It’s commonplace these days to talk about psychological defense mechanisms – usually when we’re referring to someone else.
“I tried to talk things out with my spouse, but she was way too defensive to really hear me.”
So most of us agree that psychological defenses are a real thing. But what exactly is a psychological defense, and how can you learn to recognize and overcome your own?
Have you ever been putting together a puzzle and you’re absolutely certain that a certain piece fits? You are so convinced you try to force the piece but this only makes matters worse. Sometimes you just have to realize this piece, the one you have in your hand, may not be the piece you need. Psychological defenses work like this. A defense mechanism is a habitual way of avoiding certain aspects of reality. As we grow up, we construct a kind of life story, a personal identity. This story helps us make sense of our lives and shapes how we respond to various circumstances and challenges. But this story, by definition, tends to be oversimplified and self-reinforcing.
We develop our own story as an adaptive strategy. It provides a sense of consistency and comfort. It creates context and meaning. But this personal story also teaches us to overlook our own sticking points. As you grow into adulthood, it’s important to re-examine and update this personal story. What was true or worked for you in childhood may no longer serve you in adulthood. When we are defensive, it means we are sticking stubbornly – and usually unconsciously – to this story, even when it doesn’t really fit the circumstances. If you want to really see reality as it is, you have to first see yourself as you really are. This requires becoming more aware of your automatic tendencies to defend and protect, and recognizing when these strategies ultimately lead to self-defeating results.
There are a dozen or so typically recognized psychological defense mechanisms. As a sample, here are a few very common ones:
When you project, you are unconsciously avoiding unwanted aspects of your self by seeing them in someone else. For example, suppose I smoke a pack a day. Deep down, maybe I fear long-term health consequences from this habit. But rather than meet this fear head-on, I become concerned with my neighbor’s smoking habit. After all, he smokes two packs a day! So I fixate on his lack of self-discipline, his unhealthy lifestyle, rather than mindfully addressing my own health anxiety and unwanted habits.
In conversion, you unintentionally transform a psychological distress into a physical one. Suppose you are experiencing relationship issues, but you don’t know how to resolve things with your partner. So you unconsciously convert this relationship conflict into one within your own body. When your partner tries to initiate physical intimacy, maybe you experience a headache. The pain you feel from the headache is real. But at the same time, you are unlikely to resolve this physical pain without first directly addressing your core relationship issues.
In displacement, you unconsciously point your unpleasant feelings at the wrong person. Suppose you are angry with your boss, but you feel you can’t directly communicate this to her for fear of losing your job. So you come home from work in a bad mood and you end up yelling at your kids. Your kids have become a kind of stunt double for your boss. This seemingly lets you discharge your frustration while avoiding your deeper anxiety about your relationship with your boss. Of course, you’re not really discharging your frustration, as nothing has fundamentally changed between you and your boss.
Transference is a lot like displacement, only it specifically involves unresolved issues with your parents. When someone has unfinished business with the people that raised her, she may not consciously recognize this tension. So instead, she unknowingly acts out this pattern with others in her life. Most typically, people transfer their parental frustrations onto their spouse, their own kids, or their employer, likely resulting in a pattern of unsatisfying personal and career relationships.
Recognizing and Overcoming Your Defenses
You don’t need to know all the fancy names for this or that defense. In fact, intellectual understanding will only take you so far. They key is learning to recognize your defense mechanisms in the moment you employ them. But the tricky thing about psychological defense mechanisms is that they are, generally speaking, unconscious. So how do you make the unconscious conscious?
Defense mechanisms tend to disrupt two essential life areas: intimate relationships and career. If job after job and/or relationship after relationship keeps fizzling for no apparent reason, this suggests you are likely getting in your own way by being defensive. Another way to recognize your defensive tendencies is to pay attention to the feedback of those closest to you. Your habitual defense mechanisms are likely apparent to everyone but you. So when your loved ones suggest you may be stuck–and especially if you find their feedback distressing or offensive–it’s worth taking a step back to re-evaluate. A defense mechanism is a learned self-protection device. It’s an automatic, knee-jerk response. The key to letting go these insecure habits is to become more secure. True security is attained by becoming more self-aware, more mindful. Before you can accept yourself as you are, you first have to see yourself as you truly are.
Therapists are trained and experienced in working with their client’s defenses. A skilled therapist can help you become more aware of your own defenses, but at a pace that feels right for you. You can’t simply get rid of your defenses in one fell swoop like ripping off a Band-aid. A therapist can help you gently explore your defensive patterns, leading you to evaluate certain life areas in which these patterns may be holding you back. The aim isn’t letting go all your self-protection strategies. Rather, it’s about making these strategies conscious. The goal is to intentionally decide when you need to protect yourself versus when it might benefit you to remain more open and vulnerable.