Essentially, defense mechanisms are manners in which we behave or think that protect us from a full awareness of unpleasant feelings. Psychologists have categorized defense mechanisms based on how primitive they are – the more primitive, the less effective in the long-term. However, primitive defense mechanisms are typically exceptionally effective in the short-term, which is why so many individuals favor them (especially children). Primitive defense mechanisms are also frequently utilized by those who lack adequate coping skills, or have never learned to efficiently handle extreme stressors. The majority of the defense mechanisms we employ are entirely subconscious, meaning we are not aware that we are using them in the moment. There are several types of psychotherapy designed to help individuals identify defense mechanisms and their effectiveness, and exchange detrimental mechanisms for more effective and healthy ones.
Primitive Defense Mechanisms
Let us first take a look at five commonly employed primitive defense mechanisms.
Those who are ‘in denial’ are unable to see or accept reality, and act as if the difficult issue, emotion, or memory simply does not exist. Because denial is a characteristic of early childhood development, it is often considered one of the most primitive defense mechanisms. It is not uncommon for individuals to utilize denial in their day-to-day lives. For example, a man may continuously ignore calls from a collection agency, refusing to accept that he is in debt. An alcoholic may deny that his drinking has become uncontrollable, continuously pointing out his career and material possessions. This defense mechanism can be extremely dangerous, and intensive therapeutic treatment is often necessary to overcoming deep-seated denial.
Disassociation occurs when an individual loses track of time or personal identity, and finds a separate representation of self in order to continue on in the moment. In many cases, individuals who have a history of significant childhood abuse will develop some form of disassociation. Those who utilize this specific defense mechanism typically have a distorted view of themselves and the role that they play in the world. Their conception of time and their perception of self may not flow as it does for others – they may feel disconnected the majority of the time. In order to successfully overcome disassociation, one must undergo intensive therapy for an extended period of time, working to overcome unbearable memories, thoughts, and feelings.
- Acting Out
One whop ‘acts out’ will attempt to express thoughts or feelings by engaging in an extreme behavior. He or she may lack the skills necessary to effectively communicating his or her feelings, resorting to acts of violence or excessive anger. For example, rather than saying, “I’m upset with you,” an individual may throw a plate at a wall or punch a hole through a door. Children who throw temper tantrums are usually acting out – they are expressing themselves physically because they do not yet have the coping mechanisms required to do so calmly and effectively. Self-injury is another form of acting out. And individual who engages in self-harm is expressing emotional pain in a physical manner. Therapeutic treatment has been shown to help individuals who are prone to acting out learn to express their emotions successfully.
One who experiences regression will return (mentally and emotionally) to an earlier stage of development in order to escape uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. For example, an adolescent who is overwhelmed by fear may begin exhibiting a certain childhood characteristic he has long-since overcome, such as wetting the bed or sleeping with the lights on. An adult may show signs of regression if he or she suddenly refuses to participate in day-to-day life, staying in bed and avoiding interpersonal interaction. Adults may even regress to childhood behavioral tendencies, such as thumb-sucking, as a way to attempt to deal with overwhelming stress or anxiety. Regression can be overcome with intensive therapeutic care and counseling.
Compartmentalization is a form of disassociation. One who experiences compartmentalization will behave as if he or she has two sets of values, separating parts of oneself from awareness of other parts entirely. For example, an honest and hard-working individual may begin stealing small amounts of cash from the company till. He will keep his two opposing value systems completely unintegrated, unaware of this cognitive dissonance. Like disassociation, compartmentalization can be reversed with intensive therapeutic care.
Mature Defense Mechanisms
Now let us take a close look at three defense mechanisms that are commonly classified as mature and productive. Those who employ the following mechanisms are far more likely to reap positive, long-term results. Of course, utilizing these defense mechanisms naturally will take an ample amount of practice and hard work.
One who is assertive will express his thoughts, feelings, and needs in a way that is both respectful and firm. Assertiveness falls directly in between passive and aggressive, and is a style of effective communication that we at Next Chapter strive to instill in each of our clients. Those who are assertive are good listeners, and take the feelings of others into careful consideration when expressing their own needs. They express themselves in a calm and direct manner, setting healthy boundaries and exhibiting a solid awareness of their own personal requirements.
Compensation (not to be confused with over-compensation), is a defense mechanism that can help to bolster the self-esteem and personal awareness of an individual. When one engages in compensation, he or she psychologically counterbalances perceived weaknesses by confirming personal strengths. By focusing on strengths while acknowledging weaknesses, an individual is realistically admitting that he or she can not excel in all areas of life. For example, a man may say, “I may not be any good at sports, but I can sure help you with your tax returns!” He is accepting that athletics are not his strong suit, but that he is an asset in other necessary areas. At Next Chapter, we teach our clients to focus on their strengths while maintaining a realistic view of the areas they may lack in.
Sublimation is essentially the channeling of inappropriate feeling, thoughts, or impulses into something healthier and more productive. For example, a recovering alcoholic may be overwhelmed by the urge to drink. Instead of dwelling on these impulses and eventually picking up, he may go for a long run or focus his energy on playing guitar. We at Next Chapter teach our clients healthy methods of sublimation, showing them how to direct negative energy into positive action.
The Importance of Healthy Defense Mechanisms
Learning effective and healthy defense mechanisms is a crucial part of comprehensive recovery. We at Next Chapter work to instill adequate communication skills in each and every one of our clients, replacing ineffective and damaging coping mechanisms with productive ways of identifying and addressing personal needs and boundaries. For more information on our specific program of recovery, please feel free to contact us today.