What are they and how do we recognise them? I first learned about these on my counselling course, in connection with the theories of Freud, and this week a clear example of a defence mechanism cropped up for my husband at work where he was obviously on the receiving end of someone’s angry defences, and where he got angry in retaliation. Did he realise what was happening, I asked him, and it got me thinking about how all of us, especially perhaps those of us of a sensitive disposition, need to be aware of how these personal defences operate in social settings and interactions. It can be a case of once you’re aware of them happening right in front of you or inside you, you can be more calm and measured in your responses. You can observe with a little clinical detachment to maintain a balanced perspective. And in the nicest possible way, knowledge can be power, which you can utilise for your own well being and for that of others – after all there should be some kind of pay off for this kind of increased awareness and self-development.
So where do these defences stem from? Well, since Freud is involved, it’s just got to be the ego, hasn’t it? According to Freudian theory, the ego ( logical realistic awareness of self which evolves from contact with the external world), which you could think of as the keeper of your ‘castle’, must actively strive under a good deal of pressure to appraise external reality in order to maintain balance between the id (the unconscious primitive area of personality present from birth, with its impulses and compulsions) and the superego (part conscious and part unconscious moral conscience – that judging part of us influenced by parental and societal values). The ego must fend off the attacking enemies by employing its defences. Now these 3 aspects of ourselves are frequently under tension and subject to conflict, and in order to ‘contain’ the powerful forces of the id or deal with excessive restraints/pressures/threats of punishment from the superego, the ego is aided by the development of defence mechanisms to reduce inner tension and discomfort.
They are deployed at an unconscious level within us to manage intrapsychic conflict, to reduce anxiety and to maintain self esteem in a variety of challenging or even painful circumstances. But they can also cause trouble by becoming too restrictive or maladaptive and can ‘hurt’ our true selves and others. It could also be true to say that if we can replace reliance on having to have an ego driven by creature comforts and security (and by extension the self esteem that comes with this territory) which in turn is heavily dependant upon and constantly being moulded by our environment, and instead think of our true self as being formed from our innate personality and personal values, then if we authentically live by these we can circumnavigate altogether the whole area of defence mechanisms because there will simply be no need for them. The more conscious we become of ourselves and the more we bring our unconscious into the light of our awareness, then the more the ‘inner us’ is in harmony with who we are in the external world, so greatly reducing intrapsychic conflicts for ourselves. And that is a very liberating place to be operating from. You can be open, authentic, self-accepting and enjoy being you and pursuing your passions informed by your values. You don’t have to be ruled by attachments so vital to the ego, you can live using acceptance, non-judgment and non-attachment. (This is the kind of teaching you can find in Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and The Power of Now)
But most people certainly display defence mechanisms, so it can be useful to recognise what these are so you don’t take on their ‘baggage’ or get hurt by them when someone wants to ‘take a pop at you’. You can also spot them happening within yourself because it’s so easy for them to be triggered. Some of them are quite reasonable, others more darkly destructive.
Compensation: Counteracting a real or imagined weakness by emphasising or exaggerating desirable traits, or seeking to excel in other areas. For example, tweaking a CV with some ‘enhancements’. Parents try to compensate for their own feelings of inferiority and low self esteem by imposing impossibly high standards of achievement and behaviour onto their children, even forcing them to choose vocations that are deemed appropriate but are not where the child’s heart lies.
Denial: Quite a common one, and currently manifesting in politics ;>) Protecting oneself from unpleasantness by refusing to see it or believe it and so refusing to face the reality of obvious problems. Can be common as a first stage in a bereavement – the person concerned just can’t be dead, they just can’t be! And in survivors of war and natural disasters, they just don’t want to talk about it. Or on a less dramatic level it can show up in someone insecure about their age or looks, who dresses and acts much younger and who hangs out with a younger crowd. Denial prevents people from looking at things, which if acknowledged, might help them grow and develop. So denial keeps people stuck.
Displacement: Transferring the emotion from a situation or object with which it is properly associated, to another which is less threatening and which will result in less distress. For example, a man who’s had a hard day at work may shout at his wife or kick a door, or a wife who’s had a row with her nemesis at work may slam things around hoping for attention from her husband. And God help them both if their displacements occur at the same time! It can also feature in psychosomatic illnesses where emotional distress manifests in physical symptoms.
Humour: Shielding oneself against painful experiences and avoiding serious and reflective consideration of one’s own problems by the use of humour. Me and my pal on the counselling course recognised we both did a good deal of this! And when you see it in someone else, you immediately recognise it in yourself. A very common defence mechanism which can look like laughing at the comical nature of life, but which nevertheless is a strategy to keep things light and play things down.
Identification: Taking on some of the activities or characteristics of another person – often to reduce the pain of separation or loss. For example, perhaps when someone dies a family member displaying this defence may finish off a project the deceased began, like carrying on researching the family history. Also at the start of a love affair, the couple may try to match each other with likes and dislikes. Or it could be closely ‘identifying’ yourself with someone you admire to boost self esteem.
Intellectualisation: Separating emotion from a threatening or anxiety provoking situation by talking or thinking about it in impersonal terms. Sounds somewhat ‘male’ in nature and I know my hubby does this. It’s a way of being detached to protect against being hurt, a real coping mechanism which I also recognise in myself. So say I’ve had a book review that is somewhat critical (the lovely ones obviously aren’t a problem!). In the past I’d certainly have got upset, because in the past my ego was more in control of me. But since it isn’t so much nowadays, I check to see the tone of other reviews that person has done, and this helps to objectively rationalise it if they’ve been repeatedly disparaging of many others. If there is a valid issue, then I can more easily take it on board that way. Another point here is that people who write reviews actually project themselves in the very words they use and the stances they take for good or ill to those who can discern it! So it can be enormously helpful to see this too.
Introjection: Unquestioningly taking in the views and attitudes expressed by others and owning them as part of yourself. For example, kidnap victims may take on the political beliefs and values of their kidnappers in order to survive and ward off extreme anxiety. Children may copy adults and perpetuate destructive behaviour like physical or sexual abuse.
Projection: Attributing one’s own feelings, desires, shortcomings or unacceptable impulses to others. For example, presuming someone has the same emotion as yourself to justify your own or to make yourself feel validated. Or relieving yourself of guilt by blaming someone else. Or someone in a working environment may assert that his colleagues are incompetent, in order to avoid responsibility for his/her own lack of communication which has led to a certain negative consequence. The hostility or anger felt is projected on to the other people present so the projector avoids having to deal with the problem, externally and internally.
Rationalisation: Justifying one’s own behaviour by giving good, reasonable and rational, but false, reasons for it. For example a thief may assert to themselves that the people he/she steals from are rich and will therefore not miss the money or valuables. They can always buy some more, can’t they? Or when a job applicant doesn’t get the job after the interview, he/she may declare to themselves and others that they didn’t really want the job in the first place. So it’s a form of self deception that cushions against disappointment or coming to terms with a problem and working on it.
Reaction Formation: Preventing and concealing dangerous impulses and views from being expressed by exaggerating opposite behaviour or views. For example a fear of losing one’s temper could manifest as extreme evident composure and self control. ‘Dangerous’ internal views may be countered by outwardly expressing the total opposite to protect oneself. People attracted to porn may cultivate conscious attitudes of censorship towards it. Sometimes lonely people may use reaction formation as a defence against intimacy, fostering a couldn’t care less attitude to ward off possible rejection or abandonment.
Regression: Retreating to an earlier level of development or to earlier , less demanding habits or situations. For example going into a childish huff, or a tantrum, or resorting to sticking your tongue out at someone when you can’t win an argument. Or it may be behaving passively or showing hurt so others will rally around you to look after you – just think of those meetings you may have been in where someone professes to be very hurt by a comment, completely diverting all the attention onto themselves and engendering a need in others to apologise to the ‘child’. The whole adult nature of the meeting becomes a scene from schooldays.
Repression: Preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness. We push them way down to simmer below the surface. It’s the most fundamental defence and the one on which the others are built. This unconscious pain may be converted into neurotic or physical symptoms, slips of the tongue, memory lapses, dreams. These need therapy to make them conscious to ‘deactivate’ them.
Splitting: This is linked to projection. It concerns separating feelings from the memory of an event that gave rise to them. Feelings may seem to arise out of the blue, or become triggered by or attached to some less threatening situation and be experienced as ‘out of proportion’. The event itself is remembered without emotion. So a school bully may be remembered with little feeling, but a current actual experience of being bullied may result in waves of anger or aggression from that inner child of the past.
Sublimation: A form of redirection involving working off unmet desires or unacceptable impulses using activities that are more constructive in nature. For example, instinctual drives may be directed into creative pursuits where the imagination can have free rein, or sport where aggression is acceptable. It’s nice to end the list with this one which is regarded as a constructive defence mechanism because it results in beneficial and socially acceptable results. A beautifully ironic example is that curiosity, voyeurism and the need for gossip can be transformed through sublimation into acceptable areas or vocations to avoid feelings of guilt or anxiety. For example, areas of work including medicine (think of curious GPs sometimes asking questions about one’s private life outside of the health problem!) social work, psychology and counselling. And I could add to that, creative writers too!
I hope you find this list useful. These defences are all around us and within us, some glaringly obvious, but most insidiously prowling around the margins of our lives. But it’s safe to say that being aware of them will enhance your well being and your creativity too.
(top pic from pixabay; lower one by me, would you believe – a line drawing from ages ago now, for a metal information plaque in a local town, with me well out of my comfort zone and hubby providing a model for the man in the middle, said plaque being subsequently vandalised by someone no doubt deploying a defence mechanism!)
Hoping you’re taking small bites into the new year as I’ve been trying to do this week!