“The best defense is a good offense.”-Jack Dempsey
Human beings are innately self protective. We instinctively protect ourselves from most real or imagined threats, sometimes even subconsciously. We have built in protective factors, we sneeze to clear sinuses, put on body fat before a cold winter, flinch to protect our face and eyes, and frequently get bad vibes when something bad is about to go down. Many of our defenses are instinctive, some subliminal, and many somewhere between. Although these behaviors and attitudes serve a protective purpose, they sometimes get in the way of our enjoyment and full participation in life.
The first person to identify psychological defense mechanisms was Sigmund Freud. Freud believed we all carry a sense of self which he called the Ego. In psychoanalytic theory the Ego is who we believe we are, and we will do virtually anything to protect this sense of self. Sigmund identified defense mechanisms in very broad terms, but it was his daughter, Anna Freud, who was the first to define in detail. The Freud’s felt that the purpose of these defense mechanisms was to protect humans from acting on their “instinctual desires.” As you may know, the Freud’s were big on “instinctual desires.” Since their time psychologists have focused on the role that defense mechanisms play in protecting us from anxiety, fear, and human weaknesses.
While some theorists identify as many as 25 individual defense mechanisms, we are only going to focus on a few here. All defense mechanisms have two things in common: they often appear unconsciously and they often tend to distort or twist reality, which allows for a lessening of anxiety and a corresponding reduction in tension. Some of the more common defenses are:
1. Denial-This is claiming or believing that something which is true is not true. This is the number one defense from which all others stem. One simply refuses to accept a reality. I am a social drinker, I’m not fat, I’m just big boned, I never said that, are all examples of the logic of one who is in denial. Denial is the initial reaction of people who are experience trauma or disasters and may even be a beneficial initial response to something that would be otherwise overwhelming to deal with.
2. Displacement-This is placing the blame on someone or something else. Acting on an emotion, anger for example, might get you in trouble if the emotion was directed at the real target. Putting this emotional energy on someone or something else is far safer. So instead of screaming at your boss you direct that energy at family when you get home, a much safer target.
3. Reaction Formation-This is reacting in a way that is directly opposite what you are really feeling. For example, in the 1990s there were a number of religious figures and televangelists who ranted and railed against the evils of greed, pornography, and vice. A few were caught engaging in the very behaviors that they preached against. While it may be easy to call such people hypocrites, a more logical explanation would be at their defenses failed, and the reason that this cause was so important to them was to protect their own ego from unacceptable urges.
4. Regression-This is returning to attitudes and behaviors that would be more appropriate in a child. This behavior is likely to be manifested through immature behavior. An adult throwing a temper tantrum is one example. Grown adults engaging in pranks, practical jokes, and juvenile behaviors are other examples. The childish behavior becomes a throwback to the way you would have reacted as a child.
5. Rationalization-This is when your logic justifies a bad decision or behavior. For example, you try to convince your wife that purchasing a new Corvette makes sense because it will hold its resale value better than the Subaru station wagon she wants you to buy. It also tends to be a part of the logic of a criminal mind. “I had to do what I had to do,” is often the logic of career criminals and people who physically assault and intimidate others. Rationalization is often justification for bad behavior and making poor choices.
6. Projection-This is attributing your uncomfortable feelings onto others. For example, let’s say that you spent a fair sum of money for a new outfit of clothes. You did this because you wanted to look good for a particular event. At the event, you notice that people are looking at you. You project your insecurity onto them when you think that they are looking at you “because I look silly.” What you don’t realize is that they’re looking at you because they think you look great. You are projecting your insecurities onto them. Unless you get a few compliments soon, your evening is about to be ruined.
7. Intellectualization-This is when you use your logic to think away a feeling or emotion that may be otherwise unacceptable to you. This tends to be one of the least damaging of the defense mechanisms, and some approaches to psychotherapy make it a part of the treatment. With this defense you use your intellect to talk yourself out of of negative feelings. For example, you get rejected for a job that you applied to. You assuage your hurt ego by doing a financial analysis and conclude that the commute would have made accepting the job a bad idea for money reasons. Emotion goes out the window and cool, clear, logic prevails.
8. Sublimation-This is taking unacceptable impulses and channeling them into something that is socially acceptable. For example someone, who otherwise might end up being a violent person, finds an outlet for their violence through a sport like football. A surgeon sublimates his hostile urges into skillful use of a scalpel. This socially acceptable use of a defense mechanism serves a purpose not only for the one sublimating, but also for the larger society.
As I mentioned previously, many believe that there are far more than the eight which I have outlined here. These are some of the major ones and the easiest to identify. If you analyze your own defenses and those of others, you can see that they can serve both good and bad purposes. Being able to identify your own, unique, go to defenses can give you insight into your behavior and increase self awareness. Recognizing the use of defense mechanisms in others also has great value.
Remember, being defensive is not always a bad thing. Allowing yourself to be defensive when needed and accepting defensive behavior in others, can improve your relationships and all areas of your life.
“Dee-fense, dee-fense, dee-fense…” – Sports fans everywhere
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