controlled by external factors but instead arise naturally from within the individual as a response to anxiety or stress.
Let’s take a look at the top 10 most common defense mechanisms and see how they help us cope with anxiety and stress.
Denial is one of the defense mechanisms that involves refusing to acknowledge or accept reality or facts. This can involve ignoring, denying, or repressing unpleasant truths to attempt to reduce anxiety and stress.
Denial individuals to avoid or delay dealing with difficult emotions or situations. It can provide a temporary sense of relief and stability, but it can also have negative consequences in the long term. Keeping it “stuffed” in the body can produce long-term physical complications.
Consider an alcoholic. In social environments, they may use alcohol to feel more comfortable in situations that would typically make them anxious – knowing that drinking is not good for them. They may just tell themselves “I can quit any time and drinking now is no big deal”. Ignoring the fact that they just had a huge fight in front of their kids and told their partner that they would stop drinking. This is a form of denial. Meanwhile, their dependency to alcohol is increasing and their mental and physical health is degrading.
By ignoring or denying reality, individuals may be preventing themselves from facing and resolving problems, which can lead to further stress and anxiety.
Projection is a defense mechanism that attributes one’s feelings, thoughts, and motivations to another person or group. People who project often accuse others of having the same negative traits that they possess. Meaning, that if someone is feeling bad about themselves they might try to put that onto someone else by criticizing them.
An example of projection could be a person who feels guilty about lying to their partner and accuses their partner of being untruthful, even though there’s no evidence to support this claim. The person is unconsciously projecting their guilt onto their partner to avoid accepting responsibility for their behavior.
Rationalization is a defense mechanism where people offer explanations or excuses to justify their behavior even though those explanations are not necessarily true.
For example, a person who is late for work because they decided to go to bed very late, blames traffic and everything else under the sun. They may use these examples to distort reality and avoid being accountable for being to work on time. Because being late to work for illegitimate reasons could be perceived natively by others, the individual continues this cycle. And, in the long run, will typically feel bad about not telling the truth.
Displacement is a defense mechanism that allows individuals to release built-up emotions without risking relationships, reputation, or safety. It is a defense mechanism that helps individuals cope with anxiety and stress by redirecting their emotions to a less threatening and what happens to be a more safe target.
An example of this would be when Mark is triggered by his boss at work. Instead of lashing out in the moment, he redirects that frustration while driving his car and yells at another driver who is going too slow for Mark.
Regression is a defense mechanism that involves reverting to an earlier stage of development as a means of coping with stress and anxiety. When individuals are under stress, they may resort to behaviors that are characteristic of a younger or more immature developmental stage.
Examples of regression include crying, throwing tantrums, clinging to others, or engaging in behaviors that were once typical of childhood but are no longer developmentally appropriate.
Regression can provide a temporary sense of comfort and stability, allowing individuals to escape from the demands and pressures of adulthood. However, it is important to recognize that regression can have negative consequences in the long term.
People who use this coping skill typically have old unresolved trauma that has not been dealt with. The PIVOT process dives deep into helping people understand their developmental parts – that are still often very much alive today – and learn to talk healthier actions as opposed to habitual actions.
Reaction formation is a defense mechanism that involves developing attitudes and behaviors that are the direct opposite of one’s true feelings. This can involve acting friendly or positive towards someone or something that is disliked, as a way of hiding or masking those true feelings. By acting in a manner that is opposite to one’s true feelings, individuals can reduce the internal conflict that arises from having conflicting or unacceptable emotions. It can also harm relationships by creating confusion and mistrust, as others may not understand the true motivations and feelings behind an individual’s behavior.
An example of reaction formation can be: a manager is stressed and overworked. The manager may hide their true feelings of anger and frustration in the workplace associated with their direct boss, and instead, present a cheerful attitude at work. They may go out of their way to be helpful and quite friendly to their colleagues, even though they internalize feelings of being overwhelmed and resentful.
The manager behaves this way to avoid unpleasant emotions and present a positive facade. Over time, reaction formation can become an unhealthy habit and can impact one’s physical and emotional well-being.
At PIVOT, we could help this manager prepare for a critical conversation with their boss that would create connection and eliminate confusion without jeopardizing their job.
Sublimation is a defense mechanism that involves converting difficult or negative emotions into something more socially acceptable or productive. It allows individuals to express their emotions healthily and constructively, rather than resorting to destructive or harmful behaviors.
One example of sublimation is channeling anger into physical exercise. This allows individuals to release their negative emotions in a way that is healthy and socially acceptable. Other examples of sublimation might include channeling sexual impulses into creative endeavors, such as writing or art, or channeling aggressive impulses into more productive activities, such as working on a challenging project.
Intellectualization is a defense mechanism that involves using abstract concepts and theories to distance oneself from unpleasant emotions. It involves focusing on facts and information rather than feelings, as a way of coping with stress and anxiety.
This often can lead to a serious attachment style of avoidance. And, this can suppress feelings so far down, that emotional intimacy is difficult to have in a relationship.
For example, a person who is grieving the loss of a child might intellectualize their emotions by focusing on the scientific or philosophical aspects of death, rather than their personal feelings of sadness and loss. This would create distance from their other children and partner because there would be no room for expressing their grief or having empathy for the other family members.
Avoidance is a defense mechanism where individuals avoid certain situations, people, or activities that are associated with unwanted thoughts or feelings.
This defense mechanism can help to reduce anxiety in the short term and it can also prevent individuals from facing and overcoming their fears in the long term. People may use fantasy as a means to avoid personal problems and escape from reality or gain a sense of control over difficult situations.
Avoidance can keep the individual from being seen, feeling connected, and loved.
Dissociation is a technique used by people consciously and subconsciously for centuries and has been recognized by mental health professionals and psychologists.
This phenomenon will occur as a means to avoid traumatic situations such as natural disasters, sexual abuse, motor vehicle accidents, combat experiences, or as a result of other unwanted thoughts. Dissociation can also exist as a symptom of various mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and dissociative disorder.
Have you ever been overwhelmed, so much that you may feel threatened or experience difficult feelings, and thereafter be able to disconnect from them? Anecdotally, this could be a form of dissociation.
Why Do We Use Defense Mechanisms
Some defense mechanisms can be a TEMPORARY helpful tool for managing stress or difficult emotions. They can provide temporary relief from unpleasant thoughts or certain feelings and help to reduce anxiety in the short term. Additionally, defense mechanisms can help to reveal any underlying issues that may need to be addressed more directly.
By becoming aware of defense mechanisms, we can learn how to develop healthier coping strategies and create lasting change.
Excessive use of defense mechanisms can lead to long-term emotional problems and interfere with our ability to connect deeply with others and form meaningful relationships. If defense mechanisms are used as a way to avoid or deny reality, it can prevent us from effectively addressing difficult issues or developing healthy coping strategies. Additionally, defense mechanisms can create an unhealthy cycle where we rely on them instead of facing our uncomfortable emotions directly.
How to Know if You’re Using a Defense Mechanism
Defense mechanisms can be a useful tool for managing stress and anxiety when used in moderation. But when they’re overused or used in an unhealthy way, they can become problematic. This is why it’s important to be aware of the defense mechanisms you use and how they may be impacting your behavior.
Take a closer look at the ways you respond to challenging situations or stress. If you notice any repeated patterns, it might be worth exploring these further. If your defense mechanisms are causing more harm than good, seeking professional help from a therapist or mental health expert may be a good idea.
How Do You Break Defense Mechanisms?
Here are some useful tips for gaining control over your defense mechanisms:
- Be mindful of warning signs in your behavior and thoughts.
- Investigate your childhood and past experiences to gain insight into your actions.
- Avoid blaming others for your mistakes and situations.
- Take ownership of your thoughts and actions.
- Allow yourself to experience and process negative emotions, even if it means crying.
- Challenge yourself by consciously choosing the opposite response to your impulses.
- Incorporate mindfulness and meditation into your routine.
- Embrace your emotions rather than suppressing them.
- Consider seeking guidance from a relationship coach to develop healthier coping strategies.
When To Seek Professional Help With Your Defense Mechanisms
If these behaviors are becoming a problem or preventing you from addressing underlying issues and root causes of unhealthy behavior, it may be beneficial to get help from us.
At PIVOT, we offer relationship coaching services to help you identify the challenges that are getting in the way of you feeling good about yourself and the relationships in your life. We also help you build and maintain a healthy muscle to respond to those spontaneous impulses in a way that will protect you and the people around you using our evidence-based PIVOT process that has helped tens of thousands of individuals just like you.