Defense Mechanisms and Behavior or It’s Totally Normal to be Defensive
There are you are, being distant or surly with your partner and kids after having had another stressful day at work. Or perhaps you attended a social gathering where you drank more than you planned and now you feel terrible for once again saying something untoward to a friend. Or maybe you spent another weekend scrolling through your phone, ignoring your to-do list. Or possibly you called out sick from work even though you’ve been reprimanded for this behavior and are risking the loss of your job.
Regularly I listen to people express disappointment in themselves, they scold themselves for behaving in some way and they present their behavior as the issue to address in therapy – they no longer want to act this way and they need to act in another way, like, right now.
I respect the coherence of this idea: here’s the problem and here’s the problem’s logical solution. Except plans like this are often met with frustration, anger, and disappointment because changing behavior is hard, and the uncomfortable feelings associated with failing to change often lead us to redo the behavior we identified as the issue. Everyday millions of us struggle to maintain patience with the people we’re close to, to decrease or quit using drugs, to stop procrastinating, to get up on time for work – all common struggles because they withstand easy solutions.
Instead of starting with self-contempt, let’s start by cultivating self-understanding. At some point (and maybe even still), the behavior we want to change helped us manage discomfort. Sometimes the behavior was even modeled by people close to us as an acceptable strategy or maybe we’ve been praised for the very thing we want to change. To boot, likely there are facets of the behavior we’re unaware of, patterns we are repeating, operating outside of our awareness, helping us maintain the behavior. From a psychodynamic perspective these unconscious patterns are called defense mechanisms.
A Provisional Definition for Defense Mechanisms from a Psychodynamic Perspective or What’s a Defense Mechanism?
Defense mechanisms provide cushion or insulation from thoughts and feelings threatening to our sense-of-self or to our understanding of how life works. Defense mechanisms defend us from engaging with information not in accordance with how we understand things to be, even when the information in question arises from within ourself. We all use defense mechanisms, ALL OF US (no exceptions), feeling uncomfortable is an inevitable and persistent part of life and defense mechanisms reduce discomfort, allowing us to go on handling our lives. We use defense mechanisms unconsciously, meaning they operate outside of our perception. If we could perceive our defense mechanisms, we would not need the defense because it would indicate we’re able to acknowledge the information causing discomfort.
Although there’s modest agreement between psychodynamic theorists about the number and name of the defense mechanisms, there is a shared understanding about defense mechanisms developing along a predictable course as we grow and learn (Cramer 2006; McWilliams 2011). Classifying defense mechanisms in association with different developmental achievements allows us to appreciate how we begin to use defense mechanisms in infancy and as our bodies develop, and as we gather more knowledge about ourselves and the world via our interactions and experiences, we develop more ways of dealing with life’s torments. For example, a baby has limited ways of soothing themself when experiencing hunger pains: they can fall asleep or fuss, though an adult has the capacity to create meaning out of the pain, like offering it as a chance to foster resilience (think of the US Marine recruitment statement, “pain is weakness leaving the body”).
While the development of several mature defenses is something to strive for, all of us tend to have a suite of preferred defenses and in times of extreme stress, or when facing situations reminiscent of formative experiences, we can resort to using less mature ways of dealing.
Working with Defense Mechanisms in Therapy or What Might You See That I Can’t?
Therapy can help us develop insight into the unseen processes, the mechanisms of defense, because it’s a space for both self-reflection as well as a time to consider someone else’s reflections about us, someone who isn’t us, who hasn’t had exactly the same experiences, but is interested in learning how we’ve made sense of things thus far. Phebe Cramer, a psychotherapist and scholar who’s authored several tomes on defense mechanisms, describes how it takes an outsider to hear the “disjunction, disruption, or non sequitur in the flow” of our narratives (Cramer 2006). Put another way, we’re often unaware of the off notes we’re hitting when we sing because the notes feel natural. What’s more, a therapist may not push us to change how we sing, they may point out sharp or flat parts and enquire about them — ask how the notes help us to bridge the song’s sections, what it feels like to sing the notes, if we’ve heard others sing that way, what we hope to communicate when we sing, etc., because defense mechanisms are not always problematic. For example, there’s a difference between making amends to a partner by presenting them with a small gift the day after a conventional spat over chores, and responding by spending hours scrubbing every nook and cranny of the house over several weekends.
In Conclusion or Let’s Get On With It
In the spirit of promoting understanding which can act as a salve for the injuries caused by self-contempt, I offer this condensed perspective of how defense mechanisms might be obstructing our efforts to change. That being said, defense mechanisms aren’t the only factor to consider when tackling change, but is a factor among several to explore. Correspondingly the defense mechanisms one uses can have myriad implications in therapy not explored above, as they can help us to understand core facets of our personalities.
McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the self: Defense mechanisms in action. Guilford Press.