defense mechanisms

Defense Mechanisms: When We Hurt Those We Care About

The Mechanism Behind The Defense

Defense mechanisms seem to be one of the more mysterious aspects of human interaction. Most of us make the common assumption that defense mechanisms must be so psychologically complex that the average person doesn’t stand a chance at trying to decode them.

But what many people fail to realize is that although what causes us to use a defense mechanism may be very complex, the actual mechanism itself is not. As it turns out, defense mechanisms are universal behaviors, meaning that even though we may have different reasons, we all seem to engage in the same kind of psychological maneuvers to avoid unpleasant realities.

Because defense mechanisms work in a similar way from individual to individual, and because we all use them from time to time to make ourselves feel better, every one of us has had enough life experience to not only understand them but also to be able to stop another person from using them.

You might imagine that taking away someone’s ability to use a defense mechanism could upset the person using it. After all, we are usually taught that defense mechanisms are in place for a reason. But because what causes defense mechanisms to be triggered is usually fear left over from past events or insecurities, once the defense is taken away most people are able to function without them.

Although it’s good to know that we can stop another person’s defensive maneuvers if they are getting in the way of comfortable communication, it can also be helpful to take a look at why it is so frustrating and painful to be around people who are using them.

But in order to understand why we become uncomfortable around those who use defense mechanisms, we first have to define what they are. Defense mechanisms can range from slightly annoying behavior to outright abuse. But there are several things they all have in common.

What Are Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms in their mildest form consist of our mind’s ability to make us look the other way when we encounter a thought, feeling or belief that makes us feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we are aware that we want to put a thought out of our mind. But when it happens without our conscious awareness we refer to it as being caused by a defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms are unusual behaviors in that they are not entered into in a completely voluntary way and they tend to operate without our knowledge or consent.

As we take a closer look at this very unique way human beings have of protecting themselves from emotional pain and distress, we might say that defense mechanisms fall into the category of behaviors that if we hadn’t experienced ourselves we might not believe were normal. The way that defense mechanisms protect us is through a form of compartmentalization that happens spontaneously when we are about to enter certain uncomfortable emotional states.

Most people are familiar with the fact that our minds are capable, in unusual circumstances, of putting us into a state of amnesia that allows us to block off very painful events from our outer awareness. But what they might not realize is that our minds are capable of performing even more complex feats in order to protect us from everyday types of emotional discomfort.

Our mind can actually go through a process where it seems to divide itself into what could be described as two separate entities. But that’s not all. When our mind splits into two entities, one part of our mind which we might call the inner mind knows everything about the outer mind. However, the outer mind has no idea that the inner mind even exists. By splitting off this way, the inner part of our mind is able to control how we feel about things.

But the way in which the inner mind gets us to change how we feel is also very interesting. In order to protect us from uncomfortable emotions, it feeds suggestive thoughts and images to our outer mind designed to get us to move towards pleasant emotional states and away from unpleasant ones. Although there are many emotions that trigger defense mechanisms, the emotions we will be addressing will be feelings of embarrassment, shame, and humiliation.

Common Defense Mechanisms

Our inner emotional security system has the capacity to literally block emotionally traumatic past events from the outer mind’s awareness if necessary, but most of the time we might say it functions more like a public relations firm. It usually spends its days trying to put a positive spin on our interpretation of events that might cause us to feel bad about ourselves.

If we behave in an unkind way to others, it may tell us it’s okay, we were just in a bad mood that day. When we take more than our share, it might announce that since we have had a hard week or even a hard life, we probably deserved more than others. When someone criticizes us it may tell us that we didn’t do anything wrong and the person who criticized us was probably just being a jerk. When we get in trouble it may tell us it’s not really our fault or that someone else made us do it.

Although these defensive maneuvers seem fairly harmless, they tend to be very frustrating for those who are on the receiving end. After all, when we are the one who has been yelled at, when someone takes our share, when others don’t take responsibility for their actions or when someone blames us for something we never did, we get upset.

Defense mechanisms do a great job of protecting us from feeling bad about ourselves, but they have a downside of not allowing us to see what we have done wrong. Protecting us from feeling bad about ourselves may be a noble undertaking, but feeling bad about ourselves actually plays a very important role in our lives.

In order not to damage our relationships we must be capable of feeling bad about doing things that cause pain for others. Humans are highly sensitive creatures, and we can easily feel hurt or taken advantage of even by those we are close to.

The ability to feel bad about what we have done wrong is what motivates us to apologize or make amends to those we may have unintentionally hurt. The truth is, the ability to show others that we feel bad when we have done something wrong is a relationship skill that we cannot do without.

But not being able to know when we have done something wrong is only one of the reasons why defense mechanisms make life uncomfortable for others.

The Need To Be Understood

One of the most important aspects of human communication seems to be our ability to achieve a meeting of the minds with others that allows us to feel understood. For some reason, when something gets in the way of someone being able to see our perspective clearly, it causes great frustration and discomfort during communication.

We don’t seem to care that much whether others agree with our perspective as long as they are willing to try to see it our way for a moment or two. And in order to achieve this most of us are usually more than happy to spend extra effort explaining our point of view in order to get rewarded with a little understanding.

Defense mechanisms often get in the way of our ability to acknowledge any points of view other than our own. The way they work is by locking us into a narrow perspective that keeps us feeling emotionally comfortable. But in order for defense mechanisms to stay in place, our inner security system must remain vigilant, ready at all times to turn us against any opposing perspective that might upset our emotional equilibrium.

Since the protective inner mind must always distort reality slightly in order to get us to feel good when things are not going our way, any communication from others that does not include this slight distortion will be rejected. This makes relationships with people who regularly use defense mechanisms frustrating at best and often quite painful.

Now that you have a basic understanding of how the more simple forms of defense mechanisms affect us, let’s take a look at a more extreme form.

defense mechanisms

The Dark Side Of Defense Mechanisms

The behavior patterns that we have been addressing so far have been based on a fairly mild form of defense mechanism. But one of the more destructive uses of defense mechanisms takes place when our inner mind believes a person in our lives might be capable of making us feel a great deal of emotional pain. The emotion that often triggers this more destructive form of defense mechanism is the pain of humiliation.

If the inner mind finds us interacting with someone who it suspects could cause us high levels of humiliation, instead of trying to protect us incident by incident, it may launch what we could call a campaign aimed at getting us to stop trusting that person. In this situation, the thoughts that the inner mind will start feeding us will take on a more sinister tone in an attempt to fill us with suspicion and doubt.

A mother who feels afraid her daughter-in-law may take her son away from her may find her inner mind waging a campaign to get the outer mind to believe the daughter is a bad person. A husband who fears his wife’s good qualities may make her attractive to other men may find his inner mind waging a campaign designed to get him to make her feel so ashamed of her good qualities that she hides them from others. You can see how easy it might be for this kind of defense mechanism to turn into abuse.

How the Mechanism Works

To make it easier to understand how defense mechanisms work in real life, we will be looking at a scenario which depicts a very mild form of defense mechanism, the kind that any of us might experience in our everyday lives. This level of defense mechanism may be somewhat annoying but generally doesn’t cause the kind of trouble that feelings of humiliation can trigger. We are going to be looking at the level of defense mechanism usually triggered by embarrassment.

Let’s say you have offered to watch your sister’s children at your house while she and her husband are out of town for the weekend. It’s not unusual for parents to have more fear than is warranted at the thought of leaving their children with others. But for people who think of themselves as highly rational and not generally insecure, admitting to themselves that they are being overprotective can cause them to feel embarrassed.

Embarrassment is one of those emotions that although not terribly painful, most people tend to find extremely uncomfortable. For this reason embarrassment can easily trigger defense mechanisms. In other words, if your sister has irrational fear around leaving her children, her inner mind might step in to relieve her of embarrassment.

All it has to do to take away her embarrassing feelings is to shift her perspective slightly. Her inner mind can simply feed in subtly suggestive thoughts to try to convince her that she’s not being overprotective at all and her fear is perfectly rational. It might instead suggest that the reason she is feeling fear must be because you are an irresponsible caretaker. Of course your sister’s inner mind knows it can’t outright say you’re irresponsible because clearly you are not.

So what it does instead is use manipulative imagery that will stir up your sister’s fears about your inadequacy to keep her kids safe. To accomplish this it may feed scenarios to your sister’s outer mind where you leave the child in a bathtub unattended or let their child stay up all night watching inappropriate television. Or it might just feed in thoughts that say you don’t have children, so how could you possibly know how to keep one safe.

The action your sister will probably take is to give you a stern lecture on how to take care of her children. But when your sister starts to list off all of the things she is now convinced you are going to do wrong, you are going to feel like she thinks you are an irresponsible caretaker.

Here you were doing her a favor, and now she is acting like you are not worthy of the task. This mild form of defense mechanism may be relatively harmless, but it can take away the goodwill most of us want to be able to extend to those we care about.

But you are about to find out that within the message that the sister in this scenario is sending you is a glaring flaw. In fact, you will find that all defense mechanisms have a flaw that when identified can bring the inner mind’s entire house of cards down.

Because the inner mind must distort the truth in order to rearrange the facts so we can feel better, there will always be a flaw in its attempt to change our emotional state. In this scenario the flaw in the inner mind’s plan to get your sister to feel better was suggesting that you are an irresponsible caretaker when you’re not. Once you have identified the flaw, all you need to do to stop the defense mechanism is direct your sister’s attention to the fact that you actually are a responsible caretaker.

If you can get your sister to remember that you are responsible after all, the justification the inner security system was using won’t work any more. She will stop her lecturing and may even tell you she was just nervous about leaving her kids. At this point you might think all we have to do is point out the truth and the defense mechanism will be gone. But those who have tried to point out inconsistencies in the thinking of people under the influence of defense mechanisms can tell you this usually just makes things worse.

Unfortunately, because part of the inner mind’s job is not only presenting more comfortable points of view but also making sure no one contradicts them, your attempt to point out the inconsistency yourself will actually be met with more resistance. The art to dismantling a defense mechanism lies in getting the person using the defense mechanism to focus on the glaring flaw themselves without knowing you are the one that got them to do it.

The techniques you will be learning in Part 2 of this blog series will give you language that has been specifically developed for just this purpose. I hope you will join me in Defense Mechanisms Part 2: How to Stop Defensive Behavior where you will be learning techniques that allow you to disarm a defense mechanism using techniques from the Nicola Method.

If you would like to learn the Nicola Method so you can put an end to the high conflict situations you may be experiencing, click on this link to the welcome page of this website where you will find the resources you need.

If you want to try out some of the basic techniques of this method for free to see if this method is right for your situation, you can learn them from an intro guide flip-book here or a PDF version of the intro guide here.

Visit Joanna on Google+