The Most Common Defence Mechanisms and How to Overcome Them
Things don’t always go the way we want them to and we might face a lot of disappointment and pain in life. However, while some people work through their problems, others tend to rely on defence mechanisms to cope with unpleasant emotions.
What is a Defence Mechanism?
Have you ever refused to think about your ex-partner after a difficult breakup and denied their existence or avoided entering new relationships because you feared another heartbreak? If the answer is yes, it means that you have retreated to defence mechanisms. A defence mechanism is defined as an unconscious strategy used to better cope with an unpleasant situation and protect yourself from distressing emotions that arise from negative experiences. While it can be helpful at first because you might need an immediate escape or spend some time away from other people to heal, in the long run using relying on defence mechanisms prevents you from processing your emotions and becoming more resilient.
The 10 Defence Mechanisms
It’s not uncommon to engage in more than one defence mechanism. Here are the 10 defence mechanisms you should be aware of:
When your reality becomes too much to handle, you might deny it to protect yourself from negative feelings. For example, if your partner is drifting away, you might tell yourself that they’re just busy and if you struggle with alcohol, you might tell yourself that you’re just a social drinker. It’s one of the most common defence mechanisms and perhaps the most damaging one; without acceptance, you can avoid the pain for the time being but you can’t move on.
Repression happens when you decide to forget a painful experience and it’s usually a defence mechanism used by someone who experienced trauma. For example, people who were assaulted might repress the memory to help them cope immediately after. However, if the upsetting memory is never processed, it might result in several unpleasant symptoms such as depression, hyperarousal or sleep problems that won’t go away until their past is confronted.
Displacement is a defence mechanism that involves shifting your focus from the source of frustration to a less threatening situation. For example, if you don’t reach your targets at work you might come home and take it out on your partner. While this strategy might prevent you from losing a job, it might cause problems in other aspects of your life.
Projection is a way of blaming other people or external events for how we feel to lessen the impact of negative emotions. For example, if you’re feeling insecure in a social situation because you struggle to contribute to a conversation, you might start believing that other people are judging you. If you frequently use this defence mechanism, you might become paranoid about other people’s intentions.
5. Reaction formation
Reaction formation happens when you behave the opposite way that you feel to avoid confronting your true feelings. For example, a person who might ostracise homosexual people might be doing it to cope with being confused about their own sexual orientation.
6. Age regression
Age regression is a defence mechanism that involves retreating to childish behaviours to deal with an upsetting situation. For example, you might suck your thumb or throw a tantrum when having an argument with your partner. While it can help you calm down in a moment of stress, using it frequently might make it more difficult to handle conflict and overcome obstacles.
Not everyone can own up to their mistakes and many people might use rationalisation to excuse their bad behaviour instead. For example, if you’ve ever snapped at your friend and tried to rationalise it by telling them that it’s because their behaviour upset you, you’ve used this defence mechanism. Other examples include telling yourself it’s okay to be late for a meeting with your friend since they were late last time or cheating on your partner because they weren’t giving you as much attention as usual. While this kind of justification can make you feel less guilty, it will eventually impair your relationships with others.
Sublimation is a defence mechanism that can be a positive coping strategy and means that you engage in something productive to cope with your emotions. For example, if your flatmate upset you, you go for a run to deal with anger instead of having an argument. However, while it’s helpful when there’s no other immediate solution available, it can be harmful in the long run. For example, if you attend martial art classes to deal with feeling inadequate instead of addressing the issue, your confidence might improve but not your self-esteem.
Dissociation refers to becoming detached from your body or environment. For example, when something upsetting happens, you might feel as if you’re outside of your body or as if your surroundings aren’t real. Dissociation is an escape that is harmful in the long run; your mind might start trying to protect you from every negative emotion and not just something very traumatic. As a result, you might struggle to focus when trying to complete unpleasant tasks.
One of the most common types of avoidance is procrastination; we might be afraid of discomfort associated with carrying out certain tasks so we avoid doing them altogether. Unfortunately, avoidance only means that your problems will get worse. You might have to deal with a growing feeling of discomfort, frustration, anxiety, missing deadlines, drifting away from friends and so on.