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

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
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
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

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The move towards brave doesn’t have to be a leap. It can be a shuffle - lots of brave tiny steps, each one more brave than before. What’s important isn’t the size of the step but the direction.

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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #neuronurtured #anxiety #anxietyinchildren
You know who I love? (Not counting every food delivery person who has delivered takeaway to my home. Or the person who puts the little slots in the sides of the soy sauce packets to make them easier to open. Not counting those people.) You know who? Adolescents. I just love them. 
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Today I spoke with two big groups of secondary school students about managing anxiety. In each talk, as there are in all of my talks with teens, there were questions. Big, open-hearted, thoughtful questions that go right to the heart of it all. 
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Some of the questions they asked were:
- What can I do to help my friend who is feeling big anxiety?
- What can I do to help an adult who has anxiety?
- How can I start the conversation about anxiety with my parents?

Our teens have big, beautiful, open hearts. They won’t always show us that, but they do. They want to be there for their friends and for the adults in their lives. They want to be able to come to us and talk about the things that matter, but sometimes they don’t know how to start. They want to step up and be there for their important people, including their parents, but sometimes they don’t know how. They want to be connected to us, but they don’t want to be controlled, or trapped in conversations that won’t end once they begin. 

Our teens need to know that the way to us is open. The more they can feel their important adults holding on to them - not controlling them - the better. Let them know you won’t cramp them, or intrude, or ask too many questions they don’t want you to ask. Let them know that when they want the conversation to stop, it will stop. But above all else, let them know you’re there. Tell them they don’t need to have all the words. They don’t need to have any words at all. Tell them that if they let you know they want to chat, you can handle anything that comes from there - even if it’s silence, or messy words, or big feelings - you can handle all of it. Our teens are extraordinary and they need us during adolescence more than ever, but this will have to be more on their terms for a while.  They love you and they need you. They won’t always show it, but I promise you, they do.♥️
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.' We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us.

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Rather than talking to them about what they can’t do (and they’ll probably want to talk about this a lot - that’s what anxiety does), ask them what they can do. It doesn’t matter how small the step is, as long as it’s forward.
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The idea is to gradually and gently expose them to the things that feel frightening. This is the only way to re-teach the amygdala that it’s safe. Let them know you understand it feels scary - they need to know you feel what they feel and that you get it. This will make your belief in them and your refusal to support avoidance more meaningful. Then move them towards brave.
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This can be tough. To move our children towards the things that are causing them distress pushes fiercely against our instincts as a parent - but - supporting avoidance, overprotecting, over-reassuring, the things we do that unintentionally accommodate anxiety over brave behaviour will only feed anxiety and make it more resistant to change. (And as a parent I’ve done all of these things at some time - we’re parents, not perfect, and parental love has a way of drawing us all in to unhelpful behaviours in the name of protecting our kiddos). .
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The point is, moving our children towards brave behaviour can feel awful, but it’s so important. When they focus on the fear and what they can’t do, try, ‘Okay, I know this feels scary. I really do. I also know you can do this. I understand this step feels too big, so what little step can you take towards it? What can you do that is braver than last time?’

 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #parentingtip #childdevelopment #braindevelopment #mindfulparenting #adolescence #positiveparentingtips #heyawesome #mentalhealth #heysigmund #motherhoodcommunity #parentingtips #anxiety #anxietysupport #anxietyrelief #parentingadvice #anxietyinchildren #heywarrior #childanxiety #anxietyawareness #mentalwellness
We can’t decide the lessons our children learn and we can’t decide when they learn them, but we can create the space that invites the discovery. We can do this by making it safe for them to speak, and to wander around their own experiences so the lessons and wisdom can emerge.
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