You have been there. You are in the middle of a disagreement with your partner and all the sudden they start saying things that don’t make sense. Their energy shuts down and they may even start to say things that hurt.
Or maybe you are the one. You are just talking about what way the toilet paper roll should go and they make a remark that you do not like. Then you start acting out hurtful, or you shut down and walk away, or you decide not talk to them for days.
These are our defensive mechanisms.
Defensive mechanisms were researched heavily and really brought to the psychological limelight by Anna Freud the daughter of the well known Sigmund Freud. Sigmund laid the way but Anna was really the one to draw out the 18 particular methods used in defensive behavior.
What is a defensive mechanism?
Well if you think about the term defense, what does it mean? It is the act of defending or protecting something from attack.
So where does this come into play with emotions? This can be answered through several more questions:
- What are things that can FEEL like an attack emotionally?
- What are things that cause us anxiety?
- What are things that make us feel sad or mad?
- What emotions we do not welcome into our being?
- What are things that bring up our own weakness we are not ready to accept?
I would categorize these emotions as UNWANTED or UNWELCOME.
Also, just to set the record straight, defensive mechanisms when used to prevent growth and connection are not good, but there are times when these mechanisms are helpful and can help keep us from acting out in self destructive manners.
For example I really do not like my boss. I can not express that to them without risking losing my job. Therefore defensive mechanisms can come into play to help keep me from living in the pain of rejected emotions and self destructive behavior.
That being said, let’s dive into the types of defensive mechanisms.
There are 3 categories of defensive behaviors: Primal or primitive; Intermediate or less primitive; and Developed or mature.
The way these are categorized usually has to do with their relation to when we see them in human development. e.g. Primitive would be things we see in very young children.
Be open to the idea that while most of the time you may be able to resort to developed defensive behaviors, you probably utilize different behaviors from all three categories, depending on how you expense the particular unwanted or unwelcome emotion inside.
While reading these, take note of emotions that you know you have seen inside yourself, and emotions inside your partner.
When you see yourself doing these things you can take them as a cue. When you see this cue you can do a couple different things.
First, you can say to yourself, “This is an area where I am experiencing unwanted or unwelcome feelings and I see potential to grow from this, so I am going to push my comfort level, allow these feelings to come to me and maybe even expressing them to others.”
Second, you can take note of the defensive behavior, and ask yourself what feelings are making you defensive. You can simply acknowledge this to yourself with out allowing the feeling in, and move on.
Be kind to yourself! Not all instances of using defensive behaviors are wrong or right. They are a mechanism we have to serve a purpose. When you allow yourself to be open to your own self reflection, and stay away from needing to be right or wrong, you will really learn who you are and how to love yourself.
So here we go!
Primal Defensive Behaviors:
Denial: Using this mechanism people will pretend that whatever the unwanted or unwelcome emotion is does not exist. For instance, I do not like that I feel sad in my relationship so I will just pretend to be happy. Another example may be someone with an addiction pretending that the addiction does not exist.
Regression: This is defined by moving backwards through developmental stages or personal victories. For example, someone who has worked a lot of being able to express emotions, when a parent dies they do not want to deal with the sadness so they will regress to isolating and shut-down behaviors. We see this a lot in children who have just welcomed a new sibling. They are overwhelmed or sad with the stress of sharing the attention they may begin to act as though they were a baby too.
Acting out: When someone acts out in a form of defense you will often see them do something very out of character. These reactions are very extreme and can sometimes be violent. For example, someone is angry and instead of talking about it they throw something at you or break something. We see this a lot in acts of violence societally, like a driver speeding up their car towards protesters or a protestor destroying property.
Disassociation: Someone who is dissociative will detach from their reality and cling to their own version of reality. Often times associated with multiple personality disorder but it can be less severe than this. This is very common for victims of childhood abuse.
Compartmentalization: This is when a person keeps two parts to themselves separate from the awareness of other parts to maintain the illusion of certain values that may not be represented by both parts. An example of this might be someone who advocates for strong family and christian morals but then goes and pays for hookers on the weekends. These two things remain independent from one another to keep the value systems untainted by one another.
Projection: This is attributing ones unwanted or unwelcome feelings onto another person. This mechanism relies heavily on the persons denial of feelings or lack of self awareness. So an example might be a partner who is cheating, always suspecting and claiming their partner is cheating.
Reaction Formation: This technique utilizes forced reactions polar to the unwanted or unwelcome feeling to make it seem that the unwanted or unwelcome feeling does not exists. An example of this would be a person in a committed relationship sees a person whom is not their partner and feels sexual attraction towards them. Instead of acting upon this, which would be detrimental for the committed relationship, the person might pretend he is repulsed.
Intermediate Defensive Behaviors:
Repression: This is the blocking or the distortion of certain memories. Common in victims of childhood or long term abuse. This defense mechanism is unconscious. An example might be someone who experienced a trauma, that sincerely does not remember the event.
Displacement: This is a redirecting of one’s unwanted or unwelcome feelings from one outlet to another. An example would be a person who feels really unvalued by their boss, but can not express their anger towards the boss. They then go home and act out in anger towards their partner.
Intellectualization: This is the act of replacing or suppressing unwanted or unwelcome feelings with rigorous or obsessive study. This can be illusive because the study will be related to the root of these unwanted or unwelcome feelings, making it seem you are dealing with the situation, however they are decisive in not dealing with the unwanted or unwelcome feelings. An example would be finding out a family member has an incurable fatal disease and getting lost in researching the disease and possible cures. This is not to say you can not be dedicated to helping your family member heal without it being a defense mechanism, it is only when this is used to avoid dealing with the unwanted or unwelcome feelings.
Rationalization: This is when someone changes their outlook on what has happened in light of changing reality to avoid the unwanted or unwelcome feelings. For example a mother who is trying to get her child into a private school may be over the moon about the school, until the child is rejected. Then the mother will bad mouth the school and say she never wanted to send her child there anyway.
Undoing: This is the idea that you can reverse actions with other actions, usually with polarity. For example you shout at your child, and to try to undo this action you spend the rest of the day being overly nice to that child.
Developed Defensive Behaviors:
Sublimation: This is the channeling of unwanted or unwelcome feelings or thoughts into acceptable ones. For example, someone who is a recovering addict might focus on charity work. Humor is frequently used here as a buffer, and fantasy can be used to help one visualize or focus on manifesting what they do want. These tools are all used to shift the focus onto a more palatable or pleasant experience.
Compensation: This is the shifting of focus from unwanted feelings or unwelcome feelings in one area where you might be struggling onto and area where you are thriving. This can be over used causing problem (common term being “overcompensation”); however, it can be used to lift the person to a place of self love and self acceptance. For example; I am not very good a public speaking but I am very good at doing research. This shift of focus acknowledges that we do not have to be good at every thing in the world. Over compensation might be someone who brags constantly about one strength, in this form it seems that it does not empower the person but it becomes an obsession.
Assertiveness: This is firm, respectful expression of your wants or needs. This is the balance between speaking up for your needs and listening to others. An example of an assertive person might be someone who reads somethings hurtful written by a friend, and choses to share their hurt with a friend. In this example the person would remain respectful, staying away from accusatory statements, but would be firm about the value and validity of their feelings while being an active listener to their friends prospective.
We all use these mechanisms at different times in our life. They are here to serve a purpose for us. What ways do you see yourself using these mechanisms and is this something you want to change?