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How our defence mechanisms prevent us from healing

The problem with defence mechanisms is we can’t see we’re using them. They are a psychological strategy we use to avoid facing uncomfortable truths, avoid difficult feelings, or avoid standing up for ourselves.

And our mind is clever. Especially if it’s more motivated to not feel the pain than we are to feel it. 

But the healing is in the feeling.

So how can we heal if we’re guarded? The answer is, we can’t. So we must learn to recognize and disarm our defences. 

And usually this requires someone else to speak to who is equipped to help you understand your defences and help get at the vulnerability underneath. 

Then we can heal. 

Until then, we’re stuck in our old patterns that keep us stuck and separate. We feel safe, but we don’t grow. 

Everyone uses defence mechanisms to varying degrees. Here is a list of some of the common defences people use. 

Blame and criticism

How we protect ourselves

If I blame someone else for my feelings, I can live in anger and not face (and communicate) my more vulnerable feelings like hurt, sadness, disappointment, or inadequacy.

  • When I feel hurt, I carry an internal narrative of how poorly the other person is treating me.
  • I attack my partner for being 30 minutes late, rather than admitting I feel sad because it seemed like I didn’t matter to them.
  • I ruminate about how my partner isn’t good enough for me because I’m scared of feeling inadequate.

Blaming Ourselves

How we protect ourselves

I can call myself bad and deserving of this negative consequence, rather than doing the scary thing I need to do, like make a change, feel a difficult feeling, or have a difficult conversation.

  • If a friend is distant or upset, I might automatically assume it’s due to something I did or didn’t do.
  • I might say to myself “I’m just not fit for a romantic relationship” rather than looking at my behaviour and taking accountability for my role.
  • If my partner has an outburst of rage and I’m too scared to set a boundary, I might blame myself for her outburst rather than have a difficult conversation.

People-Pleasing

How we protect ourselves

I fear disapproval or conflict, so I prioritize others’ needs and desires over my own, often neglecting my personal boundaries and comfort. I agree to requests and demands, even if they are inconvenient or against my interests, because I’m afraid of rejection. I prioritize being liked over meeting my own needs.

  • Regularly saying ‘yes’ to tasks or favours even when overburdened, to avoid disappointing others or facing potential conflict.
  • Avoiding expressing my own opinions, preferences, or feelings, especially if they differ from those of my partner or friends, to maintain harmony.

Denial

How we protect ourselves

I might deliberately overlook, disregard, or negate the reality of certain situations, emotions, or behaviours. This is one of the most pernicious defence mechanisms because we’re very good at deceiving ourselves. Our mind is smart. And it can outwit us if it’s more motivated to not feel the pain than we are to feel the pain. This is why it’s really important to work with professionals who can help you identify when you’re deceiving yourself.

  • If my partner repeatedly expresses feelings of unhappiness or dissatisfaction, I might dismiss them, thinking, “They’re just going through a phase.”
  • I might habitually steer away from conversations or situations that could evoke strong emotions, preferring to keep interactions superficial.
  • I might dismiss or downplay my own emotions, as well as those of others, often resorting to humour or changing the subject to avoid dealing with them directly.

Acting Out

How we protect ourselves

I don’t know how to regulate my emotions, so I use this defence mechanism to process my emotions externally, through actions, rather than communicating my feelings and needs directly.

  • I throw a fit or a tantrum to draw attention to my unmet needs of mattering and being seen.
  • I overindulge in alcohol or drugs, engage in infidelity, self harm, or destructive behaviours as a way to (ineffectively) meet my needs.

Passive Aggressiveness

How we protect ourselves

I use this defence mechanism because I don’t feel confident enough to express my feelings and needs directly, so I do so indirectly with protest behaviour.

  • Making sarcastic remarks that are meant to hurt the other person, but then brushing them off as “just jokes.”
  • Agreeing to do something but then “forgetting” or neglecting tasks as a means of retaliation or rebellion.

Controlling Behaviour

How we protect ourselves

I try and dictate the actions, and even thoughts, of my partner so they do what I want so I can feel safe. I might use manipulation in the form of coercion, guilt-tripping, or gaslighting.

  • I talk my partner out of going on the trip because I am afraid they will cheat on me.
  • Setting unreasonable expectations or rules for my partner’s behaviour, dress, social interactions, or daily activities.
  • Using affection, approval, or emotional support as tools for compliance, withdrawing them when my partner does not conform to expectations or demands.

Reaction Formation

How we protect ourselves

I feel one thing but I communicate the opposite to convince myself and others that I don’t hold feelings that I judge as unacceptable, weak, or inappropriate.

  • Professing extreme trust in a partner despite harbouring deep suspicions about their behaviour.
  • Manufacturing feelings and thoughts of love for a person when I’m struggling in the relationship.

Projection

How we protect ourselves

I feel vulnerable feelings but I don’t realize it or can’t admit it, so I imagine that another person is embodying those feelings.

  • Emily fears commitment. Instead of acknowledging this fear, she accuses her partner of being afraid to settle down and commit.

Overthinking

How we protect ourselves

If I think about every possible scenario or outcome, I can keep myself safe from hurt. This gives me a false sense of control.

  • After a disagreement with a friend or family member, I might replay the conversation endlessly, analyzing every word, tone, and gesture, wondering if I said or did something wrong.
  • When planning an event or gathering, I might obsess over details, fretting about all that could go wrong, instead of focusing on the positive aspects.

Rationalization

How we protect ourselves

I am scared of vulnerable feelings, an uncomfortable truth, or a difficult situation, so I create a story of why I don’t have to face the scary thing.

  • My partner is consistently disrespectful. I rationalize their behaviour, thinking, “They’re just stressed from work.” This saves me from communicating vulnerable feelings or addressing serious issues.

Intellectualization

How we protect ourselves

I divert attention from distressing emotions by focusing heavily on facts, logic, reasoning, or philosophizing.

  • By overanalyzing or dissecting situations, I can distance myself from the raw emotions or personal implications they carry.
  • When grappling with the end of a close relationship, I might bury myself in reading about attachment theories and human behaviour instead of mourning the loss.
  • If I feel hurt by someone’s actions, I might analyze their motives or dive into understanding the psychological underpinnings of their behaviour, rather than acknowledging and expressing my pain.

Repression

How we protect ourselves

I push unpleasant memories, thoughts, or feelings out of conscious awareness.

  • Forgetting traumatic events in the relationship, such as severe arguments or incidents.
  • Not remembering a hurtful comment made by a partner during a past argument.
  • Suppressing feelings of anger or resentment towards a partner.

Displacement

How we protect ourselves

Generalizes or redirects a feeling/response onto another less threatening object.

  • After a disagreement with a partner, expressing anger toward a friend or pet.
  • Becoming upset with a partner because of stresses at work.
  • Yelling at a partner because of frustrations with personal failures or insecurities.

Fantasy

How we protect ourselves

I momentarily alleviate pain, discomfort, or unmet needs by envisioning an alternative, often idealized, world.

  • When faced with relationship challenges, I might daydream about a perfect partner who never argues, always understands, and meets all my needs.
  • If I feel overlooked at work, I might fantasize about suddenly gaining immense respect, admiration, and authority.

Help-rejecting complaining

How we protect ourselves

I might frequently voice grievances, discomforts, or problems, but consistently reject or dismiss solutions or assistance offered by others. It can be seen as a way to gain attention, or elicit sympathy, without genuinely seeking a resolution to the problem.

  • When I share feelings of insecurity and my partner reassures me, I often dismiss it, thinking or saying, “You’re just saying that.”
  • I alienate my friends by constantly complaining about how terrible my breakup has been but don’t do anything to get over it or better my situation.

Identification

How we protect ourselves

I might unconsciously model my behaviours, beliefs, or attitudes after someone I perceive as stronger or more adept at handling life’s challenges.

  • Adopting the hobbies or interests of a partner to feel closer or more accepted.
  • A child in a turbulent home might emulate the attributes of a favoured parent or sibling as a means to navigate the environment more safely.

Regression

How we protect ourselves

I might retreat to behaviours, attitudes, or emotional states that were typical of a younger age.

  • In the face of a stressful situation at work, I might start biting my nails, a habit I hadn’t exhibited since childhood.
  • After an argument with a partner, I might curl up with a childhood toy or blanket for comfort.

Splitting

How we protect ourselves

I oscillate between thinking of myself or others as entirely good or entirely bad as a response to my intense emotions.

  • Idealizing a friend or partner one moment, then later calling them abusive or toxic. Not seeing nuance in the relationships or actions of others
  • Seeing myself as amazing until something bad happens and then I think of myself as terrible
  • Limerence: falling in love with the idea of the person rather than the actual person

Vulnerability

Means to show up authentically. To express our entire self, including thoughts, feelings, and needs, even when there is a risk of being judged, criticized, or harmed emotionally. It’s a key part of emotional healing as it involves understanding ourselves, accepting our whole self, and then having the courage to show that unfiltered self to the people around us.

The more I can open up and share my thoughts, feelings, and deep needs, the more self-confidence and self-esteem I build. Every time I stand up for my core needs, I demonstrate to myself and others that my needs matter, and that I matter. And the more authentic I can be, the more I can develop deeper connections as people connect with my true self, rather than a caricature.

As I demonstrate my courage, tenderness, and open heart, I empower others and inspire them to think: “if he can show up with that kind of courage, maybe I can too.”

healing doesn’t happen alone

so say hello!

Relationship pain is healed relationally. Start the process by reaching out. Many of my offerings are free and I’m happy to provide assistance in any way I can. 

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