The term was first used by Sigmund Freud in a work named The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence in 1894. Freud himself said, in the attempt of trying to explain his idea that “life is not easy”. In fact, it is nothing but common sense. He nevertheless adds some ideas that can help understanding the way we often react to adversities or even small discomforts, without even having the notion that we are doing it.
He then explains: “the ego – or “me” – places himself in the centre of very powerful forces such as reality, society, biology itself, among others. When such forces enter in conflict with the “me”, it is understandable that he would feel threatened. This “threat” sensation can be translated in multiple ways until it collapses.
In fact, resistance, mental plasticity, resilience and tolerance to discomfort zones, can vary from person to person. However one thing is for certain: To a greater or lesser degree of intensity this sensation of discomfort, called anxiety will come up. This anxiety is no more than an ego’s sign of alert, a survival warning. With the aim of dealing with the conflicts of life, Freud taught us that the ego employs a series of defensive mechanisms, which operate at a subconscious level and help putting away feelings that are not pleasant to us (the anxiety).
I will pinpoint here some examples, with the certainty that this theme has so much more to be explored. Nevertheless, they will be easy to recognise, identify and understand that what is happening is just a subconscious reaction, so that we can face them head on and understand what is happening. Nothing like speaking face to face to that we cannot identify.
- Denial. All of us avoid many unpleasant situations, by ignoring or refusing to acknowledge them. Denial is the tendency to avoid or reject unpleasant realities. By turning our back to such situations, we refuse discussing matters that we do not like, ignore or refuse to face many of our real problems. It is as if we would say “What I refuse to look or answer is not happening”. Sweep it under the rug. Close our eyes and disappear. Indeed, by ignoring or denying unpleasant realities, we protect ourselves from a large quantity or stress. The price to pay however is obviously high. We fool ourselves because we take reasons for our behaviours that are not the real ones.
- Rationalisation, excuses or blaming others. These are the defence mechanisms in which we justify our behaviour by obtaining admirable, logical or at the very least acceptable motives. By rationalising, we can justify with apparent normality almost everything that we do, have done or will do. In a simple way, rationalising is also fooling us, replacing bad reasons with good ones. Easy, right? However, it may seem so that it is a rather complex and difficult to detect mechanism, since it may sometimes contain some truthful elements. We can suspect that we are rationalising when, for example, we see ourselves forced to arrange some reasons to justify the behaviour we had, or when we cannot recognise inconsistencies that others may see in a rather obvious way. Or even when we get emotional when others question our behaviour.
- Intellectualisation. With this defence mechanism, we manage to ward off some of the emotional pain that we are feeling, by dealing with the situation as if we were analysing an abstract problem. By using intellectualisation we react with logic and “the right thing to say”, instead of transmitting how are we actually feeling. We speak only of what we know about the subject, without associating any type of feeling. As if what is happening was with someone else and we are nothing but spectators.
- Compensation. This is the defence mechanism in which a situation or an undesirable behaviour is covered by a completely different one. Compensation deals with a part of a life’s failure, by highlighting another. For example, a person that feels guilty for drinking too much or using chemical substances, will work almost to such an exacerbated way or excel in school, in order to prove he has no problems with these chemical substances. This example fits just like many others.
- Anger. It is an emotion that needs to be expressed in a healthy way, and it can actually be done. When used to channel feelings this can be good, as opposed to using it as a way to cover feeling or intimidate others. Expressing anger so wildly that others will back up, or using it as means to stop being responsible for our own behaviour is definitely not a healthy way to deal with it.
- Minimisation. This defence mechanism states that the problem is less important or serious than what it actually is. It is no more than stating that a certain situation is normal, that it happens to everyone or just happened once or twice Minimisation is one of the most used defence mechanisms by addicts. But also by people who do not particularly enjoy going to the doctor, constantly use procrastination, or have serious difficulties in dealing with the reality that their sons and friends go through, among others. It is also one of the most dangerous defence mechanisms and one of the biggest enemies for our well-being.
- Humour. The ability to understand / enjoy and know how to express in a funny way the life´s cool side. It´s part of our personality! However, many people use humour in order to shift the focus out of the real problem that they should be talking about, because they are aware and want to cover it. Thus, once they tell a joke, the intense feelings no longer assume the primary role and the pressure fades away. It happens quite often on social networks, for example. In normal or social events it is easier to spot out this kind of “humour”. Nothing here is natural. Besides, there are several problems to be solved among the entire jest.
In the end, all of this only serves to show that frailties should not be reason for shame or fear, that must be hidden not only to society but also to ourselves. All of this only postpones or maximises what can be easily solved if accepted and looked straight into it in time.
Ana Pinto-Coelho is an addiction counsellor who has gained her degree from the University of Oxford. She is committed to advancing her profession in Portugal. Currently, she runs a private practice in Lisbon, Portugal and her commitment is to help individuals, and their families, who are struggling with addiction. She believes that counselling is both an effective and safe means to self-understanding, and ultimately recovery. For this reason, she has called her clinic Safe Place. You can follow her on Twitter @AnaPintoCoelho1