Defense mechanisms are what some people use to defend themselves against unpleasant thoughts or feelings.
Most defense mechanisms are rooted in our subconscious, which means we do not know when we are using them.
In psychodynamic theory, psychologists describe defense mechanisms as a way of distancing ourselves from being fully aware of unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
We are all said to use defense mechanisms at some point in our lives, but if you are strong mentally and well-balanced, you tend not to have to. A mentally strong person will not feel the need to hide behind a defense mechanism, moreover, they are fully equipped to deal with unpleasant thoughts or truths.
In reality, it is the mentally weak that resort to defense mechanisms.
Here are some of them and their meanings:
This is the most simple of all the defense mechanisms to explain. If a situation is just too much for a person to deal with, they will deny it ever happened at all. This is considered by psychologists to be the most primitive of all defense mechanisms and has roots in childlike behaviour where the child sticks their fingers in their ears so not to hear the truth.
Many people who have problems use denial as a way of coping, for instance, the alcoholic that denies their drinking is ruining relationships or the smoker who doesn’t believe that smoking is bad for them.
When we are faced with a stressful situation, we often resort to childish behaviour in order to deal with what is happening at that time. We might start exhibiting childish behaviour, for instance, teenagers taught sex education might giggle to cover up their embarrassment. Or an adult who is under an enormous amount of stress might not be able to get out of bed, a comforting place that reminds them of their safe childhood.
Repression is an unconscious mechanism that prevents the mind from retrieving upsetting thoughts or actions. Thoughts that result in the person feeling guilt are most typically repressed, although ones where the person is themselves harmed both mentally or physically are also commonly repressed. The mind keeps these thoughts in the subconscious, as to let them become known to the person would cause damage to one’s psyche.
Projection is when a person attributes their own feelings and motives to another person. They are typically aggressive, sexual or thoughts of extreme hatred towards another.
The person feeling these thoughts cannot accept that they are the ones thinking them, so instead of dealing with it, they project them onto someone else. For instance, a partner might not be happy about their spouse’s choice of friend, when in fact, they are the one who has dodgy alliances.
Displacement relates to re-directing anger from one target to another that is powerless to fight back. For instance, someone who has had a hard day at work might come home and kick the dog.
This is redirecting their anger and aggression from the real cause, their work, to the dog. The person cannot direct his anger at his boss for overworking him so he takes it out on the dog instead.
Rationalization is twisting the facts to better serve our reality. It is putting something in a different light in order to make ourselves feel better about the situation. So a person who had just got an amazing job, for instance, and then is fired two weeks later, might say that the firm was rubbish and they didn’t want the job in the first place.
This is the opposite of denial but where a person starts to behave in the complete opposite of how she or he really feels. For instance, a man who is in power and rigorously makes hateful statements about homosexuals, might themselves feel homosexual tendencies. Typically, the remarks are outlandish and harsh and serve to make the person’s stance clear on certain issues.
Compensation is where a lack of knowledge in one area is counterbalanced by a strength in another. A person might say that they can’t play an instrument but they have an amazing singing voice. By stating their strengths, they are compensating for what is perceived as a weakness by others.
Intellectualization is where a person overthinks the situation and cannot deal with the associated emotions or feelings that come with it.
For instance, a person who has had a cancer diagnosis might focus on the ins and outs of all the medical procedures and not want to express their grief or sadness at the diagnosis.
There are defense mechanisms that are good for you, for example, sublimation, in which a person uses their troubles to create something positive, is a productive defense mechanism. The trick is to use helpful defense mechanisms and knowing which ones are detrimental to your mental health.