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

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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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