Think back to the last time someone said “you are being defensive.” How did you feel? Most people find such a statement insensitive, even if it’s correct.
The idea that one may be acting defensively may bring up feelings of accusation, inferiority, and anger. Interestingly enough, this really can put people on the defensive. Even within the field of psychology, I know of many therapists who think that the term defense mechanism has a negative connotation. This is rather unfortunate.
This post is intended to help you appreciate your defense mechanisms with more balance. It is the first of three installments in a blog series dedicated to defense mechanisms, so the next two posts will build off of this one.
DEFENSE MECHANISMS ARE NOT A ‘BAD’ THING
What most people (including many therapists) don’t realize is that defense mechanisms are a natural response that serve the purpose of bringing psychological relief. It’s part of being human, like breathing. Moreover, we all have them, including me. All defenses have both helpful and harmful aspects to them, just like how a coin has two sides to it. But because of our negative associations with the term, we tend to immediately view defense mechanisms as being “a bad thing.”
Many defense mechanisms are innate, meaning that when we’re born all of our brains are already pre-wired to use certain defenses. Other defense mechanisms are developed later in life as we mature (I’ll talk about specific defense mechanisms in detail a little later). By the time we’re adults, we develop a favorite set of defense mechanisms to rely on.
Our favorite defenses are molded when we’re young, usually through our home environment and culture. These favorite defenses influence our sense of self and relationship patterns. Some therapists even believe that defenses are the very threads which weave the fabric of our personality structure.
(Sigmund Freud – the ‘father’ of psychoanalysis)
As a concept, defense mechanisms were first popularized over 100 years ago by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Freud was fond of using metaphors to describe the human mind that people could relate to that were based on culture. Hence, he favored the term defense mechanisms because of the then political tension and conditions of war. Perhaps it was our own associations to warfare that influenced the negative connotations that were ultimately assigned to the term ‘defense.’
The point I am trying to illustrate here is that defense mechanisms are not bad. They are not necessarily good either. At certain times, they may be helpful or harmful, and we all have preferable defenses that we rely on. Once we can move beyond seeing our defenses as being bad or good, we can appreciate our personalities more fully.
Let’s look more closely now at different types of defense mechanisms.
WHICH DEFENSE MECHANISMS ARE WE BORN WITH?
Some psychoanalysts have differentiated defense mechanisms practiced in infancy from later and more mature ones by categorizing the former as primitive defense mechanisms – primitive because they are pre-verbal, unconscious, and essentially innate to being human.
For example, consider the defense of withdrawal. When infants feel overstimulated from too much touch, they may shriek back and pull away from caregivers. After crying oneself to exhaustion, sleep provides the withdrawal necessary to recover. As adults, we still experience the automatic reflex to withdraw (and sometimes still do!), but we have also learned how to substitute withdrawal with more mature strategies. How many days in the last three months did you not want to go to work or school but managed to pull yourself together?
(“You mean it’s not even hump day yet?”)
As another example, consider the defense of projection. Projection is when we see in others the things in ourselves we cannot. As children, it’s easier to identify feelings of frustration as coming from someone else besides us. When another child steals our favorite toy, we don’t yet have the maturity to realize that the negative reaction we have is a reaction inside of us. We believe it was put into us by the other child. “He made me bite him.”
Projection continues into adulthood as well, but we may get better at taking responsibility for our own reactions instead of only seeing fault in the other person. I once had a mentor who shared with me that in order to come to terms with the shadow parts of himself, he frequently carried a paper in his pocket and would write down whatever negative reactions he had to other people throughout the day. Later, he would stand in front of a mirror and hold up the paper while looking in his own eyes.
The idea here is that our early and primitive defense mechanisms never ‘go away.’ They are lifelong, but we don’t necessarily act upon them every time we have the urge. We implement new, more mature defense mechanisms as we get older, if we have points of reference (e.g. parental examples) for how to do so. But what about those of us whose parents didn’t substitute more primitive defenses with mature ones?
A significant number of individuals never had parents who modeled for them more productive ways of responding to stress. In these instances, typically, these parents also had parents who modeled ineffective defenses. This doesn’t imply a character defect in you, your parents, or your parents’ parents… but it does imply that had anyone else been through what you or your family has been through, they would likely have developed in the same direction.
Sometimes, when the harsh conditions of life are regular everyday experiences – such as poverty and environmental threats to basic safety – more instinctual and limited ways for responding to stress become inevitable. At some point, many of us can trace our ancestry to a family that immigrated, struggled day-to-day, lived under constant threat, and generally didn’t have time to think about how to respond to stress. It was all reflexive, not reflective.
When I worked in a community mental health clinic that serviced a lot of low-income families, I saw how substance abuse (a kind of psychological ‘withdrawal’ from the outside world, if you think about it) became an automatic way of responding to stress. I’ve come to believe that people who struggle with substance abuse do so not because they want to get high, but because they don’t want to be low.
Although it is virtually impossible to cover the entire terrain of primitive defense mechanisms in the limited space of a blog post, I will briefly mention a handful more that have been noted by psychoanalysts and some cognitive-behavioral psychologists: denial, the tendency to view things as all-or-nothing (black vs. white; good vs. bad), and overly idealizing someone or overly devaluing someone.
The important takeaway to remember is that these defenses remain as a default response to stress, the instinct reaction. When one is deprived of either the environmental safety or the parental model for responding to stress with more than just instinctual responses, then the personality becomes less flexible, and more prone to frequent psychological suffering.
WHICH DEFENSE MECHANISMS DO WE ACQUIRE LATER IN LIFE?
As we get move from early infancy into childhood, and then adolescence and adulthood, we start to negotiate how to live in the world. The world is no longer all about us. Children who once believed that dad was in complete control of the world and would ask him to make it stop raining accept the limits of what can be controlled and what cannot. Reality is gradually accepted more for what it is, even though we might still fantasize about being able to make it stop raining.
Some later-acquired defense mechanisms which are labeled more ‘mature’ include humor, artistic creativity, work productivity, intellectualization, being able to repress our instinct reactions when appropriate, and feeling affiliation and identification with others.
(Comedians like Aziz Ansari are especially gifted with the defense mechanism of humor)
Some therapists and academics (myself included) criticize how certain defense mechanisms are labeled more mature than others. You may recall that earlier I mentioned how harsher living conditions (e.g. poverty) can promote more instinctual, primitive responses to anxiety. Well, if we assume that primitive responses are less mature, we can unknowingly discriminate against people who didn’t live a privileged life where learning things like intellectualization or how to repress our instinct reactions under stress was possible.
This doesn’t mean that we should disregard the idea that some defenses are more developed than others, but it does mean that like anything else, we need to consider context.
Still, the basic idea remains: the more flexible you learn to be in your defense mechanisms so that you don’t always respond to stress in the same primitive ways you did as a child, the more likely you might lead an emotionally-fulfilling and satisfying life.
But just like those primitive defenses, more ‘mature’ defenses can become inflexible too. Think about the friend who is always using humor to defend against anxiety, or the person who always works but she has little time for friendship and love. Anytime we become rigid and inflexible in our defenses, we become rigid and inflexible in our personalities.
CAN OLD DOGS LEARN NEW TRICKS?
People frequently seek psychotherapy because their usual and favored defense mechanisms are not working for them. People don’t always realize this is part of what’s at play; they just know something feels ‘stuck’ and that they keep experiencing the same relationship patterns or identity concerns.
No matter what therapy approach is being used, part of the therapist’s task is to help the client become more flexible in their defenses. This is accomplished by establishing a healing relationship between therapist and client so that the client can redevelop the self in relationship to the therapist – a person who acts as a stand-in for the other important figures in a person’s life.
Just as our defenses (and thus personality) are molded in the context of our family and culture, so too can our defenses and personality be reorganized in the context of the therapeutic relationship. This is one of the reasons why so much research on psychotherapy now suggests the therapeutic relationship is central to psychotherapy outcome.
Having defenses that used to work for you but now more often get in the way can be frustrating. And while the initial phases of therapy provide relief for many clients, the fact that old patterns are in the process of being reworked will bring up a lot of negative feelings and uncertainty, which I’ll talk more about in my next post.
Next week, I’ll post about the struggles we face involved in changing longstanding defensive patterns, how many clients experience the ‘urge to run’ from therapy at this point (or run from other relationships), and some suggestions for working through these issues in therapy.