Continuing from Part 1,
6. Reaction formation
This is another interesting defense mechanism. In reaction formation, the individual “forms a reaction” opposite to the actual impulse or emotion they feel regarding a situation. This usually happens when the person recognizes that their impulse or emotion is at variance to what is expected of them. For instance, a person who has sexual attraction towards underaged children may advocate against pedophilia and child molestation. Or someone who dislikes another (say, their child) may become overly caring and protective of the person.
As you can imagine, one major problem with this defense mechanism is that if the underlying emotions are not dealt with, it can result in embarrassing situations. Imagine a world-renowned advocate against homosexuality being found having a same-sex affair. The shame could lead to depression, substance abuse, and even suicide.
I’m sure you are beginning to think of those old school mates who were forming “good boys and girls”, but were found in very “interesting” situations. Or you were one of them?
Yes, you read right. Altruism can be a defense mechanism. Altruism is acting kindly towards or seeking the wellbeing of others. But sometimes, these acts of benevolence have an underlying unconscious motivation. This may include avoiding one’s own pain or stress, low self-esteem, or compensate for perceived weaknesses and failures. For example, an orphan who experienced significant stress and suffering may deal with this by dedicating himself/herself to helping orphans.
As a mature defense mechanism, altruism may be beneficial, especially to others. But if the underlying motivation is not resolved, it can result in what’s referred to as pathological altruism (yes, there’s such a thing). This may be harmful to the person and to others. For instance, a person may starve himself and his family, deny his children education, etc to feed the poor. Some may even rob, persecute, and/or kill perceived privileged in the society in the name of giving to the poor and seeking social justice.
This pathologic altruism may become compulsive and addictive, and may even be forced on beneficiaries even when they refuse it. Pathologic altruists may engage in heinous acts, believing they are “selflessly” doing so for the benefit of others (although they are actually unconsciously serving selfish motivations).
Maybe some of our popular fictional, national, and international heroes are/were pathologic altruists. Do any come to mind? Could you be a pathologic altruist yourself?
Sublimation is another mature defense mechanism i.e it is sustainable, may be beneficial to self and others, and may even be profitable. In sublimation, the individual channels unacceptable emotions and impulses into socially acceptable behaviors and activities. For example, a person with anger or violent tendencies may engage in boxing, kickboxing, or such sports. One with lust and sexual impulses may channel this into art or music. It could even be as subtle as a quarrelsome person engaging in debates or practicing law.
Sublimation may be a healthy way of channeling such impulses, and may even be financially rewarding. But sometimes the impulses may still end up being demonstrated in unhealthy ways, if not checked. For instance, the individual may break the rules of the activity engaged in and may result in a downward spiral and their eventual undoing.
This typically happens in a moment of frustration when things aren’t going on well for them within the activity. You would remember (if you are not in the indomie generation) the former boxing heavyweight champion who bit off an opponent’s ear in the ring, and his “fall” following that event.
When there are long breaks between these activities, the individual may not be able to adequately redirect these impulses, and they may begin to show. There are a plethora of examples of sportsmen who faced assault charges, especially during the off-season. And there are examples of various rappers and artists involved in sex scandals, gang violence, etc.
Is that what happened to Tupac?
When your project is a defense, you attribute your unacceptable emotions, thoughts, or impulses to another. For instance, you dislike Seth, but say that Seth rather dislikes you (projecting on Seth), or that Catherine dislikes Seth (projecting on Catherine).
Sometimes, to relieve the distress further, one may generalize the projection. Using the example above, you may say “everybody hates Seth”.
Although this may temporarily relieve the stress associated with such impulses, emotions or thoughts, you can already see the interpersonal problems of this defense mechanism. People may end up being turned against each other, or turn against you for “lying about them”. This may further worsen the existing issues. One may also not seek appropriate solutions to challenges when they’ve projected them on others.
Some say as you point one finger at another, at least 3 other fingers on the same hand point at you.
You’ve noticed some comedians make lots of jokes about themselves or their childhood, their race, gender, disabilities, etc. You’ve also heard of comedians who committed suicide. Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But that may be because they were using humor as a defense mechanism to avoid dealing with stressful situations, experiences, etc.
Humour, like sublimation, is also a mature defense mechanism, so can be sustained and may be beneficial. In fact, if harnessed well, humor can be used to address stressful and touchy issues in a relaxed and less threatening environment. This may be the approach of cartoonists who “comment” on political and other such issues.
However, this may also be misconstrued as trivializing serious issues or poking fun at people who may not take it lightly. Some may also use humor to simply avoid properly addressing the issue.
They say laughter is the best medicine, but what’s the dosage?
11. In summary
The aim of this series was to help make us more aware of defense mechanisms, how they are used to protect our mental health, and how they can be detrimental to mental health. Hopefully, it also helped you recognize some of these challenges, emotions, impulses, and memories you’ve been hiding (consciously or unconsciously) behind these defenses.
It is my hope that armed with this knowledge, you will pay more attention to psychological issues that affect you, recognize when you are using defense mechanisms, and seek appropriate help where necessary to prevent untoward consequences.
All I want to say is, mind your mind.
Missed Part 1 of this piece, Check it below;