Defense Mechanisms

As the first in the series of Coffee Talk, the topic will be defense mechanism. Has someone ever said something to you like, “Girlfriend, you are in denial!” or, “It’s not me who is the selfish one, you are! You’re projecting on me!” Having a better understanding of defense mechanisms can only help.

This information will come a little bit at a time. There are a lot of defense mechanisms. I won’t cover them all, but some of the most common ones will be here. If you follow me on FB or IG you will know when I have added to the list.

Here’s the Format

  • What is it?
  • How it keeps you stuck.
  • It may have been the best option.
  • Can it be fixed?
  • Misunderstandings of this defense mechanism.
  • How dangerous is it?
  • Does parenting have any role in its formation?

Denial

What is it?

When someone is presented with a situation that is painful in some way, and instead of facing it and doing something about it, they insist that it is not true, even though there may be a lot of evidence that it is, that is denial.

There are three levels of denial; 1. it doesn’t exist at all, 2. it exists but not nearly at the level of seriousness that it does, and 3. it exists but it’s not the persons fault and there is nothing they can do about it.
 

How it keeps you stuck.

Denial has an aspect of immaturity, in that the person who can’t or won’t face the reality of the situation, cannot or does not do something about it, learn from it and become stronger because of it.  The exception is with children.  When children are in highly difficult situations that they cannot control or change, because they are children, denial is often their best coping skill, best defense. 

It may have been the best option.

Sometimes in therapy, when an adult is quite obviously in denial, for example, of an abusive relationship, or toxic environment, it can be helpful to validate that when they were a child, denial served them well, because they couldn’t do anything to change their situation. We can honor that strength within the person. However, as an adult, the denial is harmful. We need to help them understand that they are not powerless and by denying the reality, they are continuing to live in pain, and their denial may lead to inaction that is putting their children at risk as well.

Can it be fixed?

Denial is fairly easy to detect, because, as stated above, there is evidence to the contrary of what they are denying. If you have been pulled over for drunk driving, fight with your loved ones regularly about your drinking, liver functions are showing poor results through testing and you still don’t admit you have a problem, that’s pretty clearly denial.

One of the best ways to help someone move through their denial is to be very plainly clear about the facts. Sometimes the person in denial will start confusing the facts with extraneous detail or emotion and you may in fact lose track of what you knew to be true. In this case, the most effective plan is to join with someone else who loves the person and sees their denial. The two of you can be the grounding and support, and with unwavering commitment to the truth, along WITH unwavering love, a plan and accountability, you can help the person out of their denial.

Seek professional support if you have questions about how to intervene with someone you love who is in denial. You want to respect their privacy and their right to remain in denial, but you also don’t want them to suffer harm or harm others.

Misunderstandings of this defense mechanism.

One systematic problem with the concept of denial is when a professional or loved one is tied to a particular view or theory, and that view or theory is not accurate. For example, couple comes in for therapy because they are arguing frequently over how to parent their difficult child. Wife has read up on ADHD and presented her concerns to teacher, doctor, counselor, etc. who have all agreed, based on what she has told them, that the child has the condition. Husband has a different perspective on why the child is acting out, and a different method of correcting the problem. Wife looks square in the eyes of the counselor and emphatically says, “He’s in denial that our child has ADHD.” One has to determine if someone is in denial or if they simply believe or think differently than the other person or professional.

How dangerous is it?

Denial can end a life.  Denial is seen most often in addiction, whether it is food, alcohol, drugs, shopping or any other addiction.  Sadly, I have seen too many people die from their addiction.  The stakes are very high with serious addictions and while someone is drinking a box of wine daily, stating it is not a problem, their body is fighting to manage that level of toxicity.  The addict that says, “It’s not a problem, just one more high.” can lose their life to that one more high.

Does parenting have any role in its formation?

Overly harsh parenting, or parents who are often angry create a conflict within the child.  They are frightened to tell the truth at the same time as they are torn up inside about lying.  This is a perfect formula for a child to begin using denial as a defense against this difficult turmoil within.  Children can also begin to implement denial when one parent joins with them in keeping a secret from the other parent.  Together, the united parent and child form a bond over, “It’s not that bad.  In fact, what’s the big deal?  I don’t see a problem with this.  If we tell (the other parent) they are going to be irrational (even if they won’t), so let’s just keep this between us.”  Both of these scenarios are very destructive to the child’s development.

Displacement

What is it?

Mother Goose helps us remember this one with “Hi-ho, the derry-o.”  Dad has a terrible boss, but dad can’t lose his job, so he does a good amount of stuffing his emotions all day at work.  Dad comes home from work, and, 

Dad yells at Mom

Dad yells at Mom

Hi-ho the derry-o

Dad yells at Mom.

For many reasons, Mom doesn’t fight back with Dad. 

Mom yells at child

Mom yells at child

Hi-ho the derry-o….

You get the picture.

Child can’t yell at Mom, so child pulls the cat’s tail.


There you have displacement.  Usually done unconsciously, at least at first, the person redirects emotion from a “dangerous” person or situation to a “safe” one.

Sometimes the person redirects the emotion from the dangerous to themselves.  An example would be in a dating relationship.  When one person is “dangerous”/hurtful and the partner adopts the attitude, “I’m so stupid.  (S)he is right.  No one would want to be with me.”  They could fall into depression, substance abuse, self-harm, or even suicide.

How it keeps you stuck.

We consider displacement a neurotic (abnormally sensitive, obsessive or tense and anxious) defense mechanism.  Fear usually motivates displacement, fear of being emotionally or physically harmed, losing one’s job or marriage, or any other difficult outcome that happens when someone stands up to a difficult person or situation. Fear keeps us stuck, sometimes lack of confidence, past experiences or lack of resources.

It may have been the best option.

This defense mechanism is often formed early in life as a child who cannot speak openly to a parent, sibling or classmate.  Sometimes it develops later in life when a person enters a relationship with a difficult person they aren’t used to dealing with. If you don’t have support, you may not see any option other than to stuff your feelings.

Can it be fixed?

Displacement is fairly easy to detect.  Many times, the person using displacement recognizes during or after the fact that the person they acted out toward did nothing to deserve it.

Sometimes, the next person in line is emotionally strong and calls it like it is.  

The best way to help someone using displacement is to not lash back.  Do your best to exit the exchange calmly, if possible, saying, “You seem upset, can we talk about this when we are both in a better mood?”  If the person will let you help them, you can try to understand what happened before they lashed out at you and see if they will let you help them. Getting support and learning boundaries is really important.

Misunderstandings of this defense mechanism.

Many parents and professionals describe an occurrence of children “keeping it together” during a difficult day at school.  The child doesn’t show any emotional or behavioral issues at school.  The child comes home and acts out with mom.  In theory, this describes displacement, and we hail mom as the “safe person.”  Which, in theory, is why the child feels safe to let out their emotions through bad behavior.

While this may happen occasionally with some children, it is a flawed theory.  More commonly school is the “safe place” where the “safe people” are, with rules and boundaries for decent and civil behavior.  Rules and boundaries create a sense of safety and safe children are content children. The child arrives home to a less bounded, limitless environment where the child acts out because they can.  It becomes a win-win for the child, being able to act out and have their parent say it’s not their fault.

(OK – I probably just lost half of my followers.)

How dangerous is it?

Displacement turned inward can be dangerous for a person who acts it out through self-harm.  Displacement acted out on others can fracture relationships, cause people to want to avoid you, and crush the spirit of children.

Does parenting have any role in its formation?

Displacement can come at unpredictable times.  All could be well, one parent flies off the handle at the other, even if the children don’t witness it, the other parent then has a significant mood change, for the worse and the children don’t know which end is up.

What is it?

Intellectualization is when someone uses reasoning and logic to block issues and the emotional stress that they cause. Intellectualization is somewhat cold, rational and clinical. For example, your spouse, who has been living with cancer is evaluated as being in the end stage of life. The hospice worker arrives at the house and you are prepared with a stack of articles about treatment protocol, nutrition and other healing methods. The hospice worker is there to tell you how they are going to work with you to make sure your spouse remains as comfortable as possible as they begin to pass and you want to talk about the illness. They may say, “Yes, I know they are dying, but what about this? What about that? Did you know…?”

How it keeps you stuck.

Many words, details and facts distract the person from the emotions they may feel. When we put a wall up to “protect” us from the emotions, we delay the inevitable or the chance to work through the difficult experience.

It may have been the best option.

Take a serious accident or tragedy for example. Let’s say you witness a car accident in which there is a fatality. Intellectualization happens to many people unconsciously and is a very beneficial defense. While some people will collapse and sob, others will be standing tall, pointing, describing and explaining. As First Responders and helping professionals, we want to help them slow down a bit, breath, start to feel grounded, but we absolutely do not want to interrupt their process. A. They may have some very important information to share, and B. They may not be prepared for the avalanche of emotion that could come on.

Can it be fixed?

Intellectualization is also classified as a neurotic defense mechanism (abnormally sensitive, obsessive or tense and anxious). However, it doesn’t typically take the form of being offensive or hurtful to others. It can be very annoying and frustrating for others and difficult to watch the person suffer with not accepting reality. The best way to help someone who is using intellectualization is to be very calm and grounded yourself. You need to know when to just listen and know when to intervene. If it feels like the time to intervene, you must remain calm AND simple. When I say simple, I mean, after an onslaught of detail, you take a breath for yourself and say something like, “This is really hard.” or, “Wow, this is a lot. How are you feeling?” In therapy, I try to slow the person down by letting them know they are “sending” too much information to me all at once. I say, “Hold on for a minute. Let me see if I understand.” Then I will make some summary statement of all they have just told me, validate that they must feel very overwhelmed, and ask them to say something about how they are feeling.

Misunderstandings of this defense mechanism.

Sometimes when people are using intellectualization, others accuse them of being cold, or aloof or uncaring. Their intellectualization isn’t usually coming from a “cold heart.” As an example, a wife coming in talking about her husband’s affair, with a lot of detail and thought but no emotion, we may mistake for, “They must not have really loved him. She’s not even crying or seeming upset.” This isn’t true. On occasion I have waited for a pause and said something like, “How are YOU doing?…..I’m sure this isn’t the fairy tale marriage that you played out as a child with your dolls.” And then comes the flood of tears and emotion.

How dangerous is it?

Intellectualization can be dangerous in that a person could stay in a very difficult situation which is allowed to continue for a long as the person is caught up in details that derail them from taking action on the reality. Mostly though, it is emotional. The longer one says away from what they feel, they stay bound up inside and restricted from a life with their full emotions. Because the mind doesn’t do a very good job at differentiating happy emotions from sad emotions. The person tense to not feel the good emotions along with not feeling the hard ones. A lot of times people feel like if they let themselves get close to the emotion, the house of cards will fall. Some people don’t even know what it’s like to have the emotions. It’s like they just don’t speak that language.

Does parenting have any role in its formation?

Parents who have a hard time with emotion often raise children to have a hard time with emotion. As a child, I was not well connected to my emotions. My mother, God bless her, didn’t want to disparage my father in any way, and I’m glad for that! Truly glad. She never said a negative word about him. As a child, I had many intellectualized ways of thinking of my father and myself in relationship to my father. Much of it was useful, but I never had the other side, the emotional side. “It would be normal if you felt sad about this.” “How did you feel when you saw your father in a coma?” It was all good talking about the details about the why and how, but the feelings, not so much.

Next Up – Projection

  • What is it?
  • How it keeps you stuck.
  • It may have been the best option.
  • Can it be fixed?
  • Misunderstandings of this defense mechanism.
  • How dangerous is it?
  • Does parenting have any role in its formation?