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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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