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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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