success stories

Posted May 13, 2004

Understanding Defense Mechanisms

Lynn M. Levo, CSJ, Ph.D.
Vol.VII, No. 4 September/October, 2003

Almost everyone today knows what it means to say that a person is "in denial." Someone who is addicted is a good example when s/he says "I can quit anytime I want to" and yet does not. Also, s/he does not recognize the impact of the addictive behavior (be it alcohol, drugs, cybersex or gambling) on him/her self or on those who care about him/her. Denial often operates when a person faces difficult times. With the death of a loved one, people can find themselves thinking temporarily that the deceased is still alive. Or, persons facing diminishment of physical capacities due to aging may not admit to any limitations and even try to carry on as they did when they were younger. When people are in denial, they often interpret threats and problems as benign, or pretend that they do not exist. Denial is one of the ways that individuals cope with anxiety or difficult situations. The concept of defense mechanisms, frequently associated with Sigmund Freud, may be considered by some today to be less relevant or not helpful. However, the concept of defense can still be useful in explaining what we see everyday in individual behaviors, in interpersonal relating and in understanding self-defeating behavior patterns. Defenses are common and understanding them is critical to self-awareness.

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are unconscious means used to protect oneself from unpleasant emotions. When individuals face a difficult or anxiety producing situation, they may engage in problem solving efforts and defense mechanisms may be triggered to reduce the accompanying tension. Defense mechanisms are a means of distancing, transforming or falsifying a person's reality which reduce anxiety and allow the individual to cope with whatever s/he is facing.

Although there are many types of defense mechanisms, they are not equally helpful or adaptive in handling stressors or difficult situations. Some, in fact, are quite maladaptive. The American Psychiatric Association describes defense mechanisms along a continuum from highly adaptive defenses, which result in optimal handling of stressful situations while at the same time allowing for awareness of feelings, ideas and their consequences, to a level of defensive dysregulation where an individual loses contact with reality.

Adaptive Defense Mechanisms

Some of the most helpful defense mechanisms may not be identified as such by most persons. Affiliation and humor are common, highly adaptive coping mechanisms. Affiliation involves sharing problems or difficulties with others without trying to make someone else responsible for them. Here, a person deals with their anxiety by sharing it with others, turning to others for both help and support. Humor, not sarcasm which is veiled anger, is another adaptive means of coping with stress. In this case, the individual copes with emotional conflict or stressors, be they internal or external, by noting the amusing or ironic aspects of a situation. Persons who effectively use humor have the capacity to stand outside themselves and observe and comment on the events impacting themselves and others. This allows them to tolerate the situation and still be able to focus on what is happening.

Less Helpful and Destructive Mechanisms

Many people use a number of mental inhibitions as a means of keeping potentially threatening ideas, feelings, memories, wishes or fears from awareness. When a person intellectualizes, s/he makes use of abstract thinking or generalizations in order to control or minimize disturbing feelings. They often place undue focus on the inanimate with the consequence that intimacy with others and the expression of inner feelings are avoided; their focus on irrelevant details often prevents perceiving the whole. People who are uncomfortable with feelings are likely to intellectualize. Repression, often called the queen of all defenses, is the blocking of disturbing wishes, thoughts, or experiences from conscious awareness; it may apply to a total experience, or to the affect, wishes or fantasies associated with an experience. People who have experienced trauma, e.g., sexual abuse, in order to protect themselves from feeling unpleasantness and fear, may not allow thoughts or feelings associated with the abuse to reach consciousness. This is particularly true and appropriate for children who experience abuse because they lack the capacity to cope with such violations. Rationalization is a means of coping with unpleasant or unacceptable stressors, impulses, ideas, affect or responsibility by attempting to justify feelings, motives and behaviors that others would consider unreasonable, illogical or intolerable. In this case, the individual conceals his/her motivations through the elaboration of reassuring or self-serving explanations.

Some defense mechanisms are maladaptive. Splitting is a major image distorting mechanism in which important people in a person's life are divided into good and bad, the former idealized and the latter devalued. This compartmentalization fails to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self or others into a cohesive image, eliminating balanced views and expectations of self and others. A borderline personality utilizes this as a bedrock defense.

Raising to consciousness and understanding these coping styles can be helpful in understanding oneself and others and in assessing the level of health with which a person is responding to anxiety producing situations. And, awareness and understanding make it possible to learn more appropriate and effective coping styles that are more likely to promote health and well-being and healthier interpersonal relating.

Lynn M. Levo, CSJ, Ph.D., is the Director of Education at Saint Luke Institute.