Which Defense Mechanisms Are Holding You Back?

Woman behind panes of glass

What defense mechanisms are holding you back?

Psychoanalytic theory holds that there are certain defense mechanisms that people use in order to cope with life stressors. While it’s normal to have and employ defense mechanisms, they can, paradoxically, end up making your life a lot harder in the long run.

Defense mechanisms can make us feel better about things in the short term, but read on if you want to explore which of them may be sabotaging your long term chances at happiness.

Common Defense Mechanisms, and How They Can Affect You

There is a long list of defense mechanisms, but these are some of the most common, issue-prone examples that I see in my practice.

Denial

Denial is a classic defense mechanism, whereby you deny the existence of something that is too difficult or uncomfortable to deal with. This is used frequently by those struggling with addiction, or with many mental health issues.

You can recognize this if you’ve ever told yourself something like, “I’m not drinking too much, I barely had three drinks last night and they were watered down,” despite your friends remembering you had closer to 8 or 10.

It is obvious that denying a problem doesn’t make it go away, and makes it impossible to confront or resolve, which is why it’s essential to recognize if denial is your go-to defense mechanism.

Projection

Projection is when someone feels so ashamed of acting a certain way, they instead act like someone else is exhibiting the behavior that they are guilty of.

For example, a wife who knows that she yells too much at her kids may accuse her husband of having anger management issues. While one part of her mind knows that she is the one with an anger problem, she is so ashamed of directly confronting this fact that her brain subconsciously projects her insecurity onto someone else; in this case, her husband.

Displacement

Displacement is when you use a replacement object as the recipient of feelings or behaviors, because you’re afraid to direct the energy toward the person you’re really thinking about.

For instance, a man angry at his boss for passing him over for a promotion may find it much too terrifying to think about confronting his boss. He may also may be ashamed to consider that he wasn’t promoted do to his performance.

Instead, his subconscious gives him a convenient out, and redirects his anger. He comes home at night and instantly tears into his son for being “lazy” and playing video games all afternoon.

Repression

When feelings are too intense, uncomfortable, or taboo, then our subconscious hides them from our conscious mind.

For example, if a woman feels jealous of her sister’s pregnancy, she may push this feeling out of consciousness and repress it entirely. Unfortunately though, when feelings are repressed, they don’t disappear as neatly as the person wishes they would.

In this case, the woman may end up avoiding her sister or lashing out at her, although she remains consciously unaware of why. As you can imagine, exploring what’s at the root of her behavior would likely help her to understand it and to be more supportive.

Sound Familiar? A Professional Can Help.

If you recognize these defense mechanisms in yourself — and you very well may since they are so common — then think deeply about the impact that they may have on your life.

Choosing not to deal with your subconscious feelings or your actual behaviors can significantly hold you back in life. Working with a therapist, or doing your own introspection, can make you more aware of your defense mechanisms, allowing you to behave in a way that is more consistent with your goals and values.

Published by

Dr. Samantha Rodman

Clinical Psychologist