We all use them to a certain extent, from simple ones such as as rationalising and denial, to more complex ones such as control and idealization. But what are defense mechanisms?
According to British psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer, defense mechanisms are essentially lies we tell ourselves to evade pain. This definition makes sense because it’s easier to connect it to our personal experience. We all go through moments in life when we feel hurt, disappointed or on the verge of breaking down. If we haven’t been taught how to deal with painful emotions and how to face them (and most of us haven’t), then the easiest way to move forward is to avoid that painful truth about something. In doing so, it allows us to move on from that experience and be able to function even though that means carrying unresolved things on the inside.
Defense mechanisms operate in the here-and-now, with no thought for tomorrow. The goal is to avoid pain this very moment without taking into account the long-term costs of doing so. For example, temporarily numbing yourself to overwhelming grief (as a defense mechanism) can help you deal with the loss of a loved one, but on the other hand, blinding yourself to the emotional poverty of your childhood might mean you can’t see how this part of your past could play an important role in your unhappy marriage, for instance.
So here’s where the trouble/problem begins with defense mechanisms: while they’re necessary and useful for each and every one of us, when they become too deeply entrenched, they may prevent us from accessing important emotions we need to deal with.
Every defense mechanism plays a role in helping us cope with what’s going on in a specific moment of our lives. Continuing to avoid, deny and escape certain situations/emotions will only lead to shutting down ourselves towards aspects of our lives and towards people around us.
It’s not so uncommon to hear people say: “I don’t know how I got here. I don’t feel anything.” They’ve been avoiding feeling pain and that led to a complete numbness towards other areas of their lives. While it helped helped them face the situation they were dealing with at that time, in the long run this could have devastating consequences.
According to Freud, we tend to become defensive when confronted with painful truth. This phenomenon is called resistance. If we avoid pain or facts too painful to bear (defense mechanism), then we will naturally resist anything that threatens to revive the pain. Sometimes, we can reject an idea simply because it’s doesn’t ring true to us. On other occasions though, we resist it because we find it threatening or painful.
In my next article, I will talk about our basic human challenges and how we use defense mechanisms to fulfill our basic needs.
(Resources: Why do I do that? – Joseph Burgo)