Our Defense Mechanisms
There are many ways to escape stress. We all need to "get away from it all" periodically. Many use sports, hobbies, travel, reading, movies and a host of other activities for short-term release of stress.
However, there are other forms of escape that often can be emotionally harmful, bringing damage and distortion to our relationships. These forms of escape are known as defense mechanisms.
Actually, some defense mechanisms are actually protective systems. Often, these conflicts resolve themselves in a short amount of time. However this isn't always the case. Fortunately, our body has these mechanisms to defend us from unpleasant emotions and feelings, such as anxiety.
Defense mechanisms eventually settle into a state of long-term self deception. This results in anxiety and a host of other emotional disorders. We must know what they are. Our goal is to live realistically, for that's the way to true emotional, spiritual health.
These are a few of the most obvious:
Rationalization is creating false, plausible reasons to coverup unacceptable behavior. An example would be stealing money from a wealthy person and feeling no remorse because they "can afford to lose it.” It is closely linked with denial and a way of escaping. An individual's feelings are no longer in conflict with the situation. Rather than facing the rejection or losing something, they in effect, revise their point of view.
Identification is a way of bolstering self-esteem by forming an imaginary or real connection with a person or group. Joining a sports team, fraternity, social clique are some examples.
Displacement is diverting emotional feelings, such as anger, to another target. For example, a father gets mad at the mother. The mother takes her anger out on her son. In a sort of domino effect, the son yells at his younger sister. She kicks the family pet, and so on. Another example could be a boxer punching a bag.
Projection is transferring thoughts, feelings, or motives to another. An example would be an irate person blaming others of being hostile and antagonistic. Or a thief believing everyone else is trying to con them. Projection is often used to as a way of easing guilt feelings. It allows the sinner to see them self as the good guy. It's other people causing all the problems. It's common for people to attribute their own anger, jealousy, pride and other perfectionist tendencies onto others.
Regression is reverting to immature patterns of behavior. An obvious example might be a teenager throwing a temper tantrum, or whining and crying to elicit sympathy from their parents. Regression occurs when individuals faced with conflicts revert to an earlier stage of emotional immaturity, where they feel more protected from life's stresses will. This is often seen in children where trauma is experienced when mom brings a new baby into the home. The child has unconscious fears they will be replaced or lose their parents affection. They may revert to wetting the head or baby talk in an effort to get more attention.
Reaction formation is behaving the opposite of how one truly feels. We see this in relationships, where “I hate him” changes into “I love him.” A person using reaction formation aggressively projects the opposite image of what they really are. It involves a lie told not only to others but themselves. In a way defying rational explanation, this individual is able to compartmentalize conflicting aspects. This invariably produces anxiety.
Repression is possibly the most curious. It's burying unpleasant thoughts and emotions in the unconscious mind. There has been much controversy concerning repressed memories. Various accounts of false memories resurfacing have occurred. Caution is the key word when dealing with repressed memories.
Sometimes repression can be useful in the short term. We have the ability to bury some thoughts and memories so we don't have to deal with everything consciously at all times. If we did, our neural circuits would eventually be overloaded. However, if this happens it can lead to a host of other problems, such as depression.
Many thoughts, emotions, memories and motives are stored below the level of our awareness in the unconscious mind. An example would be when an alcoholic convinces them self they don't have a problem. They declare they can quit anytime. Let's look at another example of how denial works.
Sherry is in her early 30s and others see her as pleasant and friendly. No one would believe she is unhappy. However, when questioned about her family life, she becomes evasive, opting to discuss other topics. When urged to answer she proclaims adamantly she came from a good home and had a nice childhood.
Actually, as far as she is concerned she is telling the truth. However, her siblings tell quite a different story. Their father was physically abusive. Sherry learned to deal with this problem by acting friendly and pretending negative issues in her life were unimportant. This pattern of denial followed her in to adulthood.
Eventually, Sherry realized she needed professional counseling, not for her denial, but anxiety. She wasn't aware the actual cause of her anxiety was due to her childhood denials. During her counseling the closer she came to the real underlying cause, the more agitated she became. When a breakthrough was finally achieved painful memories resurfaced. Although painful, it was also cleansing and liberating. Her denial was exposed and replaced with healing truth.
This is avoidance of uncomfortable issues or emotions. Those who use suppression tend to be more aware of their inner conflict than those who use repression. They may consciously reason, "I don't have time to deal with this right now. I'll get back to it later." Generally, people who practice suppression always have an excuse for why it's not a good time. Some refer to this as emotional procrastination.
This is popular with those who suffer severe feelings of low self-esteem. It is a means by which to avoid awareness of inferiority and other unconscious conflicts. How do they do this? By excessive use of intellectual vocabulary, thinking, and discussion. They engage themselves in philosophical and academic discussions. They have a tendency to look down on those less intellectual than they think they are. Individuals suffering from low self-esteem work hard to impress others in order to appear more important. For example, they might surround themselves with expensive works of art, and visibly contribute to community organizations. Although these activities seem positive, they are motivated by a self defeating effort to to hide the truth from others. In actuality they often have difficulty making close friends, being afraid they might discover the truth about them.
These are just a short listing of the most obvious forms of defense mechanisms. Some have listed at least 40 different types related to psychological and psychiatric disorders.
Penetrating Defense Mechanisms
Defense mechanisms are usually easier to diagnose in others. We can clearly see when someone else is denying the truth, shifting blame or rationalizing some negative action. However, our vision becomes blurry when we try looking within ourselves. We can say were searching for the truth about ourselves, but we have difficulty being honest about it. Sometimes we need professional help to discover what defense mechanisms we are using. Let's look at some practical steps to identify them.
Be aware of your circumstances and responses. It's often helpful to keep a journal to record events, feelings, and responses. From time to time look over them to see if there is a pattern.