“Defense Mechanisms Defined: How They Lie to Us + 5 Ways to Overcome Them”

“The damage of past abuse sets in motion a complex scheme of self-protective defenses that operate largely outside of our awareness, guiding our interactions with others, determining the spouse we select, the jobs we pursue, the theologies we embrace, and the fabric of our entire lives.” —Dan Allender, Ph.D., The Wounded Heart


It took me ten years to really trust my husband. No kidding. I married him not trusting him. I trusted what he stood for or what he said in a basic way. I trusted him like you trust that the roof over your head is stable. I wasn’t possessed with fear in a conscious way. I was more unwittingly disconnected from the idea that anyone was truly trustworthy.  


In retrospect, I was cynical. I harbored a belief that all good things were temporary. It was a good day when I could soak in a laugh, or take a break from the head games that were swirling around inside.


Head games for me were only evident in the way I would retreat. In the early years of our marriage, I would leave first thing in the morning for work, or to exercise, for almost any way out of depending on the comfort of his presence.  


After years of being invalidated by significant people in my life, I learned that there was no sure thing in friendship. Thus, I adjusted my expectations so that I would want for little to nothing.

This was a painful place to live, as you can imagine.  


Here’s the problem with defense mechanisms—they’re just a different kind of bondage. I thought they were setting me apart from pain, when they were really continuing my pain. I thought they offered me strength, when they really only numbed me so I couldn’t detect pain. Defense mechanisms continue victimization in this way.  

Let’s take a moment and see what these bad boys look like.


Types of Defense Mechanisms


Regression: “If I am angry or hurt, sometimes I act in childish ways. I pout, sulk, or have temper tantrums.”


Suppression: “I distract myself a lot so I don’t have to feel or respond to what is bothering me.”


Withdrawal: “When I’m hurt or upset, I physically leave or I just go off in my own thoughts.”


Blame: “Other people cause most of my problems. I act and feel the way I do because of others. If they would change, everything would be fine.”


Rationalization: “It’s easy to tell myself the wrong things I do aren’t that bad when I compare myself to what most of the people in the world do wrong.”  


Devaluation: “When I’m upset, I focus on the negative traits of others. Those traits are always more numerous and pronounced than my own.”  


Intellectualization: “I can analyze my way out of any feeling or emotion.”  


Compensation: “I feel the need to exaggerate my good points in order to hide any deficiencies.”


Denial: “I refuse to acknowledge pain and problems and call it having a positive attitude.”  Replacement: “When I’m feeling a negative emotion, I express the opposite in order to hide the truth.”


Distraction: “I avoid conflict or pain by filling the day with anything and everything.” (Reference: How We Love, by Milan and Kay Yerkovich)


My personal favorites were suppression, withdrawal, and distraction. It’s not hard to imagine, given our societal values; ie: If the emotion is difficult and doesn’t lead to productivity or is slated as “negative,” what good is it?


Here’s why this was so dangerous: I wore my busyness like a badge of honor, but I never got my needs met. I never met my own needs. For significant parts of my life I struggled with sugar addiction, overeating, binging on entertainment, over exercising, serving others (that was a favorite), and taking on more than I could handle over and over again. I resented sort of everything--except babies and puppies--but, worst of all, I stopped trusting myself.  


My defenses didn’t defend me. They oppressed me. They never did what they promised. But here’s the deal: I was supposed to let my difficult (not negative) emotions teach me who I was and what I needed.


My feelings were my friends. I used to make fun of feelings, thinking that they made me weak, unstable. The truth was my feelings were telling me what was happening so that I could define my needs and then develop a plan to address my feelings. I was just a human being that had the dignity and wisdom to collapse under the feelings and say, “OK, body, I hear you. What’s next? What do I need to do with this?”  


Oppression can come in many forms, even unlikely ones, like avoiding conflict, pleasing others, serving when you’re drained, over-exercising, over-spiritualizing (aka denial and replacement).  


How to Get Past those Lying Defenses:


Empathize with that difficult feeling vibe by saying, “I’m listening. You have a right to speak to me. I care about what you have to say. I will believe you.”


Write down (or simply acknowledge) what oppresses you, drains your batteries?


Write down your reflections of a time that time flew by. This is called your flow. What was happening? What were you feeling?


Your flow operates in your habitat. Write down a description of that habitat.Think of the 5 senses--what was I tasting, touching, hearing, seeing and smelling?


Give yourself permission to continue this calm body and flow by reverently saying to yourself :

“Thank you for sharing this with me. I am hearing and remembering. I give myself permission to live in a flow and to cultivate a life that includes and prioritizes my habitat needs.Give me the senses to detect what you have for me. Give me the strength to join your message and meet your needs.”


Defenses keep me oppressed and out of control. My feelings are allies that tell me what I need. My needs help me develop a plan. My flow tells me what my habitat needs to include to meet my needs and honor my feelings.


Please join these thoughts with your insights. Are there any defense mechanisms that have oppressed you? What did you do to bravely move past them? Feel free to share your personal reflections to the questions asked in the process outlined above.

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