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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with a adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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