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Defense Mechanisms
by Tina Calabrese, LCSW-R

Dr. Sigmund Freud was the first to identify that we protect our hearts and minds from anxiety and conflict by certain behaviors that are unconscious or unknown. These behaviors he called defense mechanisms. Just like the physical body has an immune system to protect the body from being harmed the mind creates disguises to help you function even though there is deep fear and pain. The interesting thing is that you are not aware of the disguise many times. The disguise although not who are may become who you think you are. Here you can see why psychotherapy is so important!

Because these behaviors are unconscious we are not aware of them unless someone points them out or if they become a barrier to being close in a relationship. It is important to learn what your defenses are. The goal is not to remove them—would you want to remove your immune system? What is more helpful is to realize when you need them and when you do not. That is the key. In order to grow and evolve you need to allow some of your anxiety and feelings to the surface. Becoming aware of your defenses and when you need them will help you grow and become healthier in relationships.

Lets look at some common defenses that may pop up when you feel threatened, afraid, hurt or traumatized.

Blaming others or projection. This is a way for the mind to deflect uncomfortable negative parts of you onto another. For example you may say a friend of yours is passive aggressive when its really you that are that way but you are not able to admit to that perhaps because of fears of rejection or abandonment.

Intellectualizing. This is when you go to your head and think and reason rather than feel your emotions. This may happen due to a fear of being vulnerable perhaps in your past when you were open and vulnerable you were hurt.

Joking. A common defense to take the focus off the uncomfortable realities that you may need to deal with.

Denial. This happens when the reality of a situation to too hard to bear and you make it untrue.

Displacement. This is when you are angry at your boss but you go home and take it out on your family. Its important to deal directly with who you are upset with.

Rationalization. Finding a legitimate excuse for your unacceptable behaviors.

Sublimation. This is a healthy defense whereby you put anxious energies into art, work or something constructive.

Dissociation. This is a common defense mechanism that results from child abuse and trauma. It is basically the experience of feeling as if you are out of your body. The mind sharply cuts you off and protects you from overwhelming anxiety and emotional pain by literally taking you away. This is why when someone is traumatized that may not fully remember the incident.

Repression. This also occurs from trauma and especially child abuse. The younger you are when the abuse occurs the more you will repress because defense mechanisms are not in place. Repression just means that you store an uncomfortable and painful memory that causes much anxiety into the basement or the attic of your mind. It is as if the memory is in your computer saved somewhere and like often happens you forget it’s there. In psychotherapy as you slowly face you fears the memory may resurface so you can face it and heal from it.

Idealization. This is when you see someone in your life as too great and wonderful. You idealize the person in order to not feel the anxiety of this person being NOT to wonderful. This can happen when you were abused by a parent, priest or professional.

Introjection. This is the experience whereby the anger and/or hatred for someone who hurt you is taken out on yourself. It is the opposite of projection when you put the anger onto someone else. Introjection can cause suicidal feelings and depression.

Identification. This is when you become like someone in your life as a way to protect yourself. Remember it is unconscious so you may not realize that you did become like your mother or father.

Please consider exploring your defense mechanisms in therapy. Everyone has them and everyone uses them. There is no shame in having ways to protect yourself from harm. Try to not be defensive if you are told by someone or your therapist that you have these defense mechanisms.

Remember that it will help you to learn about yourself and how your mind works. When we are told by medical doctors about issues relating to our bodies there is no judgment and it doesn’t reflect on how we feel about ourselves or our self esteem. If you can deal with your mind and your heart in the same way you will learn and grow and you may even be happier in your relationships!  ■

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