Understanding Our Defences: 8 of the Common Ones and How They Work

8 Common Defences - How They Work and Why They're Important

Defences get a bit of a bad wrap sometimes. In fact, being told that you’re being defensive is usually a pretty offensive experience (even if there is a grain of truth in what’s said). Our defences have their place though.

The main reason our defences exist is that if we were constantly bombarded by all of our thoughts, emotions, urges, memories and fears it would be nearly impossible to function. Our defences are an unconscious way to keep a big chunk of our experience out of our awareness so that we can get on with the business of living. In short, they help us to cope.

Everyone uses unconscious defences. The type of defences we use and the amount that we use them vary from person to person. It’s important to note that if you use a defence knowingly, by definition this process is not unconscious. All of the defences we speak about in this post happen automatically, without trying. They are unconscious ways of coping that only become a problem when they: 

  • don’t work;
  • cause more problems than they solve;
  • are over-used;
  • stop us from developing other more helpful ways of coping;
  • interfere with our relationship with ourselves and others;
  • get in the way of us enjoying our life as much as we could

Here is a snapshot of some of the more common defence mechanisms we use.

Repression

This is one of the classic defences first described by the grandfather of psychology, Sigmund Freud. At its core, repression involves forgetting or ignoring experiences, thoughts or memories that are too upsetting for us to be in touch with. Traumatic memories can sometimes be stored in this way, or even just memories that are emotionally painful. Repressed memories become inaccessible to our conscious mind as a way to protect us from emotional hurt.

When we repress something we can repress part or all of the experience. For example, we might have general memories of being in a car accident, but no specific memories of what happened, even though we were physically there to witness this. Another more everyday example of repression is having a tough time during high school and later on being unable to recall the name of your high school.

Regression

If you’ve ever witnessed a child flopped on the floor in the supermarket demanding chocolate, you’ve experienced regression first hand. It’s ‘throwing your toys out of the pram’, so to speak.

We all regress sometimes, even as adults. ‘Hangry’ (feeling hungry and angry) is a modern day term for repression. Although keep in mind, to be considered a defence it needs to be unconscious. Consciously getting stroppy with those around you to let off some steam doesn’t qualify as a defence (who hasn’t been there by the way?!).

Projection

Aah, this one is a personal favourite of mine! And certainly a term that’s made its way into our everyday language. Projection happens when we misunderstand something we are experiencing internally (such as a thought, emotion or reaction) as happening outside of ourselves.

Do you ever have those days where you wake up feeling grumpy and irritable, only to find that everyone around you seems to have a short fuse? Chances are this could be a case of projection.

A couple of useful things to note about projection…

  • The characteristics we think we see in other people can sometimes be disowned parts of ourselves. Parts that we feel are negative and shameful. For example, you might think that your friend is being loud and self-focused, and although this may be true, it could also be that this is a behaviour that you feel self-conscious about yourself (or it could be a bit of both).
  • If we project on a regular basis other people can wind up feeling that we misperceive them. For example, if we regularly operate from the assumption that other people are criticising us (even when they’re not) friends and family can become frustrated and hurt, and the irony is this may lead them to actually criticise us!

You might be wondering, ‘so how do I know what belongs to me and what belongs to the other person?’. Well, sometimes it’s pretty tricky to figure that out. More often than not, like most things in psychology, it’s a little from column A and a little from column B. Because we can’t read minds, we can never know for sure what another person is thinking. One thing we can do though is to try to develop an awareness of patterns in our own thinking, assumptions and reactions. For example, if you regularly worry that other people will let you down, it’s possible that some of the time at least, this assumption or belief says more about you than the person in front of you.

Withdrawal

Withdrawal is the term used when we physically or emotionally ‘check-out’ because we feel overwhelmed by what’s happening around us. We might feel scared, angry, hurt, jealous or ashamed and to cope with this we leave, either literally or just by mentally withdrawing.

Like all of the defence mechanisms, there is a continuum of withdrawal. Depending on the degree and frequency of how much we withdraw, sometimes this can be an effective way of coping with an otherwise chaotic, overstimulating or upsetting environment. When overused though, this way of responding can develop into a form of avoidance which might cause more problems than it solves.

Denial

Denial is yet another term that’s crept into our everyday language. In a nutshell, denial is refusing to accept that something has happened or is happening.

Denial can be a hugely protective unconscious defence in a crisis or an emergency. Say for example, when our life or the life of someone else is at risk, by emotionally denying what’s happening we can mobilise ourselves to do whatever we need to do to make things safe again (for example, call an ambulance, perform CPR or run). By blocking out the fear and panic, we are able to ‘stay calm’ and do what needs to be done.

Other examples of denial are refusing to go to the doctor when you know something might be wrong, not acknowledging financial problems or ignoring ongoing difficulties in a relationship.

Intellectualisation

Intellectualising involves speaking about emotional experiences, memories or thoughts in a detached, emotionless way. For example, someone describes their experience of being bullied to you in detail, but what they are saying and how they are saying it don’t quite match up.

Being able to stay rational and calm in the face of chaos clearly has benefits (and is all too often applauded in our society), but if overused this defence can cause problems down the track because the emotions that were put aside may end up not being processed. Intellectualisation can also prevent us from reaching out and connecting to other people during vulnerable times, which might mean that we don’t get the care and support we need.

Rationalisation

If you’ve ever really, really wanted something and then when you didn’t get it told yourself something like, ‘it’s a blessing in disguise,’ ‘it wasn’t meant to be,’ or ‘I didn’t want it that much anyway,’ you might be familiar with rationalisation. This defence is a common one, and like all the defences, it can actually be a helpful way to cope when we don’t get something we want or when something negative happens to us. That said, if overused it can get in the way of us being honest with ourselves about the things that really matter.

Reaction formation

This is just a fancy way of describing the process of turning the emotion we feel into its opposite because we feel disturbed, uncomfortable, scared or ashamed about the original emotion. We avoid the emotion we feel by distracting ourselves with an emotion that is its polar opposite. An example is when you feel angry with someone but you go out of your way to be pleasant and ‘nice’. Or you feel attracted to someone, so you attack and criticise them. A clue that this defence is in operation is feeling that you’re going ‘overboard’ or overcompensating.


About the Author: Dr Jacqueline Baulch

Dr Jacqueline Baulch is a Clinical Psychologist and the founder of Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology. Jacqueline is passionate about shifting the “hush-hush” atmosphere surrounding mental illness, emotions and vulnerability. She believes honest and real conversations can spark hope and healing, and help us to feel less alone in this messy business of being human. Swing by Jacqueline’s website, Facebook and Instagram pages for practical, evidence-based tips and resources for improving your mental health, wellbeing and relationships. 

5 Comments

Dr.Pallavi Dongare

A simple yet effective post about our emotional defenses.A thin line to walk, use them for our benefit in moderation and if overused an cause trouble to us.

Reply
Jacque Verrall

Please correct the spelling of “defense”…s not c…it takes away from an otherwise good article.

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

‘Defence’ and ‘defense’ are both correct. In Australia, we spell it with a ‘c’. We differ in small ways with some of our spelling, but we humans tend to draw from the same defences wherever we live.

Reply
Barbara Couturier

a couple of times, I have lost everything.

my husband, my kids, my home, my money

I am old now and each time it gets harder

to recover.

I couldn’t have done it without you

Love

Barbara

Reply
Karen - Hey Sigmund

Barbara you have been through so much, and you are still fighting for you. I understand that it’s feeling more and more difficult, but you are a survivor – brave, strong and amazing. Keep going. You’re worth it. Love and strength to you.

Reply

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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