Defend Yourself Against Harmful Defenses

Defend Yourself Against Harmful Defenses

Defenses are what we use to protect ourselves from pain. While we all use them when distressed, we generally reach a point the stage when we are finally able to face our problems. At that point, we don’t have to rely so heavily on our defenses to protect us. Defenses can actually become unhealthy when we refuse to face our true experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Several problems can develop that can get in the way of a balances balanced life. Here are some defenses and information about each of them. The list is not exhaustive, but covers the big ones.

 Defenses can actually become

  unhealthy when we

refuse to face our

true experiences,

thoughts, and feelings.



One way to avoid the risk associated with feeling disagreeable feelings is to displace them, or put them somewhere other than where they should be. A common example is being angry with your spouse. Displaying your ire could cost you your peaceful home. You might be afraid that you can’t contain it, but also afraid of what will happen if you express it with your spouse. You might instead share your feelings, but rather redirecting it toward some other, safer source, e.g., your business partner or best friend. So, you yell at them, and in relative safety, pick a fight. They will forgive you or ignore it, allowing you to vent your anger without risking your home life.


Associated with displacement is sublimation, or the healthy redirection of an emotion. Instead of punching your boss when angry with him, instead of taking out your anger on your wife, you go to the gym and punch a bag. Additional examples are turning the painful loss of a partner to drunk driving into a campaign to increase alcohol death awareness, turning a high degree of aggression into a professional football career, or turning the pain and resentment of a child with autism into a drive for Autism Awareness.


We all project; don’t deny it. It is the act of taking something or some feeling in ourselves and placing it outside of us, onto others.  Sometimes we project positive and sometimes negative aspects of ourselves. At times, we project things we don’t want to admit about ourselves, and so we turn it around and put it on others, i.e., “it’s not that I made a imprudent blunder, it’s that you’re so very critical of everything I do.” Sometimes it is simply our experiences, e.g., “my dad was an evenhanded person when we disagreed, so if I use reason with my boss, I’m sure we can work out our disagreement.”

The problem with projecting undesirable traits is that we still agonize with them. In the example I just gave, instead of feeling lacking (our true feeling), we experience the feeling that everyone is critical. While we avoid outlooks of failure and defenselessness, we nonetheless still struggle and feel uncomfortable. The more energy you put into avoiding the awareness that you have limitations, the more difficult it becomes to address them in a positive way. This is the primary defense mechanism of paranoid and anti-social personalities.


The “sour grapes” defense mechanism comes from one of Aesop’s fables. The fox wanted some grapes, but he couldn’t reach them. This caused him to feel pain, as he couldn’t have what he wanted. He rationalized, “they were probably sour anyway” to turn them into something he didn’t really want, and thus couldn’t be very upset about not getting. It is an intellectual way to diminish pain or guilt. The old “they’re 50% less fat so I can eat twice as many” routine is the same in reverse. You make up a “logical” argument to avoid guilt.


Fantasy can be a helpful or a pathological defense. Doesn’t that always seem to be the case with the fun ones? Fantasizing involves creating an internal, wonderful world when the real world becomes too painful. Thinking about your anticipated vacation when work gets stressful is a healthy use of fantasy. However, if you don’t solve your problems and only daydream about them being solved, thus avoiding possibly challenging obligations, fantasy becomes unhealthy. If you handle the problems with fantasy alone, you get nothing done.


In the same family as rationalization, intellectualization encompasses eliminating the passion from emotional experiences, discussing uncomfortable events in detached, sterile ways. A person who intellectualizes grows distant from their feelings, and when asked to describe their feelings, often are unable to do so. They may understand all the words that describe feelings, but have no idea what they really feel, making it impossible to describe.

 A person who intellectualizes

grows distant from

their feelings, and

when asked to describe

their feelings,

often are unable to do so.


Denial is the easiest defense mechanism. It is the refusal to acknowledge what has, is, or will happen. “My partner didn’t have an affair, but rather was traveling weekly for work.” A related defense is “minimizing.” When you minimize, you technically accept what happened, but only in a “watered down” form. “Yes, I have indeed been drinking a little more than usual lately, but it’s just due to stresses at work; I don’t really have a drinking problem…it’s just temporary, not an inner weakness or something…blah, blah, blah…”


Denial is the easiest defense

mechanism. It is the

 refusal to acknowledge

what has, is, or will happen.



Repression is often thought of as the father of all defenses. Repression involves putting uncomfortable feelings and remembrances out of your mind. All defenses do this to one extent or another. Customarily, repression is unconsciously “disremembering,” i.e., forgetting and not recognizing that you forgot anything. You have no mindful memory or active knowledge of the things you repressed. Suppression is when you consciously forget something, or make the choice to avoid thinking about it.

The problem with repression is that the repressed memory, feeling, or negative insight doesn’t go away. It continues to affect us because our unconscious gives it a life of its own. It becomes all the more powerful because we repress it, and it will, in the long term, affect our decisions and reactions in ways that we don’t see but others do.


Withdrawal is a really severe form of defense. It involves disconnecting yourself from events, stimuli, and interactions that might remind you of uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. Withdrawal takes a couple of different forms, such as silence, running away, drinking or drug use, or a combination of these. You don’t want to talk to friends because that could prompt them to ask about painful events, so you avoid them. Television, books, coworkers, almost anything can all remind you of unpleasant feelings, so you eschew them. Paired with fantasy, it can be completely paralyzing. Withdrawal inexorably leads to feelings of isolation and estrangement, which generally means you feel more pain. It becomes a vicious cycle.


This one is one of the hardest defenses for many people to appreciate. When we have a reaction that is too painful or threatening to feel, such as intense hate for someone with power over us, we turn it into the reverse, i.e., intense liking for that person. That way, the feeling—or even the awareness of the feeling—doesn’t threaten us. Like denial and repression, you might begin to do this automatically, often being taught from childhood, and never know what your true feelings are.

These myriad defenses are tools we utilize to protect ourselves from pain in our lives. We use them when troubled, but we must come to a point when we face and deal with our problems and don’t rely so heavily on our defenses to keep us safe. Several problems can develop when living this way:

·      Relying on defenses for too long gives our problems a life of their own, making them more formidable than they really are.

·      Continued reliance on these defenses creates new problems that are as bad, (sometimes even worse), than the original discomfort they block us from feeling.

·      If we utilize some of these defenses for too long, they become habits, automatically separating us from our real feelings.

·      Using your limited “psychic energy” almost exclusively on defenses doesn’t leave much energy for nourishing and satisfying pursuits. If getting intimate with others reminds you of past hurts, you will likely avoid dating altogether, continually missing out on support, love, and understanding which could actually provide relief from your pain and make you happy.

Over time, the more we close off parts of ourselves to other people or the world, stockpiling pain and unhappiness, and avoiding potentially rewarding life experiences, the more anxious, nervous, and unpredictable our lives become. Otherwise restrained emotions can overwhelm us, and make us feel as though we’ve slammed into a wall of pain. Paradoxically, this can drive us to continue doing the same things (e.g., defending ourselves in unhealthy ways) in order to avoid such experiences in the future.

If you find yourself doing this, talk with a coach or in serious cases, a therapist. Failing this, you only guarantee the continuation of the defensive cycle and the challenges in your life.


Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.