Defense Mechanisms – Our Very Own Homeland Security

Defense mechanisms are like your personal department of homeland security; they are taxed with the job of protecting your interior landscape from domestic threats of psychological terror.

Defense mechanisms protect you from the intensity of your feelings. Their intentions are always in your best interest, despite the consequences of their tactics. And there are always consequences. It just how it goes.  Defense mechanism can be mild, moderate, or severe in how they are implemented. Most of the time (a topic for a different blog), defense mechanisms are neither good nor bad. They just are. The “health” of a defense mechanism depends on lots of different factors that can be observed within the therapeutic relationship. Deployed in one environment, a particular defense mechanism might flourish and literally save your life. The same defense mechanism, deployed in a different environment, might yield a less healthy outcome. They are unconscious strategies used to neutralize the intensity of your feelings.

As a shrink, one of the things you pay me to do is to stay attune to the style of defense(s) you deploy in order to manage your experiences, your thoughts, and most importantly your feelings. By doing so, we get a glimpse at the internal forces that influences you to move towards self-protection.

Anyone in my line of work has seen and knows the length our minds will go to in order to “save” you from harm. At the far end of the spectrum, you can have severe dissociative episodes where whole chunks of your life are walled off by your unconscious. It’s staggering to realize the depth to which your mind will protect you from the intensity of your feelings. In this regard, defense mechanisms also reveal to us something about the degree and intensity of your emotional injuries. In other words, you wouldn’t see severe dissociation where there wasn’t also severe trauma.   

Defense mechanisms appear to be a universal psychological trend in Sapiens. Everyone uses them. This leads us to believe that defense mechanisms are a byproduct of how our neurobiology is wired. In other words, you don’t have to busy yourself with worry about how to “stop” doing this. That’s not the goal. The goal is to merely observe your patterns, understand why you employ those defensive patterns, and re-integrate with the feelings that the defense mechanism is protecting you from experiencing.

As with everything related to our animal behavior, once we practice how to observe our interior world we see trends emerge. These trends reveal to us important and pivotal neurobiological patterns related to points of emotional injury, how you managed this distress, and the impact your feelings have on your thoughts and behaviors.

Something else that is important to note about defense mechanisms-They are time travelers, they travel through generations and cultures. That’s why we see intergenerational patterns of behavior that migrate from generation to generation over the lifespan of a deeply rooted family tree. You learn, through the power of modeling and imprinting, how to emotionally bob and weave throughout the journey of your life by the elders, prophets, and influencers of your childhood.

This brings us to the final point I want to emphasize about defense mechanism. Most of the time (basically all the time), our defensive patterns are unconscious.  We are not aware that we are “doing” or using a defense mechanism. It is important to understand how and where the unconscious operates in relation to your defense mechanisms because it strengthens your ongoing effort to truly understand how much of your behavior is governed by forces outside of your awareness. Scientists have estimated that most of our decisions, actions, emotions and behavior originate from the 95% of brain activity that is unconscious.

Think about that for a minute.

That means most of our life choices, experiences, relationships, etc. are influenced almost entirely from the neurobiological programming in our unconscious patterns. I reiterate it time and again on this blog so you will begin/continue to really metabolize this idea-The vast majority of how we orbit in this world is influenced by forces that lie past our emotional sightline. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can practice being more mindful.

So now that we are all on the same page about what defense mechanisms are and why they are so critical to observe, shall we begin?

Let’s start with denial-

Denial is a form of self-deception aimed at avoiding a “reality” or truth that feels threatening or dangerous. It’s a shape shifting of reality that allows you to hang on to a “belief” despite evidence to the contrary. Denial is often deployed, unconsciously of course, when the person feels overwhelmed or vulnerable. Denial is a defense mechanism that appears to develop early, thus it is considered “primitive” referring to its developmental origins.

Denial can be mild, moderate or severe. Where you see denial, you are often witnessing a white washing of reality. In our discussions about the role of the unconscious, I want to highlight that denial is always unconscious. Makes sense, right? If you are aware of it, you are not denying it. Thus, denial has to be unconscious or it’s not denial. Denial, like sabotage, leverages the power of the unconscious to seamlessly infiltrate your perspective.

Like all of our defense mechanisms, denial is a result of the layering of neurobiological patterning and thus runs in families. We learn denial. We watch it being employed, seamlessly into the rhetoric, and eventually we mirror the same cadence in our adulthood. This is how styles of interacting in the world travel through families. We learn these rhythms through the passage of time and the influence of imprinting.  

My mother died from denial. I mean, technically, she died from advanced colon cancer. That’s what her autopsy says anyway. But that’s only at the cellular level. At the psychological level, she died from a severe and impenetrable capacity to deny reality. Despite declining health, experts from both eastern and western modes of medicine urging her to pursue a diagnosis, and various other symptom patterns that would send most of us to the hospital, she continued to “believe” the well intentioned, albeit incorrect advice of several well regarded and talented “energy healers”, none of whom picked up on the 9 inch x 3 inch tumor in her colon. She used this form of denial (which often came cloaked as magical thinking) to avoid deeper feelings of fear, sadness, and loss. So deep was her denial, that in the hospital after she had surgery to remove the massive tumor from her colon, it was revealed that her medical practitioners had felt the mass 16 months before and strongly urged her to seek medical attention. But she did not. She continued to deny to herself that anything was wrong. By the time denial had it’s way with her she was dead within six months. This is an extreme example of the power of denial.   

But rest assure, for most of us denial is much more mundane. It hides in plain sight. Ever struggle with addiction? Ever loved someone who has? How about every time that ciggy goes to your lips? Ever drank too much and still driven home? Have you ever spent money you don’t have? Ever had an affair and thought to yourself “he/she won’t find out”? These are just a few examples of where denial is at play.

All you have to do is begin to observe your patterns. Obviously, for reasons associated with job security, I think it’s best done in the partnership of a professional. But it isn’t necessary. Don’t let that stop you. Just start. Become still. Create the space each day to just be present in your own skin and bones. Strive for 30 minutes. If you can pair this with some type of heat therapy (sauna is preferred) you can increase your emotional gains when it comes to tolerance for discomfort.

Eventually, through the power of observation and being present in our own experiences, you can start to make subtle, yet powerful shifts in how you orbit around your feeling, thoughts, and experiences.  You no longer have to operate on autopilot as you mindlessly (quite literally) act out outdated and antiquated patterns of defense in an attempt to circumvent your feelings. As you build the muscle of self-observation, you can better know your self and the fuel sources that propel your thoughts and behaviors.  

Practice observation, sans critique.

I know. I know. At this point, I’m really starting to sound like a one trick pony. And I might be.

I’ve been accused of worse. 

But there’s a reason this is the one “homework” assignment I give to every single patient. And there’s a reason why every single patient resists this task.

Because it’s really difficult.

My goal is not for you to feel better, or even achieve some false sense of gratitude (although I got nothing against gratitude. In fact, I have deep affection for gratitude). The goal is to help you better know yourself, know your edges, observe your interior world, and begin to have access to the unconscious feelings that govern 95% of your behavior.

That’s a staggering percentage. Imagine if you could access even just 10% more consciousness. How would your life look? What would you do differently? How would you feel? Observation is your first step. To observe; it’s a verb for a reason. It takes action, effort, and practice.

Next up in my series on defense mechanisms: Passive Aggression.

That should be fun. (See what I did there? shrink humor)

Stay tuned.


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Sarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at Dr SarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

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.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This