Reconnect to your Core
a practical guide on how to feel good and be happy

What are Defense Mechanisms?

What saves us from our feelings are our defense mechanisms. They’re actions that we «do» that prevent us from finding certainty within ourselves. These actions are called defense mechanisms because they defend us from experiencing our feelings and our anxiety. Defenses consists of cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal strategies to keep both the anxiety and the anxiety-provoking feelings out of awareness.

Defenses are employed unconsciously by the ego (though sometimes also consciously) in an effort to reduce the anxiety that accompanies «forbidden» feelings. Rather than experiencing painful feelings within ourselves, the ego comes up with actions which keep us away from both our anxiety and our feelings.

Let’s use worrying as an example. When the ego gives you worrying thoughts this creates distance to your Self because you’re now more occupied in your mind worrying rather than feeling feelings and anxiety. This process happens unconsciously. What has happened is that you’ve been removed away from your Self and towards your defenses and your ego. Your true Self is now unhappy, however your ego is now very happy because it succeeded in avoiding emotional pain and reducing anxiety.

The development of defenses

Even though our feelings give us our life energy, the reptilian brain hijacks the mind and prevents this life energy from flowing freely. Survival is more important it thinks, even though the rationale for its wish for survival is based on rules that no longer apply. To the reptilian brain it simply wouldn’t make sense to allow the full experience of our feelings if there’s a slight chance of pain or rupture of attachment bonds.

During the critical years of our brain’s development we experienced enough instances with our caregivers when our feelings were triggered when they weren’t accepted and we weren’t helped to regulate them. Trying on his own to experience and handle complex mixed feelings towards his attachment figures became too much for the child to handle. Rather than experiencing overwhelming feelings towards mom or dad, the child repressed his feelings not even knowing that he did this. Instead he started doing things to avoid the anxiety that these feelings triggered.

The things he did were defense mechanisms. When anger-guilt got triggered towards his parents and he got anxious it could be he started to blame himself (defense of self-attacking thoughts), cry (defense of defensive affect), worry (defense of worrying), thinking why mom doesn’t like him (defense of rationalization), yell at his little sister (defense of displacement), try to be a good boy (defense of projection/denial), or go to his room and read comic books (defense of passivity/withdrawal/denial). All these defenses made perfect sense to the boy in the situation he was in when he was simply trying to cope with the situation at home.

However, now in adult life he still depends on those very same defenses and they’re now causing his symptoms.

Defense mechanisms exist for a reason

A family upbringing doesn’t have to be traumatic in order for defenses to be created. Everyone have defense mechanisms they rely on, but some defenses are healthier than others. Defenses had their well-meaning function when we were young (and also now in adult life). It made sense to a child growing up in a family were feelings weren’t fully accepted to protect himself by not sharing his feelings. To share one’s feelings is a very personal and intimate act and if it isn’t reciprocated then it makes sense to not share them as a self-protective mechanism.

A tiger mother shows not only attachment but also displays of aggression towards her pups. A tiger is able to be angry at her pup, let the anger come up, and when the pup is behaving in a way the mother likes they can be all friendly again. The pup is not afraid to be playfully angry in return, and it doesn’t fear her mother or her feelings. The feelings between them that come and go are treated as natural. There is no shaming, ignoring, punishment, or ridicule conveyed to the pup for its expression of feelings.

Humans on the other hand are different. In many human interactions a lot of feelings are not allowed to be felt and expressed. Humans have often labelled many feelings as right or wrong and good or bad. In addition many parents don’t have the ability to deal with the child’s feelings without making the child wrong, self-conscious, ashamed, or scared of his own or his parents’ feelings. Both subtle and not-so-subtle displays of disapproval by the parents in regards to shared feelings creates a culture where a child either learns to accept himself or hide parts of him.

Say a mother has disappointed her son. The plausible feeling the son has towards the mother is anger. But as soon as the feeling of anger towards the mother gets expressed the mother might get defensive, withdrawn, blame herself, start to excuse herself, or accuse him of wrongdoing. She might feel guilty and become quiet, she might become sad and start crying, she might become anxious and start yelling and act impulsively, or she might become angry but unable to communicate the anger in a constructive way.

Either way, what is sub-communicated to the son is that his natural feeling is not accepted by her in their interaction, which ultimately means that he himself is not accepted. This creates emotional imprints in the mind of the child. An emotional imprint doesn’t therefore have to be of traumatic or abuse nature. Most of the times they’re very subtle. The brain reacts equally to what is not there (i.e. lack of love and acceptance) as it does to what is (i.e. mistreatment and abuse).

Influenced by this unconscious emotional imprint, he «learns» to withhold his own anger, because this triggers unconscious guilt which sets off his UAM. After all he (and his reptilian brain) doesn’t want mother to feel guilty or become stressed and defensive since he also has positive feelings (i.e. love) towards her. If situations like this happens enough times during the child’s critical period when the emotional brain is developing, the child learns to replace his own feelings (which now cause anxiety) with defense mechanisms.

Since anger towards attachment figures trigger unconscious guilt which gives him anxiety, a pattern of avoiding every situation where his anger and strength are needed starts to develop. He withholds his anger not only towards mother but towards everyone. He might start to «avoid conflict», become approval-seeking, become people-pleasing, develop social anxiety, hide himself and his true desires, suppress his spontaneity, get depressed, ignore himself, develop self-defeating behavioral patterns, develop excessive thinking (obsessive-compulsive patterns), become less self-confident, or develop physical pain or other symptoms.

The continued use of defenses instead of feelings is now what’s responsible for the onset of psychological and/or psychosomatic symptoms. The driving force that maintains his symptoms and problems are not the feelings themselves or the anxiety, but that he relies on defenses that keep him away from his true self and which he may not even be aware of.

A defense mechanism seldom comes alone

Defenses more often than not come in clusters. Therefore, the defense work needed in order to overcome all our defenses can be quite extensive. It’s not one or two defenses that one usually needs to become aware of, usually people have 10-15 defenses that they interchangeably rely on to ward off their feelings. Often defenses cover up each other and pair up in order to make them more effective. A common example is passivity and rationalization. After a person has gone passive in response to his feelings, he will often rationalize why he did so in order to make the passivity seem like a good thing. This reinforces both defenses.

Different feelings may also be protected by totally different defenses. A person that gets anxious of his anger may defend against his anger by procrastination, passivity, and self-attacking thoughts. However, if he also gets anxious of his sadness, his sadness may be defended against by defensive affect (putting on a fake smile), rationalization, fast speech, and distractions. To be aware of this phenomenon will help you in your own defense work.

When we do our own defense work and try to become acquainted with what types of defenses we’re using it may be overwhelming to realize that they may amount to quite a lot. But this is very normal and not something to worry about. The real challenge is to stay vigilant and disciplined in order to take them on one at a time. The defense work will take some time. To believe that it’s going to be a quick-fix to remove all your defenses is unrealistic, besides, to remove all of them can’t be done either.

Defense mechanisms are not You

Defense mechanisms are either syntonic or dystonic. Syntonic means that a person is so identified with a defense that he doesn’t really view it as a defense. Rather he views it as «just the way I am». When a person views the defense of fake laughter as just the way he is, he doesn’t see that his «action of smiling and laughing inappropriately» is a way of avoiding his true feelings and that it’s an attempt at avoiding expressing himself authentically. When he believes that the defense is him rather than viewing it as something his ego is doing in order to ward off meaningful contact with his own feelings and people he’s relating to, he’s unknowingly living his life trapped inside a house of mirrors.

When defenses are dystonic it means that a person can identify them as defenses and something he does rather than something he is. Even though the thought «I’m such an idiot» enter his head, if the defense of self-attacking thought is dystonic, he can now observe what’s going on and say to himself: «Well, congratulations. How great that I caught this defense in its beginning. I wonder what I might be feeling that made me begin to attack myself?». In this example he’s not identified with the defense but is able to detect it and recognize it for what it is. He doesn’t view the defense as a great advise or something that’s true, but rather as a mechanism of the ego that wants to keep him safe by avoiding painful feelings.

When defenses are dystonic they’re not viewed as «himself», rather they’re viewed as something that’s now blocking his true Self. Now he becomes stronger because he recognizes who he truly is! He has more flexibility of behavior. He’s no longer trapped inside his head «having to do» what the defense «commands». Now he has the choice of accepting or rejecting the defense. He can denounce it and stay present within himself or he can do what people still identified with their defenses are continuously doing, which is to worship their defenses. But why would he right?

Most defenses happen unconsciously. A person doesn’t intentionally go: «Uh oh, I’m feeling angry, better have my UAM produce some anxiety before I feel the guilt my reptilian brain associates with emotional pain and then have my ego-processor produce some worrying thoughts to distract me from my anxiety». No, it all happens without your consent and awareness. Therefore, you can have compassion for your own ignorance and be patient towards yourself regarding your struggle to overcome your defenses.

When you work on becoming aware of defenses you will develop a greater freedom of choice of whether you still want to use them or not. Humans resist change so strongly that even though a person is aware of using a defense and knows that he now is feeling something, he will still choose to look the other way and push down his feelings. This behavior is self-sabotaging and resembles «acting dumb». The denial of the reality you know exist is a strong force. In nature there’s an animal that frequently behaves like this as part of its survival mechanism, and that is the ostrich. Whenever something uncomfortable or dangerous is on the horizon the ostrich just sticks his head in the sand, even though he knows he’s just fooling himself.

The article above is an excerpt from Chapter 8 in Reconnect to your Core.

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