Psychological defences

Defence, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is defined as defending from, or resistance against, attack. In psychological terms, a defence mechanism is described as a, usually unconscious, mental process to avoid anxiety or other kinds of psychological pain. Basically, our defences keep anxiety-provoking or painful thoughts and feelings out of awareness.

All our lives we are engaged in efforts to stay safe physically and psychologically: The human organism being creatively and exquisitely geared both to recognise and respond to threats to our physical and psychological survival. We can assume that trauma, and specifically (in Canterbury’s case) the Christchurch earthquakes, activated our primitive defensive mechanisms to assist us both at the time of the trauma and later as other stresses have arisen. We are now hearing that three years after the traumatic events may be the most difficult time for many people. So the idea of defences is particularly important right now.

Psychological defences may be more or less useful and more or less unsophisticated. Imagine a child in an abusive or neglectful or unsupportive situation. Children are afraid to feel angry towards a parent, because they see the world in black or white terms – people are either good or bad. Good people will help to keep them alive and bad people will not. If the child starts to think that the person is bad because they are very angry at the hurt they are receiving from that person, then their very survival is threatened. Therefore, in order to defend themselves against feeling angry towards the neglectful or abusive person they may develop physical symptoms of illness or become very obedient to try and make the person stop hurting them. At later stressful points in the child’s life these self-sacrificing strategies may arise again because they are familiar ways of dealing with feeling angry or afraid. When difficulties occur early in life and are perceived to threaten one’s well-being and safety, it is not unusual for very profound and unsophisticated defensive patterns to arise. These patterns may persist long after they arose, and stay long after their usefulness is over, posing their own difficulties for the individual in adulthood. Defences may interfere with healthy functioning, often forming a barrier against meaningful emotional contact with others and increasing feelings of helplessness.

The more immature and unhelpful defences are also generally less conscious ones. For example, Joe has been putting off decisions about selling his home and relocation due to not wanting to face the inevitable anxiety about the conflict it may cause with his insurance company and the threat that they will refuse to assist him financially. So, when his insurance company calls, he angrily accuses them of deliberately delaying his case. He is “projecting” the anxiety and worry he feels (but cannot tell them because they may not assist him if he does) onto others, although he can only say that he feels angry. Joe may have reacted in this angry way to stress all his life due to patterns that arose in his childhood that, at that stage, allowed him to survive and to cope. In a neglectful and hurtful childhood environment, he learned that the only way to communicate his distress was through aggressive behavior because when he tried to communicate his anxiety directly, he was laughed at or scorned or rejected or told to “harden up”. In spite of the fact that others offer him real support these days, his automatic reactions are still strong. When he realises how his angry outbursts hurt others, Joe feels really bad about himself and loses faith that he will ever be able to cope.

Denial is another common defence mechanism. For example, Mary has never acknowledged any negative emotional impact following the earthquakes, despite losing her home and her community. This may be linked to growing up with a parent who abused alcohol and having to take care of that parent and do lots of household tasks that should have been done by the parent. By keeping her feelings at a distance she was able to manage and progress through the practical tasks required to just survive. However, this strategy that helped her survive when she was young is now interfering with her health and her relationships with her children. She continues to avoid thinking about her losses and feeling their associated pain because she believes that this is the only way to survive, but she is cutting herself off from her body’s messages and her children. Her children worry about her well-being, but are too scared to confront her about her deteriorating well-being because they worry that making her think or talk about these issue will drive her into a worse state of body and mind.

We may also rationalise and intellectualise as strategies to distance ourselves from painful emotion by saying things like “others had it so much worse” or “at least I’m still alive”, or believing that it represents weakness to show painful emotions. For some people, there is a fear that, if one unlocks the door to the grief or rage or despair, it will be like opening floodgates, and the resulting emotional experiences will be completely overwhelming and intolerable. This may be associated with not having had supportive people around when they were young (and struggling to manage their strong feelings) who could help them manage their feelings and feel better.

While there are problematic defences that can make life more difficult, there are also healthy defensive patterns which assist us (and others) to cope. Engaging in activities that bring relief and pleasure to others results in positive feelings all round. Expressing unpleasant or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings in a humorous way helps to increase connectedness to others without being swamped by frightening emotion. Consciously not paying attention to a negative emotion like fear or sadness in order to cope with the present situation and then returning to process the emotion later allows us to get on with our daily lives in a productive way. Finding some small positive aspect to a negative situation can increase positive feelings and reduce the impact of the negative feelings. For example, Larry has learned that helping others offers a focus for him when he is stressed. This helping burns up his nervous or angry energy and builds up his feelings of being a good, strong person, helping him believe that he is not helpless.

Many people recognise that they use these strategies and that they are helpful. So, we can develop beliefs that we have some flexibility and can develop skills so that we can choose the ways we respond to difficult situations. However, really deeply embedded patterns can feel stuck and are harder to shift without support.

Whether defensive patterns are helpful or not depends importantly on our overall functioning. Are we able to achieve our goals, live according to our core values, feel a capacity to engage fully in relationships and pleasure or fun? Questions worth asking yourself on a regular basis are: How am I really? What do I think and how do I feel about my social interactions and behaviour? What contributions do I make to the difficulties I experience? Does this reaction remind me of how I felt and reacted during an earlier incident in my life? How can I seek help when I recognise that an aspect of my life (physical or psychological) requires attention? Paying attention to how we’re doing, and taking the time to make sure that we are making the most of our lives, build up the resilience that protects us against struggling with unhelpful defence mechanisms over and over again throughout our lives.


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