We have all heard the term, “defense mechanism,” and most of us have a general idea of what that means. A defense mechanism is a way of protecting or distancing ourselves from some form of emotional pain. Unless you grew up in a world totally free of pain, you probably developed a few of your own. You might have seen a list of “common defense mechanisms” in school or on the internet. A quick Google search of the term brought up more than six million results. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain defense mechanisms in depth, but let’s look at a few of the more common ones, just so we’re clear on the topic.
First and foremost is everyone’s favorite defense mechanism, denial. It’s pretty much what it sounds like – the refusal to accept an unpleasant reality. We’ve all said things like, “Susan is in total denial about what a jerk her husband is.” We’ve all probably engaged in this one, as well. Some facts just seem too unbearable to face. Denial is generally recognized as the normal, initial phase of the grief process. When we are confronted with the shocking news of a tragic event, we might simply refuse to believe it. This is normal, and usually quite temporary. For some, however, denial of unpleasant truths seems to be a way of life. In this case, it is being used as a genuine defense mechanism.
Another common defense mechanism is projection – attributing unpleasant aspects of our own behavior or feelings onto someone else. An example might be a husband who accuses his wife of being an unfaithful tramp, when in fact it is he who is entertaining fantasies of cheating. In this case, the husband’s sexual impulses are too painful to acknowledge, so he finds expression of his anger and shame by projecting those impulses onto his wife.
Another common defense mechanism that I encounter in my practice is intellectualization. Again, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Instead of acknowledging one’s own painful emotions, one retreats into the world of rational thought. This one isn’t necessarily harmful, but it’s not helpful, either. It’s a pretty effective avoidance strategy, but the problem is, the painful emotions aren’t just going to go away if we avoid them. They will wait us out every time. (More on this at a later date.)
Why do we develop defense mechanisms? To protect ourselves from pain. As mentioned above, these strategies are usually developed in childhood, when we are at our most vulnerable. When we are faced with unbearable emotional pain, we don’t have the luxury of shopping around for the most healthy, reasonable defense available. We grab whatever we can get our hands on as quickly as possible.
Now, here’s the thing about defense mechanisms: they can be quite off-putting to others, but at one time, they served a very valuable function. In fact, they may have saved your life. If you didn’t have any way to protect yourself from painful reality, what might have happened? Some of us wouldn’t have made it to adulthood. However, by the time we do reach adulthood, the defense mechanism has likely outlived its usefulness. It is no longer needed. The problem is, by now, we’ve been doing it for so long, it has become habit. It’s automatic. We do it without even realizing it. And like virtually all habits, it’s not going to go away overnight, even if we desperately want it to.
Here’s an example. Let’s say there was a little boy named Tony, who grew up being emotionally hurt by the very people who were supposed to provide him with love and safety. They weren’t physically abusive – it was more about neglect and some emotional abuse. Tony learned from his experiences to believe this: People who are close to you will hurt you. Tony had to learn how to protect himself from such hurt, so he developed a defense mechanism of becoming rude and unpleasant to others, in an effort to keep them from getting close. His unconscious rationale was I will hurt you before you can get close enough to hurt me. This strategy proved to be effective, so it was continued. It also proved to be extremely off-putting to others.
Now, Tony is an adult, working at a job. His defense mechanism is no longer needed, but it is ingrained. Tony continues to treat others with a veneer of contempt, which has earned him the reputation for being a real jerk. People assume that Tony was just “born that way,” that he is a “bad egg.” Even if they knew how this habit came into being, they might say, “It doesn’t matter if he had a rotten childhood. He needs to get over it. There’s no excuse for that kind of behavior.”
Eventually, Tony might become self-aware enough to realize that his childhood defense, which once served him well, was now obsolete, and causing a lot more problems than it was solving. He might recognize the need to change, if he ever wanted anything like a social life. But real change is difficult. He might work at it for a while on his own, but old habits die hard. Eventually, he tells himself that he really is just a jerk, and there was no point in trying to be something he’s not. So he gives up and resigns himself to going through life friendless and alone.
Alas, that is a tragic tale, made more tragic by the fact that it doesn’t have to end like that. Tony was mistaken in his belief that his defense mechanism was just who he was. Tony is not his defense mechanisms, and neither are you.
If you look at a list of common defense mechanisms, and you are brutally honest with yourself, then there’s a fair chance that you will be able to point at one or two of them and say, “Yeah, that’s me, all right.” Strictly speaking, however, this is a false statement. Again: it’s not you. It would be far more accurate to point to a defense and say, “I do this one.” We can all do that. We can also change.
I had a client ask me once if it were too late for him to unlearn a particular habit that had been with him for most of his life. I told him there was a simple test to determine if it were too late: I instructed him to place his finger under his nose, and when he did so, I asked him if he could feel breath coming in and out of his body. When he said he could, I informed him it was not too late. That doesn’t mean it’s easy – in fact, I guarantee that it’s not. Change is made particularly difficult, however, when one undertakes the challenge all alone. Your chances of success are greatly improved if you enlist the aid of someone who knows how to help. That’s the big mistake Tony made in the above vignette – he tried to go it alone, and when he was not successful, he gave up.
If you discover that you habitually engage in a behavior that was once useful but is now pushing people away, then I have a couple of suggestions. First, I would encourage you to say this to your habit: “Dear defense mechanism, thanks for being there when I needed you. You really helped me though a tough time. But I’m grown up now, and I don’t need you any more – at least, I don’t need to have you armed and loaded at all times. I’m ready to give you up, or maybe put you away unless I feel I really do need you again. Thanks for your help. Goodbye.”
Second suggestion: seek the help of a professional, like, oh, me.