Defence mechanisms kick in when we feel threatened or unsafe. These defence mechanisms are unconscious psychological responses that protect people from feelings of anxiety, threats to self-esteem, and things that they don’t want to think about or deal with. Uncertainty and emotional pain are definitely triggers for this, and we have a lot of uncertainty at the moment. The problem with defence mechanisms is that they often have a way of distorting reality and the way we experience it, and secondly, they prevent you from ever having your real needs met. They can keep you at a distance from dealing with things.
Typical examples of defence mechanisms are:
- Displacement – Have you ever had a really bad day at work and then gone home and taken your frustration out on family and friends? This is displacement, only – often times I don’t think we see the link. We just find ourselves lashing out at people close to us, not realising it’s a release from something else we haven’t acknowledged.
- Denial – used often to describe situations in which people seem unable to face reality or admit an obvious truth. For example, not wanting to acknowledge a relationship is over, or not wanting to acknowledge the financial impact of COVID 19.
- Repression – acts to keep information out of conscious awareness.
- Sublimation – allows us to act out unacceptable impulses by converting these behaviours into a more acceptable form. For example, you might be experiencing extreme anger and you end up running around your house 50 times to let off steam to cope.
- Projection – taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might instead believe that he or she does not like you.
- Intellectualisation – works to reduce anxiety by thinking about events in a cold, clinical way. This can come across almost mechanical, where we continue to operate but without any connection to the emotional impact.
- Rationalisation – involves explaining an unacceptable behaviour or feeling in a rational or logical manner, avoiding the true reasons for the behaviour. For example, a student might blame a poor exam score on the instructor rather than his or her lack of preparation.
- Regression – When confronted by stressful events, people sometimes abandon coping strategies and revert to patterns of behaviour used in early development. For example crying or sulking as a reaction to a situation.
- Reaction formation – reduces anxiety by taking up the opposite feeling, impulse, or behaviour. An example of reaction formation would be treating someone you strongly dislike in an excessively friendly manner in order to hide your true feelings.
- Acting out – coping with stress by engaging in actions rather than acknowledging and bearing certain feelings. For example punching the door or throwing something.
- Avoidance – Refusing to deal with unpleasant situations or conversations that need to be had.
- Dissociation – Becoming separated or removed from one’s experience. This one runs me the strongest, as I continue to operate unaware of how strongly something has impacted me.
- Fantasy – Avoiding reality by retreating to a safe place within one’s mind.
You might well have experienced the impact of these defence mechanisms in the last few weeks. You might have felt your partner or someone living with you withdraw and start to become distant. Not knowing why this might cause you to also withdraw and distance yourself in an attempt to avoid feeling pain or anxiety. Unintentionally, this might have created a cold and distant experience during this time where it could have been a closely connected experience if we had been willing to have a conversation about what is really going on.
Pay attention to the specific struggles you have had in managing this lock-down experience, notice the mechanisms you are employing to cope.
Have you shut down? Are you acting out? Have you dissociated and do not feel anything? Are you in intellectualisation or rationalisation? Have you noticed times where you go into displacement, where you lash out at your family as a way of releasing the anger and frustration you might be feeling inside due to this situation?
Everything is ok, and we are so much more empowered when we can notice it and recognise it in the moment. It also helps enormously to understand what is going on for others who may be reacting with these same strategies unknown to them.
An alternative way to cope: Conversations for connection
Conversations for connection are so important during this time. I truly believe heart-sharing conversations during this time will get us through this and help us heal and create closer connections.
Brené Brown says the truest way to define courage is vulnerability or emotional risk. What if we can use this time to develop courage by engaging in conversations that are vulnerable and lead to deeper connection?
In my own experience, the minute I can acknowledge verbally what is going on inside of me and how I am feeling, the energy is immediately lifted and I am free to move on, or an opening of how I can move forward starts to emerge. Instantly I don’t feel so alone or where I might have felt angry or frustrated I now feel held, grateful and supported. But these conversations do not happen by themselves, they are initiated by YOU.
Feel free to share your own experience of the coping mechanisms you have employed over the last few weeks, or the ones you have experienced while in lock down. We would love to engage with you here.