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

How to deal with defense mechanisms

When you notice a defense mechanism you need to congratulate yourself. You just escaped the ego’s clutches! When you catch yourself going passive, or starting to ruminate or intellectualize, take a moment to pat yourself on the back. The hardest part is over, which is to become aware of the defense. In this moment you now have the choice of going back to the defense (but why would you right?) or to explore within yourself the feeling(s) that the defense is trying to cover up.

The effort of overcoming your defense mechanisms is referred to as the defense work, and this work is a central element in ISTDP. According to Davanloo, Coughlin, and Frederickson respectively, defense work is a process that is done in four steps: 

1. Identification and awareness of the defense

2. Clarification of the defense

3. Examining the consequence of the defense

4. Turning yourself against the defense

Identification and awareness of the defense

The first step is to identify the various defense mechanisms you’re using in response to different feelings. The most common ones are denial, projection, self-attacking thoughts, ignoring yourself, passivity, rationalization, and worry. Practically everyone use those defenses to some extent. Therefore it’s a good thing to become aware of when, not if, you’re using them, and to explore the feelings and patterns (i.e. triggers, people, locations, situations etc) that brings them about.

When we’re not identified with a defense it’s easier to spot. Say you begin procrastinating in settings where you previously was effective and confident. This change in behavior is easier to notice since that particular behavior is unusual for you. When we’re able to question our own behavior and ask ourselves why we did what we did we’re better able to label our defenses and turn against them.

It’s more difficult to notice defenses that we’re identified with. A person that worries a lot and has done so all his life has a hard time seeing his worrying as a defense mechanism. Most likely he believes that this is just the way he is, and that his worries keep him safe. Probably he doesn’t even call it worrying, but «thinking», «planning», or «making sure».

In order to become aware of our defenses and label them correctly we need to pay attention to our specific behaviors and thoughts when we get anxious or emotionally activated. This involves getting into the habit of observing yourself throughout the day. A constructive exercise is to replay a situation in order to see in hindsight what we did or what occupied our mind at that given time. Specificity and detail are tools to accomplish this. A lot of people walk around in a vague and distant state of mind. They speak in generalities and offer few concrete examples of day to day situations and interactions with others. Living in this vague and general way keeps our defenses hidden from our view. We need to pay close attention to specific situations in order to identify our defense mechanisms.

Since feelings are first and foremost in the body, we can pay extra attention to what the mind is thinking when we’re identifying defenses. Practically every thought that goes through your mind while you’re anxious, stressed, depressed, or nervous can be recontextualized as a defense. This goes especially for obsessive worrying thoughts that repeat themselves throughout the day.

A popular one is «Why did he/she do…» which is a sign of rationalization. Another one is «What if….(some future behavior or consequence)». Most «What ifs» are signs of worry and rumination. Another one is thinking that you know what other people are thinking, which often is a sign of projection or ignoring yourself. Thoughts containing «Shouldn’ts» are also very common and they’re usually signs of denial. Very often thoughts that begin with «Oh, I shouldn’t have….» are signs of self-attacking thoughts which mean that you’re avoiding some feeling.

Make an inventory of your defenses and list the defenses that you see apply to yourself that you want to get rid of. What are your most common tactical and formal defenses? How syntonic (identified with) or dystonic (not identified with) are your defenses? This exercise will increase your awareness of your defenses which will make them yet even easier to spot when they arrive.

A great exercise is to try to keep one defense in mind throughout the day and notice if it comes into play. This can even be a defense that you don’t even suspect that you’re using. The task is to just contemplate about it and keep it in mind, and if you detect it then not try to change it. The task is to become aware of it without doing anything about it and see how that makes you feel.

Another «fun» exercise is if you have a partner/friend/trusted person whom judgement you rely upon, to then ask this person their honest opinion on how (s)he thinks you deal with conflict. Notice what feelings come up when you get their feedback and observe if you also get anxious. Observe if you think what he’s saying is unfair, if you think what he’s saying is wrong, if you have the urge to get out of the conversation, if you want to rationalize, disagree, or argue with him, if you want to minimize his input, or if you start smiling, fidgeting, or doing something. Simply sit there listening and be present without trying to defend, explain, or excuse yourself and without trying to change the situation. See if you’re able to observe if something inside you wants to do something to avoid the emotional activation inside you. This craving to do or say something in order to avoid your feelings are your defense mechanisms.

Clarification of the defense

The next step in the defense work is to clarify the function the defense has. Often this is trying to understand what kind of benefit you’re receiving from clinging to the defense. Since defenses are adaptive strategies to an anxiety inducing situation, most defenses also give the person some form of reward or benefit, even though the defense in the long-term is destructive.

By denying reality you get the benefit of avoiding the responsibility of doing anything about your life situation while you’re maintaining innocence at the same time. By worrying and buying into what the worries are saying you get the benefit of seeing yourself as a smart and cautious person. By projecting onto others you get the benefit of being the morally superior in the interaction. By clinging to your addictions you get the benefit of not having to deal with life’s challenges while you at the same time can claim to be «the victim». By acting out you get the benefit of appearing strong while avoiding intimacy. By intellectualizing you get the benefit of appearing smart while avoiding self-revelations which could lead to intimacy.

Every defense has a benefit, which is the reason the defense came to be in the first place. To become aware of the different benefits you receive by your defenses will align you with reality and enhance self-awareness. Each defense has a function and a benefit which has its own rationality and logic that makes perfect sense for that defense. The paradox of defenses is that while they may be perceived as something smart which keep you safe, they’re really the cause of your symptoms because they prevent your true self from shining forth.

Lets use an example from Chapter 1. For Julie it seems smart to go passive and withdraw when her father is being condescending because then (she rationalizes) he won’t become angry and act out. Then she gets the benefit of keeping the peace, and avoids anxiety and painful feelings that would trigger in the event of a «confrontation». In addition she gets the benefit of feeling like the morally superior one since she’s after all «being the real adult» who avoids conflict by «sacrificing herself». Also she gets the benefit of «appearing to be the good» and dutiful daughter who listens and behaves. This might support her already existing self-image as a conscientious and sophisticated woman.

Since Julie is unaware of the ways of the unconscious mind, she doesn’t know that it’s her act of avoiding her feelings and lying to herself by suppressing her feelings that’s causing her depression. This ignorance is the reason why people minimize the effect that their defenses have on their daily functioning, simply because they only see the benefit of the defenses, not the consequences of them also.

Examining the consequence of the defense

The third step of the defense work is to become aware of the consequences of the defenses. This insight sparks the decision to later turn against them. When a person becomes aware of the destructive aspect of a defense, and clearly sees that the defense is a contributing factor to his symptoms, this realization creates strong feelings.

Often times there is sadness, grief, and anger when a person realizes the years wasted on that defense and the negative effect the defense has had on relationships, self-esteem, and the quality of life. These feelings can be a good thing because they may be used as a springboard for the decision to drop the defense and make change happen once and for all.

All defenses have in common that they suppress the individual in favor for other people’s lack of of love. When you use a defenses in an interaction you’re ultimately saying that other people’s inappropriateness and self-centeredness are more important than your feelings (i.e. your spontaneous self). In other words that you’re valuing yourself less than a non-loving person, and that you’re trying to get love from someone incapable of loving. Realize that it takes two people to create a relationship. It’s not your job to take other people’s responsibility for sharing their feelings and wanting to relate.

If the realization that a defense which has caused your symptoms and suffering doesn’t trigger feelings in you, there’s probably still some denial in regards to really admitting the full consequence of the defense. Keep at it and reflect on specific situations with others when that defense was in operation, and try to become aware of how that defense prevented true intimacy and the development of a healthy relationship.

Turning yourself against the defense

One would think that becoming aware of the consequences of a defense mechanism and feeling the feelings that this realization creates would be sufficient in order to turn on the defense once and for all. When one realize that the negative consequences far outweighs the small benefit one receives from the defense, one would think people would give up the defense on the spot.

But this doesn’t always happen. So strong is people’s ability to deny reality and minimize their suffering, that very often in a therapeutic setting people need pressure and challenge in order to really give up their defenses. However, this pressure and challenge is something that you may give yourself, you don’t really need a therapist to challenge you to do this.

Even though you’ve become aware of a defense, are able to not identify with it, can see its benefit and its consequence, and you’ve even made the decision to turn against it, the ego will still try to tempt you with it from time to time. Even though you may have worked on the defense of passivity, thoughts about wanting to withdraw, procrastinate, or go passive may still come to you occasionally. It’s what you do in these situations that are of importance.

To turn against a defense really means to take a stance for health every time a defense tries to lure you back to your old defensive ways. In essence you’re not trying to avoid defenses (something negative), you’re trying to become your real you (something positive). Viewed from this position you’re not turning against a defense every time a defensive thought comes, you’re simply acknowledging the existence of the defense, but choosing a true and authentic path instead.

You’re able to make a decision to live your life true to yourself. Yes, that decision will be tested everyday by the ego’s defensive mechanisms, but you still have the choice and the free will of what to do next. When you realize that your feelings are here to guide you, then it will become natural for you to choose feelings, life, and vitality, simply because the other way of rejecting reality and rejecting love is no longer an option.

The resistance against turning against maladaptive defenses is to be expected as the ego is clinging to its cherished illusion that you are your thoughts and feelings, and not the observer of them. You may treat the resistance using the Letting Go-technique which will be covered in the next chapter. The trick is to stay with the resistance until it runs out, rather than shaming yourself for it. There’s no need to take a depressed position just because you’re resistant. Let go of self-attacking thoughts and blaming yourself for being such a hopeless resistant case. There’s no need for all of that. Just treat the resistance as it’s no big deal. Life still goes on. Who says you need to turn against your passivity/denial/projections/rationalizations/worries/etc just now anyway? So you’re resistant when it comes to feeling your feelings. So? The trick is to neither have an aversion nor an attraction towards the resistance.

The article above is an excerpt from Chapter 11 in Reconnect to your Core.

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