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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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