Defenses are Adaptive
“Defense mechanisms”, the various manners in which we behave or think to better protect and “defend” ourselves, reveal much about our level of maturity or psychological growth as people. Identifying our particular defense mechanisms are primarily a way of looking at how we distance ourselves from full awareness of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. There is usually negativity painted on people who admit to any defenses at all. But much like a crab needs its shell in order to survive we all need our defenses. So although the mere word “defense” is often used in an unbecoming light, our defenses do not make us less of a person. Rather they help to stabilize our inner emotional life and outer behavior in connecting to others. They are frequently used for adaptation rather than serving as a kind of self-defeat as people mistakenly portray them. Many psychiatrists and psychologists as well often lose sight of the positive use of neurotic behavior. We all walk a tight rope each day of our lives and need means by which to keep our balance. We all use a pole that sways according to the wind.
Most neuroses can be explained by five basic defenses: Intellectualization, displacement, dissociation, repression, and reaction formation. Intellectualization (isolation) underlies obsessions, displacement can lead to phobias, and the two mechanisms together explain compulsions. Dissociations is the mechanism behind fugues and dual personalities, while repression and dissociation together result in hysteria. Reaction formation begets those who must wear hair shirts and practice asceticism. A major paradox is that while these modes of adaptation are distressing to the owner and nearly invisible to observers, the more primitive defenses (i.e., narcissism, sociopathy) are felt as harmless to its owners and unbearably gross to observers.
Freud categorized defense mechanisms based upon how primitive they are. The more primitive a defense mechanism, the less effective it works for a person over the long-term. However, more primitive defense mechanisms are usually very effective in the short-term, and hence are favored by many people and children especially (when such primitive defense mechanisms are first learned). Adults who don’t learn better ways of coping with stress or traumatic events in their lives will often resort to such primitive defense mechanisms as well. Regardless of their nature, or the incapacity brought about by their deployment (i.e., narcissism, borderline personality) all defenses evolve over the life span into more mature styles.
Most defense mechanisms are fairly unconscious – that means most of us don’t realize we’re using them in the moment. This is primarily because repression is the prototype of all the adaptive mechanisms; if you cannot bear it… forget it. Fantasy, projection, passive aggression, hypochondriasis and acting out are primary primitive defenses. The label “character disorder” is often assigned the users of these traits, and they are seen as nothing but ugly. These people are consequently regarded as unmotivated for treatment and impervious to recovery. They seem to not give a damn about the very things that drive the normal crazy. It may make sense to say that the main reason individuals with character disorders remain relatively misunderstood is precisely because nobody likes them. Only by taking the long view with the tolerance it brings can such pessimism be mitigated. In fact, the immature mechanisms of defense can actually turn into dynamic modes of adaptation. They are by no means simply a rigid armor that deforms the personality.
Primitive Defense Mechanisms
For the user these mechanisms alter reality. To the observer these mechanisms appear “crazy”. They are common in “healthy” people before the age of five, and in adults’ dreams and fantasies. They tend to be immune to change by conventional psychotherapeutic techniques but are altered by a change in reality (a wife threatens divorce) or, the therapist provides strong confrontation as to the ignored reality.
1. Denial and Delusional Projection
Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. Delusional projection includes frank delusions about external reality, usually of the persecutory type. These are considered to be the most primitive of the defense mechanisms because they are characteristics of early development. Many people use denial in their everyday lives to avoid dealing with painful feelings or areas of their life they don’t wish to admit. For instance, a person who is a functioning alcoholic will often simply deny they have a drinking problem, pointing to how well they fit in their job and relationships. People who project will also fear that others are talking about their alcohol problem behind their back.
Grossly reshaping external reality to suit inner needs makes for distortion. This may include megalomaniacal beliefs, hallucinations, wish fulfilling beliefs, and employment of sustained feelings of superiority or entitlement. It can encompass persistent denial of responsibility for one’s own behavior.
It can include acting upon and thinking about unrealistic obsessions or compulsions. In distortion there may be a pleasant merging or fusing with another person (“Jesus lives inside me and answers all my prayers”). But in contrast to delusional projection where distress is alleviated by assigning responsibility for offensive feelings elsewhere, in distortion unpleasant feelings are replaced with their opposites. As manifested in religious beliefs, distortion can be highly adaptive for many.
Immature Defense Mechanisms
These mechanisms are common in “healthy” individuals up to age fifteen, in personality disorders, and individuals in long-term therapy. For the user these mechanisms often alter stress engendered by the threat of personal intimacy, or the threat of experiencing its loss. To the beholder they appear to be socially undesirable and puzzling. Immature mechanisms change with improved interpersonal relationships, personal maturation, a more mature spouse, a better therapist, repeated and forceful interpretation during prolonged therapy, or persistent challenges by peers.
Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses. For example, an adolescent who is overwhelmed with fear, anger, and growing sexual impulses might become clingy and start exhibiting earlier childhood behaviors he has long since overcome, such as bed-wetting. An adult may regress when under a great deal of stress, refusing to leave their bed and engage in normal, everyday activities.
4. Passive-aggressive Behavior.
Aggression towards others expressed indirectly and ineffectively through passivity or, directed against the self. It includes failures, procrastinations, or illnesses (initially at least) that affect others more than oneself. It includes silly or provocative behavior in order to receive attention and clowning in order to avoid assuming a competitive/responsible role.
Hypochondriasis is the transformation of reproach towards others arising from bereavement, loneliness, or unacceptable aggressive impulses into first self-reproach and then, complaints of pain, somatic illness, and neurasthenia.
It includes those aspects of introjection which permit traits of an ambivalently regarded person to be perceived within oneself and causing plausible disease. Hypochondriacal introjection produces dysphoria and a sense of affliction that the person often uses to belabor others with his pain or discomfort in lieu of making direct demands upon them.
6. Acting Out
Acting out is manifested by the direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in order to avoid being conscious of the affect that accompanies it. Acting out is performing an extreme behavior in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing. Instead of saying, “I’m angry with you,” a person who acts out may instead throw a book at the person, or punch a hole through a wall. When a person acts out, it can act as a pressure release, and often helps the individual feel calmer and peaceful once again. For instance, a child’s temper tantrum is a form of acting out when he or she doesn’t get his or her way with a parent. Self-injury may also be a form of acting-out, expressing in physical pain what one cannot stand to feel emotionally.
7. Schizoid Fantasy.
The tendency to use fantasy and to indulge in autistic like retreat for the purpose of conflict resolution and gratification represents schizoid defense.
It is associated with global avoidance of interpersonal intimacy and the use of eccentricity to repel others. Schizoid fantasies serve to gratify unmet needs for personal relationships. Unlike dissociation, this defense remakes the outer not the inner world.
Projection is the misattribution of a person’s undesired thoughts, feelings or impulses onto another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings or impulses. Projection is used especially when the thoughts are considered unacceptable for the person to express, or they feel completely ill at ease with having them. For example, a spouse may be angry with their significant other for not listening, when in fact it is the angry spouse who does not listen. Projection is often the result of a lack of insight and acknowledgement of one’s own motivations and feelings. It includes severe prejudice, rejections of intimacy through unwarranted suspicions, a marked hyper- vigilance to external danger, and injustice collecting. The behavior of someone using this defense may be eccentric or abrasive but within the “letter of the law”.
Less Primitive, More Mature Defense Mechanisms
Less primitive defense mechanisms are a step up from the primitive defense mechanisms. Many people employ these defenses as adults, and while they work okay for many, they are not ideal ways of dealing with feelings, stress and/or intense arousal. If you recognize yourself using a few of these, no need to feel bad – everybody does it.
10. Reaction Formation
Reaction Formation is the converting of unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings or impulses into their opposites. For instance, a woman who is very angry with her boss and would like to quit her job may instead be overly kind and generous toward her boss and express a desire to keep working there forever. She is incapable of expressing the negative emotions of anger and unhappiness with her job, and instead becomes overly kind to publicly demonstrate her lack of anger and unhappiness.
Dissociation is when a person loses track of time and/or person, and instead finds another representation of their self in order to continue in the moment. A person who dissociates often loses all sense of time or sense of self and cannot access their usual thought processes and memories. People who have a history of any kind of childhood abuse often suffer from some form of dissociation. In extreme cases, dissociation can lead to a person believing they have multiple selves. These people get the label Multiple Personality Disorder. People who use dissociation often have a disconnected view of themselves in their world. Time and their own self-image may not flow continuously, as it does for most people. In this manner, a person who dissociates can “disconnect” from the real world for a time, and live in a different world that is not cluttered with thoughts, feelings or memories that are unbearable.
Compartmentalization is a lesser form of dissociation, wherein parts of oneself are separated from awareness of other parts and consequently the person behaves as if one had separate sets of values. An example might be an honest person who cheats on their income tax return and keeps their two value systems distinct and unintegrated while remaining unconscious of the cognitive dissonance.
Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses. The key to repression is that people do it unconsciously, so they often have very little control over it. “Repressed memories” are memories that have been unconsciously blocked from access or view. While memory is quite malleable and ever changing, it is in spite of our normative wishes, not like playing back a DVD of your life. The DVD has been filtered and altered by one’s life experiences, even by what you’ve read or seen. Moreover, the DVD is being rewritten every few years sometimes to the point where earlier versions might be unrecognizable to the one who made them.
Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts, feelings, and impulses directed at one person or object, but taken out upon another person or object. People often use displacement when they cannot express their feelings in a safe manner to the person they are directed at. The classic example is the man who gets angry with his boss, but can’t express his anger to his boss for fear of being fired. He instead comes home and kicks the dog or, starts an argument with his wife. The man is redirecting his anger from his boss to his dog or wife. Naturally, this is a largely ineffective defense mechanism, because while the anger finds a route for expression, it’s misapplication to other harmless people or objects will cause additional problems for most people. These problems call for a new defense piled onto the previous one which often leads to further production of defenses in defense of secondary armory and so on.
Intellectualization is the overemphasis on thinking when confronted with an unacceptable impulse, situation or behavior without employing any emotions whatsoever to help mediate and place the thoughts into an emotional, human context. Rather than deal with the painful associated emotions, a person might employ intellectualization to distance themselves from the impulse, event or behavior. For instance, a person who has just been given a terminal medical diagnosis, instead of expressing their sadness and grief, focuses instead on the details of all possible fruitless medical procedures.
Rationalization is putting something into a different light or offering a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviors in the face of a changing reality. For instance, a woman who starts dating a man she really, really likes and thinks the world of, is suddenly dumped by the man for no reason. She reframes the situation in her mind with, “I suspected he was a loser all along.”
Undoing is the attempt to take back an unconscious behavior or thought that is unacceptable or hurtful. For instance, after realizing you just insulted your significant other unintentionally, you might spend then next hour praising their beauty, charm and intellect. By “undoing” the previous action, the person is attempting to counteract the damage done by the original comment, hoping the two will balance one another out.
Mature Defense Mechanisms
Mature defense mechanisms are often the most constructive and helpful to most adults, but may require practice and effort to put into daily use. While primitive defense mechanisms do little to try and resolve underlying issues or problems, mature defenses are more focused on helping a person be a more constructive component of their environment. People with more mature defenses tend to be more at peace with themselves and those around them.
Suppression is the conscious or semiconscious decision to postpone paying any attention to a conscious impulse or conflict. This mechanism includes looking for silver linings, minimizing acknowledged discomfort, employing a stiff upper lip, and deliberately postponing but not avoiding. With suppression one says, “I’ll think about it tomorrow”… and come the next day one remembers to think about it.
People who can realistically anticipate or plan for future inner discomfort use anticipation. This mechanism includes goal directed but overly careful planning, or worrying, premature but realistic affective anticipation of death or surgery, separation, and the conscious use of insight gained from psychotherapy.
Sublimation is simply the channeling of unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones. For instance, when a person has sexual impulses they would like not to act upon, they may instead focus on rigorous exercise. Refocusing such unacceptable or harmful impulses into productive use helps people channel energy that otherwise would be lost or used in a manner that might cause a person even more anxiety. Sublimation can also be done with humor, fantasy, or altruism. Humor, when used as a defense mechanism, is the overt expression of ideas and feelings without individual discomfort or immobilization and without unpleasant effects on others. Unlike wit, which is a form of displacement, humor lets you call a spade a spade; and humor can never be applied without some strong reflection on the nature of life. Like hope, humor permits one to bear and yet to focus on what is too terrible to be borne. Humor also closes the gap between people by a kind of relief or assurance that we all live in the same world. Fantasy, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable or unattainable desires into imagination. For example, imagining one’s ultimate career goals can be helpful when one experiences temporary setbacks in academic achievement. Altruism, when used as a defense mechanism, is vicarious but constructive and instinctually gratifying service to others. There are no strings attached or desired. In making someone else’s life better, a person releases themselves momentarily from an attachment to their own suffering and is therefore different from projecting and acting out in that it provides real not imaginary benefits to others. The gratitude of others can bring a smile of satisfaction that is not achieved by reaction formation or other means of giving to oneself. These different kinds of sublimation can help a person look at a situation in a different way, or focus on aspects of the situation not previously explored.
Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other arenas. By emphasizing and focusing on one’s strengths, a person is recognizing they cannot be strong at all things and in all areas in their lives. For instance, when a person says, “I may not know how to cook, but I can sure do the dishes!” they’re trying to compensate for their lack of cooking skills by emphasizing their cleaning skills instead. When done appropriately and not in an attempt to over-compensate, compensation is defense mechanism that helps reinforce a person’s self-esteem and self-image.
Assertiveness is the emphasis of a person’s needs or thoughts in a manner that is respectful, direct, and firm. Communication styles exist on a continuum, ranging from passive to aggressive, with assertiveness falling neatly in-between. People who are passive and communicate in a passive manner tend to be good listeners, but rarely speak up for themselves or their own needs in a relationship. People who are aggressive and communicate in an aggressive manner tend to be good leaders, but often at the expense of being able to listen empathetically to others and their ideas and needs. People who are assertive strike a balance where they speak up for themselves, express their opinions or needs in a respectful yet firm manner, and listen when they are being spoken to. Becoming more assertive is one of the most desired communication skills and helpful defense mechanisms most people want to learn, and would benefit in doing so.
It should be remembered that defense mechanisms are learned behaviors, most of which we acquired in our youth. That’s a good thing, because it means that, as an adult, you can choose to learn new defense mechanisms that may be more beneficial in life. Many psychotherapists will help you work on these things, if you feel the need. But even becoming more aware of when you’re using one of the less primitive types of defense mechanisms above can be helpful in identifying behaviors you’d like to reduce. Awareness is oftentimes at least half the solution.
Don Crowe, PhD