Defense mechanisms are coping techniques that are used at an unconscious level in order to deal with anything that is unpleasant, unacceptable, and threatening. Here, we will understand the purpose of these, as well as give you examples of the common psychological defense mechanisms used in everyday life.
Did You Know?
Daydreaming is a common defense mechanism used to escape from reality, and so is making use of humor.
Defense mechanisms (or defence mechanisms), also known as face-saving devices, are used as a stop-gap arrangement, and are coping techniques that are used by humans in order to cope and deal with anything that is unpleasant, unacceptable, and threatening.
They are known as face-saving devices, because they are literally used to ‘save our face’ in the wake of any threatening situation and news, as the reality is too difficult to accept and deal within its entire intensity.
What Are Defense Mechanisms
Sigmund Freud proposed the concepts of conscious, unconscious, and subconscious, and went on to talk about the concept of defense mechanisms as an integral part of the unconscious psyche. He said that in our daily lives, we are faced with certain negative stimuli from time to time which can get too threatening to handle in all their intensity. These stimuli can corrode a person’s ego and make living impossible, causing severe mental stress, and in their most corrosive form, can even lead to a nervous breakdown. It is because of this that we push these unpleasant thoughts and situations into our unconscious mind without even realizing it, and aren’t even aware of their existence until they come up in the form of inexplicable behavior (dreams, slip of tongue, etc.).
Why They Are Important
Freud further went on to explain that these mechanisms are extremely important to protect a person’s ego, and without their aid, the ego would simply crumble and disintegrate, causing severe mental stress and making daily living nearly impossible. Just as one would make use of a paracetamol to get better physically, defense mechanisms are used to get better mentally. They work as shock absorbers and help a person deal with pain, which is why, defense mechanisms are considered to serve a good purpose.
10 Commonly Used Defense Mechanisms
The first ever identified defense mechanism was that of repression, and was proposed by Freud. Given below are 10 of the most commonly used defense mechanisms in daily life with examples.
Repression is used to unconsciously push down memories of disturbing thoughts, impulses, and events into the unconscious. Since this is done unconsciously, people have little control over what gets stored, and in which manner. It is, therefore, quite likely that these memories might alter over a period of time.
For Example: A soldier might repress the memories of death, bloodshed, and destruction in the battlefield.
Denial is refusing to accept reality and admitting to an obvious truth. It is a refusal to recognize and/or admit that something painful or unpleasant has happened or is currently happening. People who hear about the news of death of their loved ones often experience denial.
For Example: A drug addict may be in denial that he is addicted to drugs and may continue to tell himself that he is doing extremely well in his personal and professional life.
This defense mechanism has people taking out their frustration, impulses, and feelings on another, less threatening object that is not the source of their frustration. Because they cannot use negative emotions and retaliate against the actual source of their frustration (as it could lead to negative consequences), they literally displace their negative feelings on to some other, less threatening subject.
For Example: The boss shouts at an employee, the employee cannot say anything back with the fear that he will lose his job, so he displaces his anger onto someone less threatening like his wife back home. The chain does not stop there, but continues further where the wife might shout at the older child, the older child at the younger sibling, and the sibling might finally take it out on the pets. This fit of rage gets triggered even with a slight provocation.
Regression is a technique that is used to regress or revert to an earlier stage of development when faced with an unpleasant or unacceptable situation. The stage that one regresses to and adopts behavior of, could depend from person to person.
For Example: Fearing a shouting by the teacher, a teenager might start bedwetting again, or a refusal to buy a toy might cause a young child to throw a tantrum and sulk. Or a young woman might curl up into a fetal position after a breakup and refuse to climb out of bed.
In face of a drawback, the person puts in extra amount of efforts to overcome or compensate for the situation. These efforts are put in to such a great extent that not only is the drawback overcome, but a very high or desirable position is achieved.
For Example: A person who has failed a semester will put in so much efforts that he will not only achieve a good grade, but probably get the first rank in class.
It is nothing but channeling unacceptable thoughts, emotions, and impulses into more acceptable forms. This defense mechanism can help a person focus on the more positive aspects of life by forcing him to don a better outlook.
For Example: A person who has anger issues will enroll in a kickboxing class so that his anger can be channelized. Humor and daydreaming also help a person deal with an intense situation or setbacks better.
Rationalization involves putting unpleasant or unacceptable behavior or feelings in a rational manner and avoiding true reasons for the behavior. This defense mechanism prevents anxiety and protects one’s self-esteem and self-concept.
For Example: A student who has received really low marks in a test might rationalize by saying that the teacher has purposely given him low marks because she hates his guts. Or a thief justifies stealing saying that the person was rich and would not miss the money anyway.
It involves projecting one’s own undesired, thoughts, feelings, and/or impulses onto another person who does not have those feelings, thoughts, and desires. Thus, we project a quality that we don’t like about ourselves onto another person who does not have that negative quality at all.
For Example: A person who never listens, will get angry and blame his/her spouse for never listening, when in fact, it is him/her all along.
When faced with an unpleasant situation or news, a person will remove himself emotionally from the situation and concentrate on only the cold and clinical aspects of the situation.
For Example: A person on learning that he is suffering from a terminal illness will, instead of reacting with grief, react by learning everything about the illness, or may list out all the fruitless procedures that he could undergo.
It is an unconscious attempt to undo or take back in order to nullify an action or comment that has resulted in unpleasant feelings of anxiety or guilt, which may be hurtful and/or unacceptable to the other person. This is done to counteract the damage that may be done by the previous comment or action, and hope that the two will balance each other out.
For Example: After insulting someone or calling him a name, a person might try to undo his actions by spending the next hour praising the person’s positive qualities.
How Defense Mechanisms Can Be Corrosive
While defense mechanisms are considered to be important for our mental health, it is important to understand that these can take one away from reality. Let’s draw a parallel here―if a person starts coughing, he will take a syrup and deal with it thus, but if the coughing does not stop even after trying all the methods possible, he will visit a physician to get to the root of the problem. If he does not visit a doctor, he is simply worsening his condition. Similarly, defense mechanisms are only supposed to act as a buffer and help a person deal with the initial shock. After this stage is over, he is expected to face reality, and take the necessary steps to deal with the problem at hand. Failure to do so means that he is moving away from reality which, in itself, can be extremely detrimental.
Defense mechanisms help by softening the blow (so to say) and help in cushioning our ego. But because this happens at an unconscious level, we may not be aware that we are putting these into use; which is where their corrosive nature might come into force and take us away from reality. That is why it is important to know about these defense mechanisms, and understand when to bring the brakes into practice.