ARTICLE 2: What Do You Do to Defend Yourself Psychologically?

While driving to my working place, I was listening to one of the radio stations transmitting news teasing women who have graduated from TAE-KWAN-DO training given for six months.

These young women were using the skills they acquired against anyone who harassed them on the road, hassled and physically challenged them.  Then I said, “What a defense strategy to survive physically!”  Immediately, I thought about how people defend their ego, the intangible self, to survive psychologically.

All people are motivated to avoid (or at least control) pain (physical and psychological both), and they do this by developing a stable strategies for avoiding pain.  Becoming defensive is all about learning to identify and avoid painful and dangerous situations. We are born mostly open and undefended. We learn to avoid painful and dangerous situations by learning to map in our heads the world and where the dangerous, painful things exist in the world.  To live in social groups, we cannot act out everything.  The ego protects itself against anxiety in various ways, but usually by distorting reality.

Defense mechanisms are automatic psychological processes that protect the individual against anxiety and from the awareness of internal or external dangers or stressors.  We start defending the self even as very young children and continue it with ever increasing sophistication as we mature. Defense mechanisms can be both helpful and harmful to us. Understanding the defense mechanisms we use is a key to understanding why some of us realize our full potential, and others do not.

Adaptive level of defenses are those which we are fully aware of our feelings, ideas, and consequences, but feel satisfied that we are handling our anxiety well, and are staying in balance.   Altruism could be a defense mechanism.  A horse rider woman who is amputated because of accident can teach others how to survive successfully in spite of physical limitations.  She can also relive her dreams vicariously and feels better about her problems when she helps others with being a good horse rider.  Humor is another functional defense which works well to break up negativity, to inject silliness and laughter into what is otherwise serious and deathly, and to force people to look at a brighter side of their various predicaments. Humor simultaneously distracts (allowing distance from seriousness) and instructs.

On the other hand, there are different types of mental inhibitions and distorting levels, in which we simply put threatening ideas, feelings, memories, wishes, or fears outside our awareness or we make subtle changes in order to change the way we feel about ourselves.  Other times we keep unpleasant stressors outside our awareness, sometimes altering reality to suit our purposes.  In extreme cases, if our defense mechanisms have failed completely, and there is an exaggerated break with reality, we will not have to face fears and ideas that we find totally overwhelming, and we lose in touch with reality.

The defense mechanism itself does not indicate how \”messed up\” we are, but the extent to which we use that mechanism contains important information about our level of mental health.  Only if we take the mechanism to an extreme that it can eventually prevent us from having a proper connection to reality.  I have listed some of the common defense mechanisms that people usually use to survive psychologically.  Let us check ourselves against each and try to deal with them.

Denial: Some people may respond to bad news or unpleasant situations by denying it.  They refuse to accept the reality of a situation that is obvious to others.  This is done to protect self from the unpleasant and stressful situation by refuting to acknowledge the reality. While initial denial can help to reduce stress, if it persists, it can prevent appropriate changes in behavior and adjustments in life, which is necessary to cope with the reality of unpleasant situation.   If denial is not challenged, people may not accept the social responsibilities that go with being in that particular situation.  For example, alcoholic people usually deny their problem, “I\’m not an alcoholic!” “I can stop drinking anytime!” Hence, they would not address their alcohol issues.  I remember a woman having a problem of accepting the death of her father because she believed God would heal her dad. So even if her dad passed away and was buried, she expected her deceased father to be resurrected.  Hence, she never cried and felt the anguish of separation from her dad. Her denial at first might help to adjust to the shocking reality of death; however, her persistent and complete denial even after a number of days have passed led her to be detached from reality.

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Rationalization/Intellectualization –people cope with painful or anxiety producing events by retreating into a cognitive analysis of the event.  In so doing, they create a sort of insulating distance from the emotions surrounding the event. “If I can understand it or analyze it, I have it under control.” This lets us unconsciously generating self-justifying explanations so we can hide from ourselves the real reason for our actions.   \”It would be alright for me to get angry and jealous at my wife because scientific studies prove that 90% of people get angry and feel jealous about this.\”  This is justification of behavior with socially accepted reasons and not the actual reasons.  Another good example of supplying a reason as opposed to facing the reality is the case of a guy who is fired from his job.  This guy kept his ego by stating that he was fired because he did not kiss up the boss, when the real reason was his poor performance, insubordination, and undisciplined mannerism.  This defense never helped him to deal with his character and straighten out as he prepared himself for the next job.

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Displacement –This is diverting some urges toward an object more psychologically acceptable than the one that aroused them.  Shifting of feelings, attitudes, and behaviors from an area where they cannot be expressed to an area where they can be expressed.  A husband is irritable with his wife after being rebuked by his boss at work.  His wife feel horrible for her husband convinced her how bad she was but in reality that was what he felt about himself when he was rebuked by his boss.  Instead of admitting what had happened in the office environment and discussing it with his wife, he made the wife the object of attack.  This is how the mind displaces not to face real issues and deal with them. The wife, in return, instead of talking to her husband about his inappropriate behavior would insult and beat her kids up displacing what the husband did to her.  The child who is punished by his mother unwarrantedly resorts to lashing out his anger on the dogs or cats. Taking out anger on a less threatening target are common displacement defense mechanisms that divert our focus from dealing with real issues.  It is transforming their psychological position from one of powerless humiliation to dominant control.

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Projection: We put our own bad traits, thoughts, or feelings off onto others.  This is disguising threatening feelings or thoughts by attributing them to others.  He hates me could be a projection of the actual feeling “I hate him.”  A lady may claim that this man avoids her and talks about her behind her back; whereas she is the one who does it. She may constantly accuse a teammate of being selfish because it diverts attention from her selfishness.  “A good offense is the best defense.” A child who is rejected by his parents may become aggressive and abusive of others. When a husband is losing an argument with his wife, he said, \”You\’re just stupid!\” Projection is a hiding defense mechanism by reflecting what one feels on others.  Married couples who do project their own feelings of limitations on each other will never deal with personal issues appropriately for they do not see themselves objectively and provide appropriate responses.  Thus, their home is a battle field of marring the other person with darker color and society would be deceived to see the accuser as “victim”.

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Repression: This is banishing anxiety-arousing thoughts and feelings from consciousness. We push bad thoughts and feelings out of our conscious mind.  Repression may be expressed in not remembering hurtful childhood experiences of abuse and banishing it away whenever the thought pops up. This could be a defense not to deal with people who hurt us but later on it will be manifested in depression, unexplained physical pains, aggression on others or other work and relationship related problems.  We try not to remember hurtful words we exchanged with our parents or spouses or children and repress them to the unconscious part of the memory and hide behind; and yet we feel worthless deep inside.  This shows somehow our ineffective way of dealing with unpleasant and stressful life events and relationships. “I know I did the wrong thing today, but I am just not going to think about it.” This will eventually become a habit of not dealing with what happened to us and what we do next. It is better not to push and keep dirt under the rug and think that time will take care of its cleansing.  We need to learn how to face unpleasant anxiety provoking thoughts and events, deal with them then move on.

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Reaction Formation – Reaction formation is taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. In order to survive in a society, people use acceptable reactions yet they suffer from the opposite feelings.  We exaggerate one feeling or thought so we can hide from the opposite one. Once a wife of a gender specialist told me that he beats her up at home yet he covers up his abusive actions by specializing in gender studies.   The man appears to be an expert on advocating gender equality yet it was a cover up for his hatred for it.    This happens wherein people react strongly to their own unacknowledged desires by acting to suppress or even destroy those desires in others (all the while denying that they themselves have those desires).  The ego unconsciously makes unacceptable impulses look like their opposites.  E.g. “I hate him” becomes “I love him”. The body may have physical symptoms which replace unacceptable feelings.

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Substitution – This is replacing one unacceptable behavior with another one.  A severe anti-social behavior may be replaced with another tolerable antisocial act. For example a teenager would like to physically harm parents but since that is totally unacceptable and will get him in big trouble, he rather settles with lesser trouble and steals car instead. At times, we may not have a control over the bigger issue, so we settle with the lesser one.  This diversion to another irrelevant one, help people to keep their ego and yet very dysfunctional as it persists.

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Regression – Sigmand Freud defined regression as retreating to a type of behavior that was used in early years.  Retreating to an earlier, more infantile stage of development where some of our psychic energies still fixate. In children, a toddler reverts to thumb-sucking when new baby arrives.  There are adults who are childish in their behavior who have not matured though old in terms of number of ages.  They keep regressing, throwing tantrums like a two year old instead of sitting down and discussing and resolving problems.  Like a foolish mother who gives her little child whatever he requests in order to avoid his disturbance of the family, these old, but child in ego adults, keep on disturbing people to get what they want and society feeds that by giving them to avoid their tantrums. We need to grow up emotionally and learn to manage our emotions constructively.

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Apathetic Withdrawal – This happens when we pretend that we do not care any longer, and remove ourselves from the emotionally threatening situation.  Refusing to think about the problem; distancing ourselves from it either physically or psychologically.  This can be manifested by avoiding someone with whom we disagree.  I remember someone telling me that he loves his wife so much so that he leaves her on her own and withdraws from her life.  His reason was that he was giving his wife liberty to do whatever she wanted because he believed in freedom.   This could be his defense mechanism to cover his inability to lead discussions, face the cost of intimacy and live by accommodating differences.  His wife withdrew from her husband after nagging him several times about his problem.  They end up in apathetic withdrawal to keep their ego.

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Fantasy – Everyone fantasizes now and then. It helps to us fend off the dreariness and drabness of everyday life and to plan for an uncertain future.  When fantasy becomes a central feature of grappling with conflict, it is pathological because it is a defense mechanism that keeps people from taking action.  A lady may fantasize and say, “He would never treat me the way he did with his ex-wife.”  This is a fantasy not to face the potential the man has to solve his problem by physical fight.  Fantasy may distort reality and hinders us from taking appropriate measures.

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Relationship skills correlate with maturity of defenses. Being able to maintain reasonable relationships is an ingredient for a happy and functional lifestyle. Defenses based on more accurate understandings of social reality tend to enhance people\’s functioning and their ability to relate to others. Vice versa, defenses based on more primitive, distorted understandings of social reality tend to sabotage people\’s ability to distinguish good from bad relationships.

Conclusion: What type of defense mechanisms do you use most often to deal with disappointment in your life?  Are you using them in a positive or negative manner?  Are they helping you develop as a good communicator, or are they holding you back? Are you using masks and walls to deal with hurts when you cannot tolerate feelings of pain?  Most of these defense mechanisms are automatic reactions to pain that we used when we were children. They need to be rethought and updated now that we are more mature.  If we continue to try to hide our hurts and do not allow truth into these areas, the hidden feelings will come out at some point without our permission in manner that we would not want them to be expressed.  Being defensive may not allow us to take responsibility for our actions, relationships and personal accountability. Distinguishing when to be or not to be defensive is key for health, personal development as well as relationships. In terms of relationship, you need defense to keep you safe from those who would mess with you, but you also need to know when to relax and let your defenses down so as to retain the capability for innocence, openness and healthy relationships.  In terms of personal development, you need to face yourself squarely to see your gaps and devise strategy to grow; no pretext is good enough to deter you from realizing your potential.

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