Defense mechanisms, first defined by Anna Freud in 1936’s “The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense,” are subconscious shields an individual puts up to avoid pain and suffering. Though these shields might provide temporary relief, defense mechanisms can prove harmful to all parties involved. For instance, denial is a common defense mechanism characterized by the refusal to acknowledge an unpleasant circumstance that can increase long-term pain and often co-occurs with other defense mechanisms. Specialists within the behavioral health field recommend that individuals recognize their own defense mechanisms of choice and work to develop healthier coping tools to handle unwanted emotions.
Some defense mechanisms are especially harmful in the context of interpersonal relationships. A classic example of displacement is a boss yelling at his employee, who then goes home frustrated and yells at her child. The child might also act out as a result of this scolding. Both the employee and the child are displacing their anger toward someone to whom they cannot express the emotion by transferring it onto a less intimidating victim. Distortion can also interfere with social development, as individuals who implement this defense mechanism often alter their perceptions of the outside world in order to satiate their emotional needs.
Projection is common among people with anxiety disorders. These individuals project their judgments regarding self-perceived flaws onto others. For instance, someone who is self-conscious about a new haircut may misjudge innocuous remarks about the change, considering them insulting.
Repression and regression are similar sounding but these defense mechanisms entirely different in nature. Blocking out past unpleasant memories or traumatic events, as is common in those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), constitutes repression. While it is easy to say this is simply a deep level of avoidance, the reality is that some trauma is too much for one person to handle. Regression, on the other hand, is “revert[ing] back to a childlike emotional state in which [the individual’s] unconscious fear, anxieties and general ‘angst’ reappear,” as Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Amherst explains.
Intellectualization, sublimation and humor are relatively productive defense mechanisms, though these still prevent the individual from facing reality and confronting unpleasant emotions that can be easily triggered. If you or a loved one is facing such feelings, help is available. Sovereign Health Group specializes in treating individuals facing mental health disorders, substance abuse issues and dual diagnosis. Call (866) 819-0427 to speak with a professional today.
Psychology behind defense mechanisms: The dangers of projection and transference (Part 2 of 4)
Written by Courtney Howard, Sovereign Health Group writer