In the language of Freud, defense mechanisms are the unconscious things we do to deal with difficult emotion or stress. They are kind of like absent-minded coping skills, and we all use them. They’re natural and normal. They help us deal with life struggles. But, just like coping skills, defense mechanisms come in different flavors. Some are healthy, and others are problematic.
Healthy defense mechanisms.
Next time you have a problem, close your eyes and pick one of the following.
Anticipation is about preparing for upcoming stress. This involves considering possible outcomes of a difficult situation before it happens and planning ahead of time to make things less stressful. An example might include preparing for a public speech by practicing over and over again before the real shebang. Practice alone, in front of friends and family, and in the empty auditorium. Exposure, adjusting, memorizing, studying, preparing for different outcomes … that’s anticipation.
Altruism is a big-time stress-management technique that involves helping others. An example? You’re super lonely, isolating, and depressed. You need contact with people but don’t know where to start. So you sign up to volunteer at a homeless shelter for six hours a week. You find that the human contact makes things better. It also gives you something to look forward to. Another example might be overcoming guilt of hurting your deceased mother by volunteering at a nursing home.
Asceticism is helpful for some people. It’s about finding a sense of peace by denunciating the negative things you desire. An example to consider: deciding won’t eat chocolate cake for an entire week despite your cravings.
Suppression involves handling overwhelming stress by putting that stress aside until you’re ready to deal with it. It’s a conscious decision, unlike repression, where a person puts aside the emotion or memory without realizing it. An example: after a toxic relationships and horrible break-up, you’re left with confused, mixed feelings about the whole situation. Every time you think about the break-up, it leaves you angry and depressed. No matter how much you try to organize it in your brain, the emotion won’t go away. So you decide to consciously suppress the situation by putting all thoughts aside for six months, until you’re ready to come back to it.
Humor is everywhere. As a defense mechanism, it involves handling stress by focusing on the amusing or ironic part of whatever it is that’s stressing you. Humor is about being silly. An example might include eating a huge piece of chocolate cake just after starting a new diet. You feel guilty and frustrated. Humor comes to the rescue. You grunt something under your breath about wishing there were such a thing as a cake diet (wouldn’t that be wonderful?), swear at the gods that chocolate tastes so good, give the rest of the cake to the neighbor, and decide to start the diet afresh.
Self-assertion is about expressing your thoughts, feelings, or needs to others in a direct way – without being mean. Self-assertion can also be about respecting the needs of the other person. It’s a good way to deal with conflict or misunderstandings. For example, you notice a colleague at work is acting strangely around you, but you don’t know why. Instead of ignoring her back or accusing her of being moody, you decide to pull your colleague aside and ask whether something is wrong – using friendly, empathic, and direct vocabulary. “It seems to me that you’re upset… if I did something to bother you, I didn’t mean to. What can we do to better things?” Even if things don’t work out, you know you did the best you could.
Sublimation is a skill that involves changing a socially “objectionable” desire into something society values. An example would be using thoughts of violence to work at a slaughterhouse or in demolition.
Reaction formation is an interesting defense mechanism. It’s about managing stress by doing the opposite to what you want to do. An example includes helping people and becoming a doctor instead of giving into the desire to hurt others, or becoming a knight to defend women’s offer when in truth you don’t like women.
Less-than-good defense mechanisms.
Some defense mechanisms aren’t harmful in small doses but become a problem when used excessively. Others are problematic from the start. Next time you find yourself dealing with something in a less-than-helpful way, you might be doing one of the following:
Repression happens when you unconsciously forget disturbing or threatening thoughts or memories of stressful situations. The thoughts are pushed down so deep you don’t know they exist. This usually happens when the thoughts or memory are too troubling to deal with consciously. Often the emotion and stress over the thoughts/situation remain, but you don’t know where they’re coming from. An example might include repressing childhood abuse. The problem with repression is it doesn’t allow the sufferer to deal with the problem.
Denial is about rejecting awareness of a situation or external event. Like repression, the situation is too much to handle and easier to deny completely. A good example is a smoker who refuses to admit smoking is bad for their health.
Projection involves taking unwanted thoughts or motives and attributing them to another person. An example is when you hate someone but, because you believe hate is unacceptable, convince yourself that person hates you.
Displacement is the unconscious transfer of conflict from a threatening person to someone that has nothing to do with the conflict, a person who is less threatening. An example: a mother who yells at her kid when she’s really angry at her boss.
Controlling happens when a person makes excessive attempts to regulate their environment – in a way that causes problems. An example of this defense mechanism might be setting up a schedule that is so tight you get thrown off kilter every time something unexpected comes up.
Stay tuned for more blogs on defense mechanisms.
Kim Rosenthal, MD