Defense mechanisms are unconscious, psychological processes that defend us against real or perceived dangers.
Defense mechanisms are not necessarily bad or wrong. Living in the world would cause entirely too much anxiety for a person to function if there was no ability to filter out or to defend against perceived dangers. We would not get far in life without healthy fear. Healthy fear is a defense mechanism. Anxiety about everything in the world, real or unreal, is an overdeveloped defense mechanism.
Defense mechanisms are necessary for psychological health because they are ANXIETY REGULATORS.
However, when there is too much anxiety in one’s life, defense mechanisms begin to work TOO WELL.
Our defense mechanisms become overdeveloped and regulate us into unhealthy behaviors.
When our defense mechanisms are overdeveloped we engage in endless bouts of action and reaction and avoidance behavior.
We continually react to environmental “dangers” be they real or perceived. We stay tight within our COMFORT ZONES and our FRAME OF REFERENCE.
If we have an overdeveloped fear of abandonment, or overdeveloped sense of denial, or inability to feel what we really feel because for years we were told our feelings are bad or wrong or it was just too much for us to deal with, it is TOO scary to go outside of our comfort zones. We trained ourselves, long ago, to defend against perceived dangers and when the dangers were HUGE, we overdeveloped those defense mechanisms.
If we have a healthy parent, the parent reminds us to not speak to strangers, to look both ways before crossing the street, to hold their hand in a parking lot. They tell us about the dangers in the world. They tell us to have healthy fear so that we can protect ourselves. There are real dangers in the world. There are scary strangers and there are moving cars which might not see us. We have to be taught that these things are scary and our fear of them will keep us safe.
If we have an unhealthy parent, the parent will tell us that everyone is out to get us, or that you can’t be too careful, or if you go roller blading you might fall down and die, if you go swimming you could be eaten by a shark. Planes fall out of the sky, people fall down manholes. We become fearful of EVERYTHING and EVERYONE. Our defense mechanism is overdeveloped.
If you go into therapy for being an anxiety-ridden basket case who hyperventilates at the thought of going outside, the goal is not to rid you of fear, but to rid you of irrational, unreasonable fears that have turned into phobias and made you a lunatic. A successful therapy will not have you skipping down dark alleys in the middle of the night because you will not have erased all of your fear. Just all of your irrational, unreasonable phobias. You might still have some fears that not everyone has but are common (fear of heights, fear of flying) but you are not afraid of meteors slamming into your house. You have regulated your defense mechanism and even if you have some anxiety about some things that fall somewhat outside the range of healthy fear, you’re not a quivering mass of craziness.
So it is not only possible, but very necessary for you to recognize your overdeveloped defense mechanisms and bring them back into balance. If you don’t, you stay stuck.
Most situations require responses. If you are reacting, either too much or too little, it’s a clue that overdeveloped defense mechanisms are at work.
Defense mechanisms include suppressing our true feelings (you immediate react with “Oh I don’t care about that.” or “whatever you want” or something similar);
“reaction formation” which is when you react the way you think someone WANTS you to react (“oh I LOVE that!” when you don’t know if you love it at all);
projection (you react as if someone doesn’t like you because you’ve decided they don’t…you’ve projected your insecurities onto them and decided they don’t like you);
displacement (for example, your partner makes you angry and you take it out on the kids, the dog, the people at work, your extended family etc…sometimes you take it out on yourself…);
rationalization and justification (“it’s not that bad” “There are good reasons why”);
blaming (always looking for someone or something to blame. Things can’t just go wrong, it HAS TO BE SOMEONE’S FAULT);
distrust (you immediately decide you don’t trust someone without any hint that it’s a reasonable reaction; conversely you may trust too soon);
lying when telling the truth would be just as easy (this is a defense mechanism to keep everyone from knowing the truth even when the truth is perfectly fine);
drama addiction (keeping things swirling on the outside keeps you from looking at things on the inside);
critical judging (stay critical of everyone around you and you keep from being critical of yourself);
accepting of critical judging (you try to “keep the peace” so that no arguments ensue);
inability to relax;
need to control;
overresponsibility and underresponsibility.
There are others but clues to a defense mechanism in play are “emotional” behavior, outbursts, being prone to depression, intimacy difficulties etc. You can be an over-reactor or an under-reactor. Just because you are quiet (and or shy) doesn’t mean you do not have overdeveloped defense mechanisms. Many times being an under reactor is more of a sign of overdeveloped defense mechanisms than being an over reactor.
Most “issues” come from a place of overdeveloped defense mechanisms.
We develop problems and become set in our ways when defense mechanisms become overdeveloped and we react in certain ways WITHOUT THINKING. We are stuck in our ruts, in our grooves, in our comfort zones of our overdeveloped defense mechanisms. In order to change, we need to work with our defense mechanisms.
We need to bring the overdeveloped defense mechanisms IN LINE with healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle is not about extremes. The extremes in our lives are often the result of overdeveloped defense mechanisms.
Unlike the cognitive and behavioral, we can’t affirm our way out of a defense mechanism. Affirmations help change the thoughts and behaviors that are rooted in defense mechanisms but we also have to dig down deep and see what is going on and change it by working through it. THEN we affirm the change we want to see in ourselves. But first we have to recognize it and recognize our REACTIONS that need to be tamed into RESPONSES.
Overdeveloped defense mechanisms keep us tight inside our frames of reference and LIMIT OUR LIFE SCOPE. We start to become very narrow in our reactions or responses to things. We develop behaviors in response to our overdeveloped defense mechanisms which are very unhealthy.
For example, if you have been abandoned by a parent, you begin to develop defenses which reduce your anxiety in the world, reduce the likelihood that you will be abandoned again. You either avoid relationships or stay in relationships too long.
Even if YOU are the one who ends a relationship, you could experience such anxiety at the end of the relationship that it is TOO MUCH for you and you flee back to the relationship no matter how bad it was for you. Any relationship, even the worst ones, are better than the abject terror you feel upon severing a tie to someone with whom you shared a relationship.
Working with defense mechanisms involves real work. There is a lot more work in the observation than in affirmations or goal setting. We must learn to recognize and understand defense mechanisms.
Go down the list of defense mechanisms and see which ones are causing problems in your life. Pick 2 or 3 at a time (no more than that!)
Write about the positive and negative results of this. Overdeveloped defense mechanisms are NOT ALL BAD. They are just OVERdeveloped. So the idea is to tone it down, not eradicate it completely. So make sure you understand how each defense mechanism has helped you as well as hurt you.
Ask yourself: how did this defense mechanism help me as a child? How is it upsetting my adult life? How can I turn it into a more productive behavior?
For example: if you lied as a child to stay out of trouble, it protected you. But now you are lying for the sake of lying. To be a good liar takes some kind of creativity. Harness that creativity while affirming to be more honest. Sometimes if you feel you are going to lie or exaggerate, say nothing. Sometimes lying is a knee jerk reaction and it takes time to learn to just respond honestly rather than react with a lie.
So start with not reacting at all. Do nothing. Say nothing. Then start to think about what you can say that is honest. Sometimes there’s nothing TO say…you’re just trying to make yourself more interesting or be a part of conversation. Recognize that, journal about that and AFFIRM that you are OKAY without having to lie or exaggerate. You do NOT need the defense of lying in your life any longer. It’s time to take that creative energy and put it somewhere else.
You can do this with ALL defense mechanisms. Figure out how it protected you before, but is hurting you now and what you need to do to regulate its power.
Many times you can learn to listen for your “reaction” and instead of reacting, learn to say and do NOTHING. Just figure out what the heck your defense mechanisms are driving you toward. Is it trying to keep you safe?
Is there REALLY a danger? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But learn to think and respond instead of reacting without thinking. Usually it takes stepping back and DOING NOTHING before you can realize what is REALLY going on.
The first step in toning down defense mechanisms is trying to keep reactions to a minimum and learning to respond instead.
Affirm the change you want to see in yourself in order to bring this behavior into a more balanced and productive picture.