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A psychological defence mechanism is a mental tool that we use to protect ourselves from what we think will cause us emotional harm or pain. Possible harm can be imposed on us by circumstance, accident, deliberate act, or, by ourselves.
Not everyone needs to use psychological defence mechanisms. At one extreme, psychopaths and sociopaths seem not to protect their emotions – they seem not to experience emotions in the same way as the rest of us.
However, it is possible that psychopathy and sociopathy are the ultimate in defence psychological defence mechanisms; shutting down emotions avoids dealing with them all-together. Perhaps psychopathy and sociopathy emerge that way: a person has one or a series of emotional traumas which are so severe they decide never to be afflicted by emotions again.
Such is an extreme example of how psychological defence mechanisms can go wrong. For most people, there is a risk that defence mechanisms can be taken too far, if they are abused.
Like most things in life, too little can be as harmful as too much, and there is a sweet spot where optimum benefit can be found. Defend yourself from being emotionally harmed by reality, but not to the point of blocking out reality.
At the other extreme, there are those who are ‘so sorted’ that they face reality head on and would rather figure out practically how to deal with any emotional challenges. They are not Spock-like; denying emotions have any value, merely practical in the sense that emotions can be managed.
Indeed, in that regard they are like most people, since defence mechanisms are among the tools that we all use to manage our emotions.
Most of us use defence mechanisms as and when required. Thinking about emotions what they are and how to handle them goes back thousands of years.
Plato thought of emotions and logic as pulling in opposite directions. Most people will have experienced that is not always true; when achieving at a high level the two work together wonderfully.
Aristotle thought whether emotions were experienced as pleasure or pain, depended upon how the object (with which pain or pleasure was associated) was represented in the mind.
Defence mechanisms can be used to quell emotional pain or pleasure, more usually pain. Mostly they are used to protect our self-esteem, our self-worth, our self-identity.
Denial is probably the best known of all the defence mechanisms. It is not an on-off, either or tool; it sits on a continuum: from bare faced refusal to accept facts, to partial refusal to accept the truth, to rejection of any responsibility for the truth, to acceptance of the facts and the responsibility but denial of intent, and all shades in between.
Our legal system is based on binary choice innocence or guilt. There is no option to declare 17.5% culpability. Why is that relevant? Because the psychological defence mechanisms that people learn to use are influenced by their culture. In a culture where admission or denial are the two extremes, with such stark consequences, it is to be expected that denial is widespread as a defence mechanism.
Here are a few examples of the range of denial:
- ‘I didn’t have anything to drink.’
- ‘I was not drunk.’
- ‘Someone spiked my drink.’
- ‘I didn’t know how strong that drink was.’
- ‘Yes, I was a bit tipsy, but I didn’t intend to…’
Many of the defence mechanisms overlap, and several can be used at the same time.
Is the justification of something the person recognises as unacceptable in a way that conceals their motives, or true reasons for the behaviour. Let’s use the short-hand term: spin. Rationalisation is emotional spin to oneself or others.
Here are some examples:
- ‘I didn’t fail to meet my target, circumstances changed.’
- ‘I didn’t fail, I just wasn’t interested; the rewards weren’t worth it.’
- ‘I wasn’t fired, I was made redundant.’
Choosing not to think about a problem that could, otherwise, cause emotional pain, is called repression. Like all defence mechanisms, it exists because it does its job. Repression can be very effective as an emotional survival tool if one is still in the thick of the problem. It can allow one to cope until one has the strength and time to deal with the negative emotions.
In some circumstances, repression can perpetuate the problem. For instance, choosing not to think about a loveless, toxic marriage is not going to solve it. But, and this is one reason people use repression, if someone in such a situation perceives that they have no other choice but to stay in the horrible environment, it allows them to cope. Indeed, that is the point of all defence mechanisms – they start off being tools to cope. Misused, or over used, they can quickly become self-imposed prisons.
This is the thought process of projecting on to others what is actually in ourselves. For instance, attributing motives to others, which are actually ours.
- ‘They are only in it for the money.’
- ‘They never trust anyone.’
- ‘Do they think I am stupid?’
- ‘You can’t trust them; they lie all the time.’
When someone cannot express their negative emotions to one person, they may displace them, or divert the expression of them on to someone else – usually an innocent, and less powerful party. Their boss shouts at them, so they shout at the kids. Of course, neither are acceptable. It may be that the boss had their boss giving them a hard time. The kids could be on the wrong end of a displacement chain.
Displacement destroys relationships; people know when the emotions to which they are being subjected are out of proportion to ‘leaving the top off the toothpaste tube.’ Taking our negative feelings out on others damages everyone.
Some psychological defence mechanisms are more empowering and positive than others. Even the more positive defences can be harmful if taken to extreme. Here are two:
- Compartmentalisation. Some people choose to keep each aspect of their lives separate. For example, they will not talk or think about family when at work, and vice versa.
- Sublimation. This is the act of changing something from one form to another. In the case of psychological self-protection, it is the process of changing or channelling negative emotions in to something positive. For example, diverting anger or frustration into a high intensity physical work-out, or expressing emotions in the form of art. Much great poetry and many wonderful songs have been written through sublimation.
More examples of defence mechanisms
Here is a summary of some of the many other psychological defence mechanisms.
- Isolation of feeling. Admitting the facts to ourselves, but totally blocking out any associated feeling.
- Reaction formation. Reacting against the desire to act in one way by forming strong desires for the opposite.
- Compromise. Backing off and settling for less to avoid the pain of standing our ground.
- Act of limitation. Deliberately limiting abilities as a defence against failure or rejection.
- Turning against self. Aggressively blaming ourselves for whatever may be less painful than passive guilt.
- Thought disassociation. Disassociating ourselves from what we did/said/thought (genuinely no memory).
- Introjection. Over-identifying ourselves with some heroic figure to avoid facing ourselves.
As with most aspects of life, moderation is the best route. Not using any psychological defence mechanisms can be as harmful as overusing them. Most are beneficial in the short-term, but when used long-term, become toxic to us.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs PsyPerform, a leadership coaching practice. He is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.