Defense Mechanisms in Life

Bill Abbate

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Have you ever had to defend yourself? In what way, you ask? For many, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about self-defense are things like Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu, Jiu-Jitsu, and other martial arts. But what about other forms of self-defense that are not physical?
"Self-defense is Nature's oldest law." John Dryden (1631-1700)

Yes, many other forms of self-defense exist, some of which are called defense mechanisms. These mechanisms involve both psychological and physiological defenses. We will focus on the psychological in this article.

Defense mechanisms and behaviors

Defense mechanisms come from psychoanalytic theory and are specifically related to our behaviors. As a long-time executive coach, this area of self-defense is of particular interest since most coaching is about helping others modify or change their behaviors.

Whenever any of these defensive mechanisms are exposed so we can see them, we have an opportunity to grow and mature. The tricky part is recognizing them in ourselves and admitting we use them.

Before continuing, let's make sure we are clear on the definition of defense mechanisms.

defense mechanism (noun) - a mental process (e.g., repression or projection) initiated, typically unconsciously, to avoid conscious conflict or anxiety. – Oxford Languages Dictionary

Many types of defense mechanisms exist, some of which include:

  • Denial
  • Displacement
  • Rationalization
  • Intellectualization
  • Repression/Suppression
  • Projection
  • Regression
  • Compartmentalization
  • Sublimation
  • Reaction formation
  • Somatization
  • Avoidance
  • Fantasy
  • Passive-aggression

Each of these defense mechanisms has been written about extensively, and it is a simple matter to learn more about them with a quick search on the internet. Please note that these mechanisms typically operate beneath our conscious awareness.

While everyone is subject to these mechanisms and will exhibit the resulting behaviors, we are seldom aware of them. Part of the coach's job is to help bring these behaviors to the coachee's awareness to modify or change them.

Dealing with defensiveness

One of the issues with these defense mechanisms is they are too often used to defend our ego. We may rightly or wrongly protect our ego from harm, helping us ignore or avoid reality and truth. Who wants to hear or admit they are rude, obnoxious, argumentative, aloof, unfriendly, and a hundred other such behaviors? It is natural for us to become defensive when our poor behaviors come to light. Therein lies the problem!

"You need your ego to survive in the three-dimensional world, but you need only that part of the ego which processes information. The rest - pride, arrogance, defensiveness, fear - is worse than useless. The rest of the ego separates you from wisdom, joy, and God." Brian Weiss (1944-present)

I have always found it interesting defensiveness is off-putting when it comes from someone else, yet many of us are blind to it in ourselves! When defensiveness goes unchecked, it can become highly detrimental in our relationships and careers.

To keep this article at a reasonable length, let's focus on one of the most common defense mechanisms from the above list, denial.

The first thing required is to recognize and admit we are in denial. Help is usually needed to identify the defense mechanism in play.

While hiring a coach is not something everyone can afford, it can be a simple matter to ask someone who knows you well to help. You must be careful not to get defensive; otherwise, they may not be willing to help you!

Ask a question such as "What one thing or area of my life do you see where I may be in denial?" Whatever you do, never attempt to refute what they tell you. Take what they say, write it down, thank them for their input (nicely!), and think about it for a few days. If you are fortunate enough, they may provide you with an enormous opportunity for personal growth in your life.

"Be honest. Look for areas where you can admit error and say so. Apologize for your mistakes. It will help disarm your opponents and reduce defensiveness. "Dale Carnegie (1888-1955)

An example of this is recently when Jane, my wife, pointed out how I am often in denial about my health. Before my heart attacks, I was one of those seriously healthy individuals who rarely complained and could tolerate a great deal of pain. Because I could push my body so hard, I thought I was indestructible.

Yet my denial and defensiveness have continued. More recently, Jane called me on my denial once again. Since then, I have had several tests run on my heart and lungs.

Had Jane not called me on it, I would have likely continued to deny it. Fortunately, we have an appointment soon to look at the test results to understand what is going on with my heart and lungs.

Had I listened to Jane a few years ago, I may have caught some of the problems before they almost took my life. Yet here I go again, blind to my denial and defensiveness.

Hopefully, I have learned my lesson and changed my behavior this time! It isn't easy accepting even common sense criticism, but we reject it at our own expense. I am learning to be more open to taking criticism from Jane and acting on it. Thankfully!

While my denial is about health, your denial could be about anything in life where you are blind to what you are doing or your effect on other people. Is it possible you are in denial about something on your job or about the way you treat your colleagues, employees, spouse, or friends? What about another area in which you may sense you have an issue? Why not find out by asking others what they see?

Like me and so many of the people I have coached over the years, you too can find good things happen on the other side of behavioral change! All you must do is first recognize it, then think about it, and go to work on yourself. Of course, it always helps to have a coach or at least an accountability partner with you throughout the process. Why not try it? All you have to lose is one or more poor behaviors!

Final thoughts

While defending ourselves is important, we want to do so for the right reasons. Defensiveness is rarely, if ever, needed and usually leads only to division and strife. Who wants that?

Why not take the path that leads to personal growth and maturity by heeding the words of one of the worlds most acclaimed leadership experts, clinical psychologist, and bestselling author:

"To get greater than 100% return on a growth step, give up defensiveness. Defensiveness stifles performance, and destroys relationships." Henry Cloud (1956-present)

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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