BY: T. Franklin Murphy | February 4, 2021
We rely on defense mechanisms to mitigate powerful emotions. Some defensive strategies support wellness while other defenses hurt.
Our defense mechanisms are plentiful and strong. They operate in the hidden recluses of our mind, protecting from hurt and limiting growth.
I can’t help it, I’m an internet junkie. I join groups, follow pages, and read psychology and wellness tweets—a passion. During my early adventures in the cyber world, I was impelled to correct gross errors. I quickly learned my “I don’t agree” comments often poked the beast, inciting emotional, and, sometimes, venomous attacks. I have a fragile ego—I understand. A strong defensive reaction protects against meddling advise that rips crude bandages from old wounds. I often wonder how much learning I missed because of my defense mechanisms.
Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies we unconsciously use to reduce or remove unpleasurable affect.
Why We use Defense Mechanisms
Life is powerful, inciting explosions of emotions that we must channel into effective responses. Our strategy of reaction to experience, our channeling of emotion, is an adaptation. Some adaptations are effective, others are not. We cope by adapting strategies that prevent overload.
Susan David, an instructor in psychology at Harvard University, explains that coping strategies "arise from discomfort with 'negative' emotions" (2016, location 754).
Dr. Jerome S. Blackman, professor of psychiatry and licensed psychoanalyst, says that defense mechanisms work as circuit breakers, defusing the flow of energy when the current gets to strong. Blackman defines defenses as "mental operations that remove components of unpleasurable affects from conscious awareness" (2003).
Ego defense mechanisms are a dynamic restorative process, essential for keeping our bodies in a healthy homeostatic range. George E. Vaillant, psychoanalyst and research psychiatrist, wrote in his classic book Adaptation to Life, that defenses are "normal responses to abnormal circumstances." He adds, "defenses are healthy more often than they are pathological" (2012).
Vaillant (2012) identifies five situations when we are likely to use defense mechanisms:
We use psychological strategies often. None of us our immune to these hidden gems of psychological health and pathology. Believing we are above the nonsense of psychological games is, well, just denial.
See Self Deceptions for more on this topic
Common Defense Mechanisms
Almost anything can be used as a defense, from screaming at the children to going golf. We find ways to defuse emotions, bringing our systems back to a manageable level.
Blackman explains, "whatever the mental activity or behavior, if it shields you from experiencing unpleasant emotion, it is defensive" (2003). Blackman lists 101 defenses in his book.
Six defense mechanisms are commonly identified in research:
Repression is similar to its cousin suppression. The major difference is that repression occurs unconsciously while suppression is a conscious act.
Sigmund Freud emphasizes that thoughts and feeling affects are individual components. In the case of repression, the thought associated with a feeling affect is repressed while the feeling affect remains.
Unmitigated repression presents a problem. Our denial of personal temptations prevents corrective and protective action. Perhaps, repression is involved when notoriously conservative (liberal) politicians are caught violating standards that they vehemently protect. They repress thoughts associated with an impulse and consciously keep their tidy conservative self image, but occasionally act on contrary impulses in an airport's bathroom stall.
Denial is often referred to as disassociation. We deny dissociate facts from the object they support. We excuse the obvious. Unsupported conspiracies thrive under the protective sheath of denial. Evidence is denied and emotional reasoning triumphs.
See Emotional Reasoning for more on this topic
Vaillant warns, "in human adjustment, it seems important to experience anxiety in optimal amounts - too little inhibits growth and too much precludes functioning. What is important is that suppression mitigates anxiety, but dissociation abolishes it" (2012).
Denial is often a pathologic defense that inhibits growth. Adequate information is available for reconsidering a belief but we deny it. The discomfort of changing produces too much anxiety, so, we deny anything that rocks the boat. For example, the smoker denies his shortness of breath, instead of acknowledging the detrimental impact of smoking to his health.
Projection, often referred to has externalizing, pushes internal thoughts, judgements and feelings onto external sources. Blackman describes it as, "where you experience a part of your mind as 'external' to yourself. You might think someone or 'society' will criticize you, when actually you feel self-critical" (2003).
I project my frustration onto other drivers. For instance, occasionally, I miscalculate and cut off another driver, causing them to brake. Without a hand gesture or a facial expression from them, I project my discomfort onto them, "they shouldn't be driving so fast."
Recently, a facebook poster responded to my research article on Catastrophizing, "Whoever wrote this is projecting enough to run an Imax multiplex." Perhaps, since I have no idea what he is referring to, he inferred his own meaning onto the article and then projected his inferred meaning onto me, the author.
Displacement allows thoughts and feeling affects to remain connected but outward expression is directed toward a less dangerous object.
Sometimes reacting to emotions is dangerous. The person we are angry with either intimidates or frightens us. We suppress our emotionally loaded response out of self preservation. However, we then retaliate against an easier target, diffusing emotional energy.
Robert Sapolski, a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, wrote in his detailed book on human behavior, "stress-induced (aka frustration-induced) displacement aggression is ubiquitous in various species. Among baboons, for example, nearly half of aggression is this type—a high-ranking male loses a fight and chases a subadult male, who promptly bites a female, who then lunges at an infant" (2018, location 2190).
Biologically, displaced aggression reduces stress induced hormone levels. Sapolski quips, "giving ulcers can help you avoid getting them" (location 383).
Ideally we progress. Wisdom from experience can help ineffective defensive strategies develop into effective responses. Yet, life is seldom linear. We grow and then slip backwards a few steps. Vaillant defines regression as "the retreat from adaptive mechanisms at one level to those at a less mature level" (2012, location 3145).
These regressions can be seen as bedwetting for an older child or an adult returning to repression and denial during traumatic events.
Sublimation is often considered a mature defense mechanism. A morphing of dissociation into a healthy redirecting of emotional energy. Vaillant compares sublimation with repression writing, "sublimation channels emotions; repression dams them" (2012, location 982).
In sublimation impulses and thoughts remain intact and conscious. We diffuse improper impulses by redirecting our energy.
Sublimation is a defense I used to redirect powerful emotions from a career in law enforcement. Instead of over indulgence in whisky or displacing frustration by being a bruit to my wife and children, I redirected it to an intensive study of human behavior.
The internet has expanded the game. We can twist our ego-defending mechanisms that are flat out pathological into beautiful psychological prose, giving others advice on how to incorporate similar faulty mechanisms. The adoring internet crowd spur on maladaptive reactions, laud our errors, and provide a protective barrier of superficial acceptance.
Learning from the internet, and especially social networks, requires a lot of skepticism. Anyone can publish a site, author a book, or give advice with a tone of expertness. A page may adopt a professional name, utilizing powerful buzz words like: psychology, science, or financial planner. But a quick glance of the content suggests something much different.
With some foundational knowledge, we can identify the hollow misguided and supported material. Unfortunately, many internet surfers are desperately seeking help and the bounteous information flowing through social media is attractive. Some misguided dogma feels good; and those without sufficient knowledge to evaluate the content are duped.
As I discovered from my own work, running a site, posting thoughts, and receiving positive feedback provides tremendous psychological and emotional benefits. These endeavors reach beyond normal survival behavior and give life meaning. But a social media campaign is void of the relationships necessary for true intimate connections. Praising responses to the latest post fails to satisfy the intense needs of connectedness. Bare of substance the poor seeker of fulfillment, exposes their loneliness in words. Yet, although apparent to some, the writer is oblivious to their own defensive stances. Perhaps, some of my writings expose my personal fears.
A recent ‘psychology’ site tweeted she was not anti-social; she just doesn’t like to deal with two-faced and hollow people (denial). A few minutes later she tweeted, don’t worry if what you say hurts other people, they are responsible for their own happiness (displacement, repression). With thousands of likes and shares, these damaging defense mechanisms to social anxiety teach destructive relationships skills, and are lauded as profound and healing.
Human interaction will always challenge our skills; but also offer many blessings and opportunities in return. Those struggling do not need a lesson in psychology from a stranger but support and sincere positive regard. Only in security can our defense mechanisms mature into helpful strategies.
We are in this together, with our individual hurts, triumphs, joys and failures. Interacting with others and experience is a challenge, sometimes arousing intense anxiety; but with supportive others, and healthy defense mechanisms, we can navigate the rough waters of intense emotions, and wander through the unpredictability of life with awe and curiosity.
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Resources Cited in Article:
Blackman, J. S. (2003). 101 Defenses: How the Mind Shields Itself. Routledge; 1st edition
David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition.
Sapolski, R. (2018). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books; Illustrated edition.
Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press