Understanding Common Defence Mechanisms

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Conflict is inevitable in each person’s life, even in a healthy relationship. Whether it be at work, school, or home, you’re bound to run into it at some point. Some conflicts are bigger than others and require confrontation to resolve. While some people are comfortable with talking through issues with another person, there are others who shy away from it for one reason or another. In many cases, a person will use what are known as defense mechanisms to help themselves cope with the situation at hand. Understanding the different types of defense mechanisms can help you to recognize when you or another person might be using them. Once you notice them, you can take steps to actually resolve the conflict instead of pushing it to the side or not addressing the root cause of the problem.

What are Defense Mechanisms? 

Defense mechanisms are unconscious responses, thoughts, or behaviors that keep a person from feeling anxiety, stress, guilt, shame, or threats to their ego or self-esteem. Essentially, they are resources a person uses to regulate their emotional state during times of heightened stress. Most people do not realize they’re using defense mechanisms. They’re normal to have, and everyone will use a different kind depending on the situation. 

Types of Defense Mechanisms

Defense Mechanisms

There are several different types of defense mechanisms, and all vary in how healthy they are. You may be able to spot some of them in your own life whenever you experience confrontation or conflict. Some of the most popular unhealthy ones include: 

  1. Denial: Denial is common when people want to avoid facing their feelings or the facts. Many times, people feel they can’t handle the truth or the reality of a situation, so they use this defense mechanism to control their emotional response. Although denial can reduce anxiety, stress, or guilt, the tradeoff is often not worth it. Eventually, the person will have to deal with reality, and when that time comes, it may be harder than if the person had dealt with it in the first place. 
  1. Acting Out: When someone doesn’t know how to express their feelings in a calm, controlled manner, they might act out instead. They may feel incapable or embarrassed about sharing what’s on their mind, so they turn to other ways to tell a person how they feel. This might mean punching through a wall, ignoring someone, or throwing a tantrum. In most cases, this only prolongs the issue and keeps it from being solved. 
  1. Compartmentalization: This is a defense mechanism in which a person suppresses their thoughts and feelings. It’s used by people who want to avoid the anxiety felt when their values or emotions are contradictory. An example would be someone who is passionate about the environment but takes a job working in the fracking industry. They may justify their decision to accept the job using compartmentalization. Many people who experience trauma use this defense mechanism to move through it, but anyone can use it. 
  1. Regression: This is when an individual moves to an earlier developmental stage in order to feel safe. For example, a child might start sucking their thumb again when under severe stress. The behavior might look inappropriate for the person’s age but it’s a psychological response that’s often unconscious. 
  1. Reaction formation: Those using reaction formation usually know exactly how they feel but choose to express the opposite emotions. If they’re upset about something, they might act overly happy instead. Many times, they are afraid of the outcome if they express their true feelings. So, they feel it’s safer to stay positive and hide their actual emotions. 
  1. Projection: This refers to the placement of one’s own thoughts and feelings onto another individual. It usually occurs when someone isn’t in touch with their own emotions and motivations or is ashamed for feeling how they do. As a result, it becomes easier to blame another person and get upset with them than to express oneself. Someone who feels unheard might get upset with another person, accusing them of not listening. In reality, though, they are the ones who don’t listen—they just can’t recognize it in themselves.  
  1. Rationalization: Rationalization is a very common method used when people don’t want to feel uncomfortable with their own decisions. As an example, someone might justify their unhealthy food choices by saying that they took the stairs instead of the elevator that day. Although the behavior doesn’t make much sense, it’s enough for the person to feel more comfortable with themselves.

Coping with Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms

Some defense mechanisms are healthier than others. In general, it’s healthier to be assertive, rational, and humorous during conflict. Of course, every situation will be different; sometimes it’s not appropriate to be laughing, and you’ll have to gauge the best response. If you realize you use unhealthy defense mechanisms, consider talking to a counselor. They can give you better coping strategies and help you learn how to communicate better. It’s always possible to change your behavior with the right mindset and commitment to doing better.  

Defense mechanisms are something that everyone uses from time to time. While there are ways of approaching conflict that are healthier than others, no one can be perfect all the time. If you’re concerned about how you’re responding to conflict in your life, it could be helpful to see a mental health professional. They can provide you with advice for coping strategies and help hold you accountable to changing your behavior. Facing the problems in your life is important for your mental and emotional wellbeing. Refusing to face them can contribute to problems over time and make life more difficult than it needs to be. Through therapy, you can become more self-aware and begin to practice healthier ways of dealing with stress and anxiety in your life. 

Marie Miguel Biography

Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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