Defense mechanisms are just what the name implies. They are (mostly) unconscious psychological “mechanisms” (strategies) used to “defend” (protect) one’s self from the psychological distress of an uncomfortable or unpleasant situation. Such situations may arise from internal or external sources of conflict, that induce anxious or stressful situations.
Examples of internal conflict include an action or decision that contradicts one’s values and principles, and behaviors or thoughts that one recognizes as being contrary to accepted societal norms. External sources of conflict include abuse and interpersonal conflicts.
Defense mechanisms are useful in helping one deal with the initial brunt of a stressful situation. But if one depends excessively on them, or for a prolonged period, they can have unhealthy effects such as failure to adequately address the challenges or seek help. Some defense mechanisms may also result in further psychological distress and problems, intra- and interpersonal conflicts, and even adverse physical effects if overused.
Whether we know it or not, realize it or not, we all use defense mechanisms at one point or the other. As we continue the discussion, you may find yourself nodding or smiling to yourself as you recall such points in time. Hopefully, you won’t “deal” with the memory by employing another defense mechanism.
This article seeks to discuss what the various defense mechanisms are, why, and how we unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) use them. I’ll also discuss some specific ones, as well as the pros and cons of defense mechanisms.
Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt. So let me ask; have you ever unconsciously (or consciously) refused to recognize or accept the existence of a situation, such as an unfaithfulness or other flaws of a partner you so dearly love an ever-increasing waistline which deviates significantly from your new-year goals, or even the turbulent noise of your empty tummy crying to be filled vis-a-vis your relatively more empty pockets? Should I tell you that you were employing denial as a defense mechanism, or you can explain?
Denial is also often employed in grief, where the loss or impending loss (such as death) is denied and is thus regarded as one of the stages of grief.
If used for a short period, denial may be useful in helping one ignore an unpleasant stimulus in order to focus on urgent issues, or at least temporarily relieve the anxiety and stress associated with the stimulus while gathering resources to deal with it. But remaining in denial for too long may leave a situation unresolved, and this can have detrimental effects on a person’s mental and/or physical wellbeing.
For instance, denying obvious weight gain or loss can help deal with the self-esteem challenges that may accompany it. But if you keep ignoring the groans of the scale under your weight, or the way you fly around like a kite when the wind blows, you may eventually face health-related complications that were avoidable, if you had paid attention. Denying the death of a relative may help deal with the initial shock of the loss, but if prolonged, may delay/prevent going through healthy stages of grief and result in mental health issues.
Sometimes, religious people (such as some Christian groups) misconstrue active and deliberate denial as having or demonstrating faith. People who have treatable medical conditions thus deny their existence till they develop terminal complications. Faith is not denying facts. Faith is believing in a supreme being or power that is superior to the facts. (I’m so tempted to digress).
Are you nodding or smiling, or you are denying this one too?
Repression sometimes appears similar to denial. But in repression, the memory or details of an extremely stressful event is pushed out of conscious recollection, down into the subconscious mind. So while a person in denial says it didn’t happen, a person in repression cannot remember what happened.
Have you heard of or seen people who experienced very traumatic events like abuse (including sexual abuse) or witnessing a murder, and when being questioned for details, they said they could not remember? Sometimes, others get upset because it appears they are pretending or covering up. The person is not pretending. The mind has pushed the memory beyond conscious recollection, to protect the individual from it. Sometimes, psychodynamic therapies are needed to bring the memory into the conscious mind.
Although repression may protect the individual from the memory, it usually does not protect the individual from some psychological effects. So it is not uncommon to find people who for instance cannot recollect being sexually abused during childhood (or only have a vague memory of it) but have a strong aversion to sexual relations or even romantic relationships in general. Some of the repressed memories may also seep into dreams in the form of nightmares or may occur as occasional flashbacks which can cause anxiety and other psychological issues.
Apparently, what you don’t know, or cannot remember, can still hurt you.
No, I didn’t make a mistake, I’m not repeating “rePression”. This is “reGression”.
Regression is another “interesting” defense mechanism. In using this mechanism, the individual who experiences a stressful or anxiety-inducing event in their present stage of life “regresses” into behaviors typical of a previous stage.
For instance, an older child (say, 6 years old) who has been enjoying “the last baby” status may deal with the stress of a shift in attention to a newborn by regressing into previous behaviors such as crawling.
When a child who has achieved nighttime dryness (no longer bedwetting) suddenly started bedwetting again, it is important to investigate for traumatic events such as sexual abuse, as this could be a regression in response to the event. In fact, any time a child suddenly begins to behave younger than his/her age in any way, one must investigate for stressors such as abuse. Beating or punishing the child will only add insult to injury.
Sometimes, a regression can be as subtle as quitting a job to go back to a stage of unemployment in response to conflict at work, or moving back to parents’ home when there’s spousal conflict. Even more subtle, is chewing or mouthing the end of your pen when under stressful situations like examinations.
As can be seen, regression tends to be a way of seeking solace or gratification in a previous and more familiar stage when faced with the stress of a present stage of life. The problems with that are summarized in the Akan adage “abrabɔ no, yɛbɔ kɔ yɛn anim, nyɛ akyi” (we live life forward, not backward).
How many pens have you regressed on, or this one too, you are denying?
Do you remember back in school when you prepared well for an examination and passed, you’d say “this exam was cool chop, I SCORED 95%”. But if you were ill-prepared and didn’t do well, you’d say “this lecturer is wicked, how can HE GIVE ME 30%”? What about that boyfriend/girlfriend who dumped you because of something you did but you told yourself (and everyone who would listen) “He/she left because he/she realized I’m too good for him/her.”
Then that time you really wanted to “borga” but they bounced your visa so you were like “their country koraa is too cold for me. Ghana dey bee kɛkɛ.” Have you met that person who has no close friends or partner because of their arrogance or unpleasant behavior but they keep saying “people are just intimidated by my confidence and strength”? Should I go on, or you get the picture?
Rationalization is simply giving a more comfortable (but false, partially true, or unrelated/irrelevant) reason for the behavior, thought, occurrence, etc. because the actual reason is psychologically stressful. It is probably one of the most used defense mechanisms and is quite helpful in dealing with stressful situations. But it is important that after the initial phase passes, one faces reality and makes efforts at resolving the problem.
When people say “it’s my truth” or “my reality”, could it be an extended version of rationalization?
Sometimes, someone superior to you, such as a boss, supervisor, or senior colleague really upsets you. But because the person’s position could pose problems for you if you respond, you just keep mum. Then when your junior colleague steps in after your senior are done and has left, you pour venom on him/her over a trivial issue.
In displacement, as described above, negative emotions are redirected from the object that induced it (because that object may be more threatening) to a less threatening object. This may give temporary relief of one’s frustration but can result in sour interpersonal relationships.
Imagine a parent always taking out his/her frustration from a boss on his/her child. This could adversely affect the child’s mental wellbeing. There is even the risk of causing unintended physical injury to the object of the displacement. We’ve all heard of parents who inflicted injuries on their children that were grossly disproportionate to the offense the children committed.
Maybe our teachers who were lashing us like goats back in school were doing so because they couldn’t lash their husbands/wives who annoyed them in the morning before class. Anaa you attended a Montessori school so you can’t relate?
Read Part 2 of this piece below;