Defense mechanisms are strategies that we use to cope with strong feelings. People use these behaviors to protect themselves from feeling pain. Defense mechanisms are subconscious feelings that prompt us to protect ourselves from fear, anger, anxiety, and maintain our self-esteem. Common defense mechanisms include behaviors such as denial, suppression, projection, and repression. The articles in this section focus on the defense mechanisms that serve to protect us from feeling emotional pain. Learning about these behaviors helps us to have better emotional insight. We can learn how to cope with our feelings and develop long lasting relationships based on owning our own feelings as opposed to blaming others for how you feel.
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn, LMFT, MA
Defense mechanisms are psychological reactions that people have when they are experiencing uncomfortable emotions. They serve to protect the individual from anxiety or panic. The mind wants the person to feel at ease, and defense mechanisms help the person to avoid emotional pain. They may be unconscious, or the person may be aware of what’s happening.
Psychologists classify defense mechanisms according to how primitive they are. Primitive defense mechanisms are ones that a person learned early in life. Our early defense mechanisms are less effective than our evolved ones. They usually are not a useful long-term solution for a person. Primitive defense mechanisms will help a person to avoid pain in the short-term. Some adults cling to primitive defense mechanisms because they helped them in periods of trauma. Unfortunately, these emotional reactions don’t serve them in healing.
When a person is in denial, they don’t want to accept what is happening in front of them. It could be too painful for them to confront. As a result, their mind denies what’s happening to cope with the pain. Denial is when a person doesn’t or can’t accept the reality of a situation. The mind wants to avoid pain, but it usually results in more discomfort later on. Denial is a primitive defense mechanism because it dates back to a person’s early years. An example of denial is a person who denies that their relationship is ending. Their partner may want to get a divorce, and yet they don’t acknowledge that the marriage is ending. They’re trying to protect themselves; however, it results in them feeling rejected and sad when they get served with divorce paperwork. If you notice yourself denying what is happening to you, it’s important to face what’s happening so you can heal.
Regression happens when a person can’t handle the pain that they’re in, and they bring themselves back to a simpler time in their early life. They transport their mind back to childhood to a time when they were happy. When they visit their “happy place,” it’s much more pleasant than living in the painful present. An adult who experiences trauma may revert to a time when they weren’t scared. Trauma is extremely painful, and people avoid pain at all costs. Pretending that they’re a child again can help people feel better temporarily.
Dissociation protects a person from experiencing a painful reality. They check out emotionally and physically sometimes. Some people report feeling as if they’re not in their bodies. They might lose a sense of time or feel like they’ve checked out. They might have strange thoughts or feel like they’re not in reality. They could find themselves focusing on memories from the past.
People who have suffered from abuse tend to dissociate when they’re triggered. When a person dissociates, they feel disconnected from who they are and that relieves them of the pain in the present. Time and their self-image may not flow continuously, as it does for most people. Disassociation allows a person to cope with their reality by feeling as if they’re in a dream-like state.
Projection occurs when a person takes their unpleasant or painful thoughts are attributes them to another individual. If they don’t take ownership of these ideas, their pain lessens. People use projection when they feel like they can’t express their thoughts. This defense mechanism protects them from feeling shame for having these distressing thoughts or feelings or actions. Here’s an example of projection. A person cheats on his partner. He feels ashamed of his actions, but can’t own up to these feelings. He projects his shame onto his partner, accusing her of being unfaithful. She has not cheated, but he gets relief from his negative feelings. Projection serves a purpose. It protects an individual from coming face to face with something they feel bad about or an emotion they don’t want to explore.
Defense mechanisms are gut emotional reactions to when we feel like other people are attacking us. Online counseling is an excellent place to discuss what defense mechanisms you are using to protect yourself, and find ways to confront your painful feelings without checking out emotionally. When you work with an online therapist, you will learn how to manage your emotional reactions to things. Search the BetterHelp network to find help with these defense mechanisms. Here you can find an extensive list of counselors who can help you work through your feelings and support you on your journey to wellness.