On Defence Mechanisms

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!












About lynnefisher

Writer and visual artist living in Scotland, INFJ type Writer's blog: lynnefisher.wordpress.com Art: lynnehenderson.co.uk Twitter @writeartblog Writers page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnefisherheadtoheadhearttoheart/ Artists page Facebook https://www.facebook.com/lynnehendersonartist/
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9 Responses to On Defence Mechanisms

  1. A.P. says:

    You know me, and therefore know that I wish to comment in great detail on every one of these. So let me just select three for now, those being the ones I had not previously seen on such lists.

    (1) Humor – I am not self-aware enough to know if I do this one myself, but I certainly hope not. When I recognize it in others, I absolutely *hate* it. It’s so transparent that they are defensively trying to avoid the heart of the issue by making light of it, or even of some other unrelated issue. It’s seems an incorrect use of such a wonderful thing as humor, if you ask me.

    (2) Introjection – I have used this frequently in order to avoid conflict with another. I pretend to agree with them because I fear the consequences of disagreement. It’s a very dangerous social practice (especially in a small town!) as well as hypocritical, and I wish I would stop doing it.

    (3) Intellectualization — all I have to say is that this may indeed be a “male” thing, because I do it all the time and find nothing wrong with it, for the most part. Had I not employed intellectualization when I lived outdoors for example, I would not have found the inspiration to write my musical as well as at least of half of everything else I’ve written since I’ve lived indoors. One had to be ready for anything down there, and to permit oneself to feel the depth of difficult emotional responses to all the wild details of a completely unpredictable and often hostile Universe would have been dangerous. However, I and others reveled in a continual sociological analysis of the situation in order to cope. People who showed fear, for example, were usually the first to face violent assault and sometimes death. I must disclaim, however, that (a) this is possibly not a male thing in this case, because all of the ladies employed this technique as well, and (b) there may be other contexts in which such intellectualization is purely evasive. But some situations suggest evasion, not only for the sake of temporary comfort, but of survival.

    Thanks for this one, Lynne – I’m sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Thanks for engaging with the post, Andy! It all takes some thinking about, doesn’t it? I agree with you about humour by and large, more so when the humour is expressed by a listener. It can then be overtly obvious and sometimes downright rude. And I wonder where sarcasm comes into play here, because that to me is a defence mechanism too. I hate pointed, personally directed, sarcasm (as opposed to sarcasm about life in general) and I hate teasing, because I feel there is an underlying personally directed aggression or resentment behind these behaviours. needless to say, therefore, I’ve been accused of being too ‘straight’. That’s what I watch for with humour anyway, and I don’t inflict these on anyone myself.

      Introjection, taking on someones opinions and attitudes – well I’m aware I might do this on occasion, but generally I would stay quiet or gently change the subject. Basically, like you, I don’t like to find myself doing it at all, because you can suddenly feel so inauthentic.

      Intellectualisation, I’m right with you here. You could see it as essential to survival when in the midst of an adverse experience. I used it over a former work colleague who was making my life difficult for a time, where they and I probably couldn’t stand eachother, but the emotional hurt remained inside until I could process it later emotionally, and then move on. The intellectualisation was the right thing to do at the time!

      Thanks for sharing Andy!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A.P. says:

    Assuming you have editing power on comments, feel free to divide my lengthy comment into appropriately numbered paragraphs. This is similar to what you did, and makes for easier reading. (Not sure why I didn’t do this in the first place, but — this is the Perfectionist speaking.)

    I’ll be back with a more pertinent comment after a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A.P. says:

    On humor, it can be annoying, especially when trying to get a straight answer, and the other party is using humor to be evasive. I recall trying to get a “character reference” from a pastor back in the 90’s, and he kept joking: “Sure, you’re a character! And I’ll say so in the reference!” I didn’t think it was particularly funny to begin with, and his not giving me a serious answer was annoying. He could have just said “yes” or “no” of course.

    Sarcasm is fuzzy for me. I definitely don’t mind a healthy cynicism about life in general, but some sarcasm can be mean-spirited and used to cloak a hidden (or not-so-hidden) malice. Other sarcasm seems harmless, but I guess it depends on what its use is.

    About introjection, you are wise to stay quiet in such situations. My offerings as a “chatty Introvert” often come back to harm me. You’re probably quieter than I am, offline, like most Introverts — and in fact like most people. I definitely talk too much, and in the multitude of words, there is greater likelihood of faux-pas.

    Signing off for now. Long dark night of the soul last night AKA insomnia. More than one person reported this, which intrigued me. It’s nearing nine o’clock, and all’s well, but probably time to get some sleep.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lynnefisher says:

      Well that pastor didn’t behave very well. I would imagine most people fidn it hard to ask someone for a reference in the first place, so humour isn’t at all appropriate as you need a simple answer as you say.

      I don’t mind saracasm about life in general at all, we all maybe need to have some healthy cynicism in this social world we live in, but pointed sarcasm to wards someone is a no for me.

      Hmm, well I’ve learned to stay quiet tho it’s a work in progress, but I do have to restrain myself because I’m a very chatty person offline and online ( my poor typing speed restrains me online!). I’m actually the same as you by the sound of it, an extraverted introvert, and have put my foot in things quite often this way! When I did the counselling course I was pulled up on asking far too many questions, but developing the listening side has helped me not to jump in so much with immediate reactions and focus more on the other person. I also sussed out that being less reactionally chatty was kind of a form of self empowerment too, because people who keep things to themself can enjoy feeding off ‘the unguarded chatty person’ at the table, so its kind of a balancing act!

      Cheers for now, Andy

      Liked by 1 person

      • A.P. says:

        Yes, you’re like me in these ways — in every respect except for typing speed. My unusually fast typing speed has gotten me into trouble sometimes, especially if followed by a quick “click on send” that may be premature or impulsive. Interesting — cheers for now.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great detailed post, Lynne. Knowledge is power. We need to both know when we are using these on others, and when others are using these on us. As you say, it’s important to be aware.

    Liked by 2 people

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