Defense Mechanisms: How They Work & How to Break Them

We use an array of defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from pain, guilt, and anxiety. You may already know some of your own ways of dealing with intense negative emotions: You might suppress your emotions and hide them from your partner or excessively rationalize your behaviors and attitudes and even sometimes project and blame others for your mistakes

All of these behaviors are part of human nature. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t rely on them so much throughout our lives. However, giving your defense mechanisms free rein can be harmful to your wellbeing, as it may lead to an array of intimacy problems in your relationship and damage your social life. 

Awareness is the first step toward overcoming unhealthy defense mechanisms. By understanding why and how you react to certain triggers in your life, you’ll be able to break away from behaviors that no longer serve you. 

What Are The Functions Of Defense Mechanisms?

You rely on defense mechanisms to separate yourself from unpleasant or hurtful thoughts, actions, and events. They are psychological strategies or as we call them at PIVOT – survival patterns, that help you put some distance between yourself and unwanted emotions. Defense mechanisms are often unconscious, hiding just below the surface of your awareness. Although they can be incredibly useful, when defense mechanisms get out of proportion, they can wreak havoc on your emotional life, resulting in obsessions, anxiety, and phobias. 

What Are The Five Common Defense Mechanisms?

There are dozens of defense mechanisms people use to distance themselves from unwanted feelings. Still, some of them are more common than others, such as the following 5 defense mechanisms: 

Rationalization

What Are The Five Common Defense Mechanisms

You’ve probably rationalized your way through a situation at least once or twice in your life. You may have convinced yourself and others that you’re happy with the choice you’ve made, although you knew that’s not really the case. Or you might have snapped at another person and immediately regretted it, yet still tried to explain and make excuses for your behavior. 

By definition, rationalization involves using seemingly logical and rational reasons to justify unacceptable or controversial behaviors and feelings. It is an incredibly common mechanism, and most people are unaware of how often they use it. 

Projection 

It can be difficult to deal with seemingly unacceptable thoughts and feelings. For instance, you may experience unwanted emotions or have traits that you hate about yourself and not know what to do with them. As a defense mechanism, projection aims to displace these feelings and attribute them to other people. 

Reaction formation

When you experience anxiety-inducing impulses and emotions, you may subconsciously rely on reaction formation and exaggerate the unwanted feelings by going in an opposite direction. Imagine this: a teenage boy is attracted to a girl in his class and is unsure what to do with the intense emotions, so he embarasses her infront of other classmates. 

Sublimation 

Sublimation is one of the rare defense mechanisms that are considered to be overwhelmingly positive. You may rely on sublimation to redirect intense emotions into an activity or object that is more appropriate and socially acceptable. For instance, instead of lashing out at your partner, you might take up a creative hobby or start working out. This can be problematic if the initial challenges that get pushed aside continue and go unresolved.  The anger underneath can pop over a period of time if the issues are not addressed. 

Repression 

Seemingly irrational beliefs, painful memories, and unacceptable thoughts can be incredibly upsetting. Out of fear, you may choose not to face them, and instead unconsciously repress them and hide them from yourself and others. However, these thoughts and feelings don’t actually go away. They remain just under the surface, impacting your behaviors and relationships. 

How Can Defense Mechanisms Harm Your Relationship? 

When they go out of hand, defense mechanisms can keep you “safe” in your bubble, preventing you from facing emotional problems and advancing in your emotional life. Unfortunately, repressed emotions and feelings can show up and impact your wellbeing in all kinds of unpleasant ways. 

For example, you may find it difficult to open up to potential partners or withdraw from your existing partner. You may also idealize your partner and get sorely disappointed when they don’t turn out to match your fantasy. You can be in denial of negative occurrences and behaviors, letting them harm you indefinitely and making it harder to break away from unhealthy relationship dynamics. The list goes on. 

Your unconscious defense mechanisms can damage your romantic relationships in many ways, especially if you remain unaware of them. This is why it’s a good idea to learn about common survival strategies and see which ones may apply to you. 

How Do You Break Defense Mechanisms?

How Can Defense Mechanisms Harm Your Relationship

Although you may not be able to completely shut off your defense mechanisms, you can take more control over them. Here are some useful tips: 

  1. Keep an eye out for red flags in your behaviors and thoughts. 
  2. Explore your childhood and personal history to get an understanding of why you do what you do.. 
  3. Try not to blame others for your mistakes and circumstances.
  4. Take responsibility for your thoughts and actions. 
  5. Don’t run from negative emotions and let yourself cry. 
  6. Try consciously going in the opposite direction than what you seem to want. 
  7. Practice meditation and mindfulness. 
  8. Learn to embrace your emotions instead of pushing them away. 
  9. Speak with a relationship coach and learn healthier coping strategies. 

Uncover Your Defense Mechanisms Through Insightful Relationship Intimacy Coaching 

Knowing yourself is the first step towards positive behavioral change, and PIVOT is here to help you take it. We are a team of compassionate, knowledgeable relationship coaches dedicated to helping you heal and thrive. 

One of our clients, Mariah, was surprised with how much she actually learned about herself at PIVOT: “I knew a lot about myself already, but I didn’t know how to manage the knowledge or how to properly repair all these different parts of self. Now I do…I am not perfect at applying all I have learned but I get to be ok today with not being perfect.“ 

This is exactly what we try to do at PIVOT – to help you peel away layers of your personality and help you embrace your experiences and emotions without judgment. It is our goal to help you develop new, healthier strategies for dealing with pain, guilt, and anxiety in your relationships. Contact us now to explore our relationship workshops and retreats

© 2021 Lori Jean Glass, LLC | PIVOT