In this article, I talk about 9 common defense mechanisms we employ in our lives. Most are used as a substitute for full expression of our thoughts and feelings (which I encourage), but you’ll find many of them useful nonetheless.
By the time you’re done reading this, you will understand what your defense mechanisms are and what you can do if you find yourself, or others, doing them.
(The following is a loose transcript of episode #38)
Defense mechanisms are strategies that many of us learn over time in order to stay in our comfort zones. Anything outside of that zone is perceived as risky and possibly dangerous. If you only do things in a way that never take you out of comfort, you never grow. Comfort is almost a curse in the sense that it prevents us from knowing our full potential.
If you are using defense mechanisms more often than not, you may be cursed by the hallucination of comfort. Although comfort is “comfortable”, it can be deceptive. Some people like to stay in their comfort zone, then complain that everything always happens to them.
It’s okay to stay in your comfort zone as long as you don’t develop a victim mentality. In other words, if you are choosing not to learn something new because it makes you uncomfortable, but complain when you have to deal with it, that is what I mean by playing a victim.
You have the option of getting uncomfortable to learn all about something to make your life easier, yet you may choose not to, making your life more difficult. Like getting a new remote control with 50 buttons. You could read the manual and learn each function, or get angry every time you want to turn up the TV because you can’t figure out the buttons.
By not risking discomfort, you honor stagnation. Let me say that again, because I love to repeat things that can really help if you truly adopt them:
By not risking discomfort, you honor stagnation.
And sometimes you are honoring your victimhood, if that is such a word.
Stagnation is when nothing changes. You are happy where you are, and don’t want any changes in your life. This actually does sound like a peaceful place. But it can be a very close-minded, and frustrating place too.
For example, I know someone who refuses to own a computer. She is happy knowing she will never have a computer. In some ways, I can certainly relate! But I’ve grown accustomed to doing everything on my computer nowadays that if I lost it, it would be similar to losing electricity. I’d be lost for a couple weeks trying to figure out a world without electronic filing of any sort. I have 3 laptops that I use depending on the room I’m in. And when I don’t have one of those in front of me, I have my tablet computer. Technology has become a part of how I exist and work in the world.
For the person who refuses to own a computer, suddenly getting one would push her into a world of discomfort. It would take her out of her balance in life, and give her a lot of stress as she went through the definite learning curve she’d experience after purchasing it. Her stagnation, or perhaps a better word, status quo, would be interrupted. And she would be forced to expand her mind while getting uncomfortable.
The same would go for someone like me. If you took away all my computers, it would push me into a zone of discomfort. In fact, I’d be lost and uneasy for a while since I know there’d be emails I’m missing, and no more access to any piece of information I could ever want. It’s like giving up knowledge for me. That’d be tough!
But the question is, who could do either? Could you give up something you use everyday? Let’s take it a little deeper, would you give up your hearing for a month just to open your mind and learn new things about yourself and the world?
Defense mechanisms are a direct way to keep you in the status quo. If you’re perfectly happy with status quo, and aren’t complaining when you have to deal with the same frustrations in life over and over again, then perhaps you really are in a comfortable place and don’t need to change a thing.
However, if you find that that there’s always something that frustrating to deal with, or just can’t seem to make enough money, or feel behind so many other people in life, or like the person who can’t figure out the remote but never wants to take the time to learn it, so they complain about it every time they use it, then maybe it’s time to stop avoiding things and get a little uncomfortable.
Maybe it’s time to pick up that remote control and say, “Dammit! I’m going to learn this no matter what!”
Are you the type of person who can be uncomfortable and learn something new to make life easier? Or would you rather not make the effort to learn something that will get rid of some stress in your life?
I’m not putting you down either way. I personally cannot figure out what the IRS needs from me. I know they take taxes out of my paycheck, but when it comes to tax time, I can’t figure out what they’re asking. All I know is that sometimes I owe and sometimes I don’t. It’s complicated and frustrating which is why I have someone else do my taxes.
I also don’t want to learn about tax law. It’s completely boring to me. Even though it directly affects me, I feel like when I learn something about it, and I think I’m filling the form out correctly, someone will come along and say, “It tells you to put a 1 there, but you really want to put a 0 because of such and such”. I think, “Why does this have to be so complicated?”
So believe me when I say my comfort zone is not dealing with taxes, even though I have to deal with taxes no matter what. But the questions are, “Do I complain about it? Do I feel like I’m a victim every year during tax time?” No, because I chose to do something about it. I use a program or hire an expert that does it for me.
I know that I don’t know about taxes enough to do it myself, so I pay to have it done for me. If I couldn’t afford to pay, then I would learn all I can. Having someone else do it keeps me at peace and allows me to get on with other things in life.
Just because you don’t want to learn something, doesn’t mean you have to. It just means that if you choose to, you’ll find a way that makes life a little easier to deal with so you are not stressing about it.
For me, getting someone else to deal with my taxes is worth every penny. I don’t have to worry about it. When you are able to find another way to work with a stress or pain point, then that is being resourceful. However if you need to deal with something directly, it might be a good idea to get uncomfortable and learn what you can so that you can be comfortable later.
By the end of this article, you’ll learn what the typical defense mechanisms are that you may be using towards others. You’ll also be able to tell who’s using them with you and what you can do to either help them see they are doing it, or at least give you the resources you need to respond to people who just can’t seem to get past some of their perceived limitations.
You can’t help everyone, nor is it your job to figure out what everyone needs and accommodate them. But sometimes there are people in your life that you want to see succeed and get unstuck. And sometimes those people just need the right words to make that happen.
And sometimes, some people say they want to move forward in life, but no matter what you say, they choose to stay where they are.
Whether this article is for you or for someone else, maybe you’ll learn just a bit more about human behavior than what you knew before. And this is something you can take with you no matter where you go.
I talk about my mom a lot on my show. She’s been through a lot of what I discuss on The Overwhelmed Brain. She admits that she’s done things that she knows she could have done differently, but she also admits her fears and insecurities. And sometimes she doesn’t know why she didn’t make the changes that would have improved her life sooner.
One of the defense mechanisms she’s used most of her life is denial.
Denial is refusing to accept the truth, or seeing the reality of a situation. For example, she convinced herself that it was impossible to move away from her abusive husband. She was certain that it would be too hard, or she couldn’t leave her animals, or she had too much stuff to move, or many other things. Her denial kept her where she was.
It took him finally leaving the relationship for her to experience freedom and start feeling joy in life again. And at 70, she’s finally starting to live the life she’s wanted for a long time. Hey, better now than never! But had she not relied on a defense mechanism and chosen to see the reality that she was in, she may have been able to create a different life for herself a long time ago.
My mom actually believed that she had no choice. And that is one belief that continued to limit her until he left. Believing that you have no choice in something will always limit you, and always keep you stagnant.
It may be absolutely true that you have no choice in certain situations, but never convince yourself of that. Because when you submit to a “no choice” conclusion, then you won’t be open to other options. Sometimes an option appears that you would never have considered before.
The optimistic perspective of, “There are always other options” will usually help you stay open to solutions. When you succumb to “I have no choice”, you will always create that reality. Again, it’s true, you may not have a choice, but stay open to possibility so you don’t close yourself off to options that you haven’t considered yet.
So how do your defense mechanisms keep you from creating the life you want?
These ancient survival techniques we call defense mechanisms are the methods we employ to avoid confrontation and sometimes just prevent bad situations. And sometimes we’re just not ready to deal with certain things in our lives. Whether it’s something that we don’t know how to handle yet, or repressed pain or upset that we haven’t felt safe enough to express yet.
Regardless of the reason, there’s probably not a person on earth who hasn’t employed some sort of defense mechanism of some sort in their lifetime. Let’s go over a list of 9 of the most common defense mechanisms and how they prevent us from getting we want out of life.
Denial is refusing to accept the truth or reality of a situation. Saying, “I’m sure my husband is just working late again” might be a form of denial.
When we deny what we suspect to be true, we are choosing to believe in hope instead of facts. In the case of a continually late husband, or wife or partner or whatever, one might want to believe that their significant other is just a hard worker, but their suspicion is that their partner is doing some extracurricular activities with someone they shouldn’t be doing it with.
Instead of wanting to find out the truth by asking the hard questions, they choose to instead believe in whatever they make up about the situation. By avoiding the pain of what could be the truth, they won’t have to then deal with new situation. The new situation of finding out their partner is cheating on them will create too much change and pain for them to deal with, so they’d prefer just not knowing and denying there’s any truth to what they suspect.
This is truly challenging. It’s like not wanting to know you have a disease or not wanting to believe you’ll get cancer from smoking. Denial is a popular behavior that helps to keep you in the dark so that you can say, “The less I know, the less I have to worry about.”
In the case of the world economy, this may be true. In the case of self-development, by refusing to discover what’s true, you deny yourself the chance to learn and grow from your experience.
If your business partner is stealing money from the business, but you deny that it could possibly happen, you’ll soon be out of business simply because you chose to hope it wasn’t true instead of finding out if it really is true.
Addictions can come from denial too. Since denial is a way to avoid thinking about the bad stuff, addictions like drugs and alcohol help to amplify denial even more. If you’re drunk or high, you don’t have to deal with reality. It’s an escape from what’s going on in the world.
Plus, being drunk or high, or whatever, gives you an excuse to not deal with it. It’s a win-win! Well, until you lose. Then it’s a huge loss all around.
Deny something exists, and it will persist. Our gut instinct knows better, and sometimes it’s easier to address things now before a lot of time goes by, and a lot more is lost.
Repression is when you simply forget that something happened. This is one step further than denial. Denial is not wanting to believe it happened, but knowing deep down that it likely did. And repression is a partial or total block of what happened.
For instance, the traumatic abuse that some children have gone through. When they get older, it may be so traumatic that the defense mechanism kicks in, and suddenly those memories are repressed. I’m sure this is a feature of the brain, and not a glitch.
If a woman remembered exactly what the pain of childbirth felt like, with every detail of suffering she went through, she’d probably never want another child again. But time and time again, most are willing to create another child.
This happens to all of us though, not just women. I realize that some experts say that it is a myth that women can’t recall the intensity of pain during childbirth, but I don’t really want to debate that particular point. However, how many of us can recall the exact intensity of pain in any moment? In fact, I don’t think it’s possible without actually experiencing the pain while remembering it.
I remember living with terrible sciatic pain for over 15 years. I remember getting it so bad that I could barely climb stairs. Then I had back surgery which corrected the situation by about 95%, and I can’t recall the pain’s intensity. I know it hurt, and I know I hated the feeling of it, but to recall the actual pain itself is nearly impossible.
I believe the body has a mechanism that purposefully doesn’t record pain, but only our reaction to pain. If we remembered pain as it was, our memories could be seriously debilitating. But we don’t. And maybe that’s why so many people repeat things they would normally not repeat.
For example, I remember about a year or so after my back surgery, I had to help someone carry a large treadmill up four flights of stairs. Since the other person was not as strong as I was, we decided to lift it one step at a time. The exhaustion and the difficulty were tremendous. But I don’t recall the pain nor the way my muscles felt during and after. I remember what I was thinking in the moment, and can recall all the little details, but can’t seem to pull up how painful it was.
It’s an interesting phenomena that probably deserves it’s own show, but I do believe our bodies do it on purpose so that we will continue to push our own limits to succeed in life.
However when we are using repression as a defense mechanism, typically involuntarily, it has almost the opposite effect of not remembering physical pain. By forgetting about mental pain, or psychological pain, those repressed memories typically come back to haunt us in different ways. They are expressed through subtle behaviors and habits and addictions.
It’s a background program that’s always running inside of us. It may be forgotten, but it’s not gone.
Without professional help, those memories may be hard to access. But there is one thing you can do to figure out a behavior that you have, and that is to ask yourself, “Why do I do this?” Not just rhetorically either, but seriously. “Why do I do this behavior? Really, what is causing me to do this behavior?”
Dig into yourself a little and see what comes up for you. If you think you are repressing something, you might just be. Don’t be afraid to explore that in yourself. If you figure out something major, make sure to have a good friend that’s a phone call away so that you have support when you need it.
Not repression, but regression. This is a popular one that many of us do. This is when you revert back to the reactions you had when you were a child. Losing your temper, irrational fears, violence, and other behavior that seem to be beyond conscious control. The example that that Dr. Whitbourne uses in her article is road rage. One of the main differences between those of us who get angry on the road but keep driving anyway, and those of us who get angry, and get out of our car to confront another driver, is control and action. One person gets angry and continues on their way, and the other takes action to put fear into or hurt another person.
They both are experiencing the fight or flight response, because they likely felt threatened. However, the person who regresses to the child-like response of getting out of the car to inflict harm on the other person, is basically giving up their control to fall into an old, unconscious pattern developed in childhood.
When we’re children, we’re very unconscious. You hit me, I hit you back without thinking, or cry. Fight or flight. When we’re adults we learn to be a bit more rational in our responses, going so far as to check in with ourselves to figure out if we are going to react unconsciously and create a situation, or stay conscious and aware of what we’re doing.
The regressive state is almost a fully unconscious state. You hear it all the time, “I just snapped and punched him the face” or whatever. There’s a moment of no return when you give up control and let the child in you take over.
Snapping like this is very hard to control, because by the time you’ve snapped, you’re almost impossible to reason with. You become hyper focused on the person you want to hurt. Just watch videos of 5 people holding back one person who wants to fight. That person is laser focused, they must hurt the other person no matter what.
When you find yourself regressing to a child-like state of unconscious reaction, you have to catch it fast, if you can catch it all. The brain works fast. But, with practice, you can catch it before it goes too far.
As soon as you feel something bubbling up in you, ask yourself the quick question, “What will happen to me after I do this? Will I go to jail? What if I kill the person?”
Ask yourself important questions as soon as possible. And if you see someone who’s about to snap, or has already snapped, it may already be too late. And either you run, or if you have the strength or the influence, you can try to hold them back.
Regression is a lightning fast process, but you can usually see the build-up before the snap. So if you see the symptoms in yourself or someone else, do what you can to decrease the tension because things may start to get real ugly, real soon.
This is when you’re angry at someone but take it out on something or someone else, typically someone more defenseless like a child or even an animal, but also with coworkers, family and whomever else that might fit the bill. You are displacing, or redirecting your anger or upset from one thing to another.
I became an expert in this throughout my lifetime. I’d have a lot of repressed anger towards certain people in my life, but I hated confrontation, so I would never address it with them, so I would get angry at those I felt I could more easily confront.
It was a terrible situation. I actually felt out of control because the anger would rise up inside me, and I found myself doing and saying things that I completely regretted later. Regret seems to only happen when you snap or lose control. It’s rare that you regret something you had full intention of doing. It does happen, but we usually regret things that we wouldn’t normally, consciously do.
But displacement makes someone else the victim of your upset, instead of the person or people or whatever you’re really upset about. This has happened to a lot of us. Have you ever had a boss yell at you for seemingly no reason? I can almost bet that something else or someone else was bothering him or her.
When you are target of someone else’s displacement, here’s one thing that you can ask them: “Is something else bothering you besides this?”
They may say ‘no’ which is expected, but it does give them a chance to think about what they said or did. Most people, unless they are psychopathic, don’t want to hurt other people. They just do out of their unconscious fears or repressed emotions sometimes. That’s no excuse for them, but understanding this may help you understand that there might be bigger things going on in their life besides what’s happening in the moment.
If you are targeted, you can also let them know that you feel that their upset is a bit excessive for what’s happening here and now. They may be so upset that they won’t hear you, and they may also lash out even more because they notice that you notice that they are losing control! And if that’s the case, perhaps talking to them when they have calmed down a bit may be a better option for you.
If you find yourself directing your upset at others, ask yourself the same question, “Is something else bothering me besides what’s happening right now?”
Almost always, the answer will be yes. There are things that happen in the moment that will cause a reaction, but most of the times, our reactions come from where we learned how to react to things in the first place: Childhood.
Remember a long time ago when we talked about regression? All of our snap-reactions to things are from the past. We learned what behavior gets us the results we want in life, either to survive or avoid pain, and we continue to use that behavior until we become conscious of the behavior, and want to change it. We carry these unconscious reactions inside of us forever, until it’s pointed out to us, and we can choose to continue it or not.
Be mindful about the target of your upset. It may not be what or who you are really upset about.
This is one of my favorites, and it’s often not well understood. So instead of trying to explain it too much, I’ll just provide a couple of examples.
The first example is something that happened to a friend of my ex-girlfriend. My ex had a friend named Cara. Cara was a lesbian, and she was also insecure about being a lesbian. So her and Cara were were at a stoplight one day. The couple in the next car over was looking at Cara. In fact, they were staring at her. Cara immediately projected her own insecurities onto that couple. She believed the couple was staring at her because they could tell she was a lesbian.
Cara turned to my ex, who was driving, and said, “I know they are looking at my short hair and thinking bad thoughts about me because I’m a lesbian.” My ex looked at her funny and said, “What? Is that what you think they’re thinking?”
Cara was like, “I know they are. I can tell by the way they are looking at me.” So my ex decided to find out. She rolled Cara’s window down, which really surprised Cara, and the couple rolled their window down too and immediately asked, “Is your name Mary?”
Cara just sat there looking forward, until she realized they were talking to her. Cara said, “Me? Uh, no. It’s Cara.”
They said, “Oh sorry, you look just like someone we know and we were talking to each other trying to figure out if that was you. Sorry about that!”
My ex yelled, “It’s okay, have a great day!”
In this instance, Cara really believed she knew what those people were thinking. Projection is when you take what you’re feeling about yourself and project that onto other people, because you believe that others must think that way about you too.
I really don’t like the term projection, because that makes it sound like you are projecting something out into the world. I’d really rather call it mind-reading or something else. Because all you’re really doing is acting as if you can read another person’s mind. You’re saying, “I can read your mind, and you are thinking this and that about me. And I know you are doing it, because those are the same things I believe about myself.”
Another example is something that happened with a friend of mine. She was out of work for a few months, but wouldn’t send her resume to a lot of the job ads she found. She kept telling me that ‘they’ll never hire me, I’m not what they’re looking for.’
Over and over again, “They’ll never hire me.” And she was absolutely right. Because she never sent her resume to them, they never did hire her.
However, she was projecting her feelings of inadequacy and perhaps her sense that she wasn’t worthy, onto potential employers. She believed that any employer would absolutely see what she believed about herself, and of course they wouldn’t hire her.
I told her that she might be surprised, and to try anyway. But she couldn’t get past that hurdle. Later on, she was finally sending her resume all over the place. And one person liked her so much, even though she didn’t qualify for the job, that he was willing to train her. This changed her perspective, and her outlook about herself too.
I’m here to tell you, we are always most critical about ourselves. I’ll admit, I’m a tall, thin guy, but I look down at my belly. And from my perspective, looking down at it, I think I have to lose some belly fat.
But others who know me want to hit me over the head with a broomstick because they tell me I’m absolutely nuts, and I have no fat at all. But from my perspective, I think, jeez, I have a spare tire around my waist! I gotta go to the mechanic so they can remove this thing!
I project onto others my feelings about myself. So I think they are looking at me going, “Wow, you’ve had one too many donuts lately haven’t you?” When in reality, they are probably only thinking about themselves and what they think others are thinking about them!
But before we get too disconnected and disassociated with who’s thinking what about whom, let’s think about what we think about ourselves for just a moment. While it’s unlikely most of the time that what we think about ourselves is also what others are thinking as well, it’s also entirely possible that others are thinking the same thing as we are.
If I wear a giant, purple hat with a long yellow feather sticking out of it, I might think I look like a pimp. And others will probably think the same thing.
And to approach a more sensitive subject here, if I have a birthmark on my face that I don’t like or think is ugly, there are people in this world who may be thinking the same thing. Coincidentally, I do have some sort of sunspot on my face that appeared a few years ago, about the size of a dime, that every time I see in the mirror, I wish it was gone. So I know others notice it too.
And the same goes for what appear to be “perfect” people. If you are walking down the street and got your sharp clothes on, the perfect body, a great smile, and confidence inside and out, there are still people out there who are going to think, “What a stuck up whatever who spends way too much time at the gym.”
It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, how smart or not so smart you are, people will always have an opinion of you, whether you are projecting what you think about yourself onto them or not.
But, before you think, “Oh great, I already think everyone’s judging me. What am I supposed to do now that I know everyone’s judging me?”
Here’s the short answer: Realize that whatever someone doesn’t like or accept about you is something they cannot accept about themselves.
You hear people gossip right? You hear Bill talking about Susan and Susan talking about Mandy and Mandy talking about Jack, etc, etc. So you already know what their thoughts are on people, because they have no problem gossiping about them all the time. So I’m not here to say that people aren’t really thinking what you think they’re thinking.
But I am saying that if someone thinks you’re ugly, then that is an insecurity they have about themselves. “Well, I don’t want to be ugly.” It’s a fear within themselves about something they don’t want in their own life for one reason or another.
If someone thinks you’re too skinny or too fat, it’s something they don’t want in their own life, and has nothing to do with you. I know people look at me and say, you’re so skinny. When I hear that, I think “your point is…” and then I might follow up with some passive aggressive comment like, “Oh, sorry to disappoint you”, which usually throws them off. “What? Oh, I’m not disappointed. I just noticed how skinny you are.”
It’s always comparison. When it’s not us projecting onto someone else what we believe they think about us, we are comparing someone to other people. “That person isn’t like other people, therefore, I will judge them.”
It reminds me of when I lived in Portland, Oregon. I’m a thin guy, and most of the population there is very thin. A lot of bikers and runners in that area. So I seemed to blend in.
However, when I lived in Richardson, Texas, there were a lot of overweight people there. I stuck out. And I’m sure there were plenty of comparisons made.
If you ever feel that someone is judging you or looking down on you for any reason, just remember that we all have insecurities about ourselves. Well, I’m sure most of us do. But if you have absolutely none, I definitely want to hear from you.
But since all of us carry around these insecurities about ourselves, we tend to naturally judge others. By judging someone’s appearance, or their voice, or their situation, or whatever, all we’re really doing is saying, “I wouldn’t want that for me.”
I’ll share with you, I’ve been a high judger all my life. I figured out why now that I’ve moved back to New Hampshire, but out of respect for someone, I won’t mention who was the biggest influence there. But I have learned a lot being back here. It’s like I’m learning about where all my own personal dysfunction originated. I get to watch it unfold from a whole new perspective.
Anyway, my judgments have always been from a place of “If that was me”, or “If that was in my life somehow, what would it be like?”
When I think that way, I automatically judge, no matter who it is, no matter if they are perfect or far from it. When I think like that, judgment pours out of me.
But, when I think to myself, “I feel a judgment coming on.”, I change the words in my head. I’ll say, “I wonder what it would be like to be that person with me looking at him or her?”
I talked about this on the last show. When we can put ourselves into the other person’s shoes, we can turn judgment into compassion. Judgments sneak up on us. And I know I’m supposed to be talking about projection right now, but they are so closely related so bear with me.
When a judgment sneaks up on you, just pretend you are them and then look at yourself. You will turn compassionate pretty quickly.
And when you feel others are judging you, which is basically the same as projection, put yourself in the shoes of the judger. Ahh, there’s a twist. Be the judger, and ask yourself, “What is happening inside me where I feel the need to judge this person?”
Try that on. Imagine if you could develop compassion for the judgers in life? It might turn projection into a fun game! Well, maybe not. But when you see others for the pain they may be in, instead of the negative energy they may be pouring out, it can help you develop a fresh perspective of every situation, and help you realize that judgment towards you is never about you, it’s about the other person’s inability to cope and accept what’s going on inside themselves.
6. Reaction Formation
Reaction Formation is responding the opposite of how you feel towards someone else. So if you feel attracted to someone, but don’t want to express it for one reason or another, you might act hostile or standoffish towards them.
Like the religious person who hates pornography and preaches how bad pornography is for people whose then arrested for having child porn on his computer. Or the homophobic person whose secretly curious about the same sex.
Reaction Formation typically happens when you don’t want to feel a certain way about someone or something, so you do your best to convey the opposite behavior. Whether to drive that person away, or to convince yourself in some way to get away from what you want.
You figure that if you repel it enough, it will eventually be out of your life.
If you are attracted to someone else while you’re in a relationship, this might be a productive behavior as it could help you focus on what’s most important in your life.
I realize that some people might think, ‘they shouldn’t be attracted to anyone else but me!’ Well, I say, good luck to that. Hardwired behavior is kind of challenging to turn off. But a solid, trusting relationship won’t have worries like that anyway.
If you find someone behaving uncharacteristically different towards you, there could be a reaction formation happening. Or, perhaps they’re just upset with you.
Though, the opposite can be true too. Someone treating you extra nice may loathe you. I used to do this with someone I worked with. He would act very superior, and talked down to me a couple times. I chose to be extra nice to him for two reasons. One, to see if he would change his behavior. Two, because I enjoyed watching him trying to figure out why I wouldn’t react to his nasty behavior.
I admit it, I still like to manipulate people who I believe are not very nice. I do it in a subtle way, just to see where it goes. And I always turn it off if they start acting normal again. But if they continue I might lead them on for a while until I finally just tell them off. I don’t mind giving them a taste of their own medicine now and then. I’m not recommending that however.
If you find that you are doing this behavior of reaction formation, you may actually need to leave a situation. Reaction Formation can happen when you aren’t able to use your conscious willpower to stay in control, so you change how you behave hoping they leave the situation.
And if you find someone doing this to you, you can always ask, “Why are you acting this way?” They probably won’t tell you, but their reaction will give you some clues as to what’s going on.
Reaction Formation is a bit tough to pinpoint, but just keep it in mind if you are trying to figure out someone else’s behavior. How they act may be the opposite of how they feel.
This is when you jump right into logical mode. The example Dr. Whitbourne uses in the article is a roommate suddenly deciding to move out. Instead of getting all emotional about it, wondering why they would do such a thing and leave you with all the bills, you intellectualize what you need to do next.
This is actually not such a bad defense mechanisms. And not all defense mechanisms are negative. In fact, each one, depending on the context, can be useful.
To focus on what actions you need to take next, instead of worrying or drowning in victim mode, you can actually move forward from the event pretty quickly.
You may still be emotionally affected, but you realize that things need to get done so that they don’t get any worse. In the roommate example, you know now that you need to come up with some extra money, or bring in a different roommate, or perhaps other things to make sure that was was lost is now replaced.
You could have been angry or upset, but you didn’t let it control you. You took control and made things happen.
The only problem you might have with this defense mechanism is if you never express the emotion, or never release it. If you go straight into “What’s next?” intellectualization mode, and you never return to address the emotions you may have repressed from the incident, they will sneak up on you in other ways.
Otherwise, in the moment, this could be a useful technique.
Skip intellectualization for the moment and try to rationalize why your roommate would have left. Maybe s/he didn’t like the size of the apartment. Maybe s/he didn’t like taking all those stairs up and down every day. Maybe s/he didn’t like your cooking. Whatever it is, you are trying to fill in the gaps of what you don’t know about a situation to make a complete picture or story of why something happened.
Rationalization could also be called ‘making stuff up’. When you attempt to rationalize why something happened, you really are simply making up stories, trying to figure out which one sounds like a possible explanation for what happened.
I remember I did this after my girlfriend of 13 years left the relationship. My rationalizations were anything from ‘she must have gotten bored with me’, or ‘she must think I don’t love her’, or ‘maybe she thought I was too clingy’ or whatever. I needed closure, so I tried to rationalize all the reasons she would have left.
And I think it’s that way for most people. Knowing why something happened helps you create closure in your life. When my ex-girlfriend left, all she gave me for a reason was this, “It’s just time”.
Let me share this secret with the women out there: Men need reasons. When I heard “It’s just time”, there was a huge hole in my both my heart and my head. My heart was now lonely, and my head was missing a piece of knowledge that would help me understand what just happened.
Not knowing, I was chasing my tail. This caused me to come up with all sorts of stories and rationaLIES until I finally had something to grasp that almost made sense. And when I shared it with her, she was like, yeah, that’s part of it. But she didn’t sound very convincing, so I continued to search for more reasons the relationship could have ended.
During that time of my life, I couldn’t accept that someone would just leave because it “was time”, so I searched and searched, continuing to rationalize why it happened telling myself story after story. In the end, I never really found out. Eventually, I found fulfillment in other areas of my life so that I could let go of that relationship. But it took me a long time to get there.
The point is, if you find yourself rationalizing, or telling yourself stories hoping to make yourself feel better or get closure of some sort, here’s something you can do. Ask yourself:
What’s really true? What are the facts?
It’s a start, but it won’t solve the obsessive rationalization that you can still go through. But, after you answer that question, ask yourself, “Can I live with not knowing everything about the situation?”
This is a harder one, even for me. Can I live with not knowing everything about this situation? Hmm, I still want to know, but can I live without knowing? Well, yeah, I can live, but I still want to know!
Knowing that you can live without knowing, here’s the final question, “Is it better to think about then or focus on now?”
Now if you’re really obsessive about the situation, not much is going to stop you from continuing to make up stories about what happened. Especially if what happened it’s completely senseless. Our brains need closure, or at least direction. When we have neither, we feel like there’s something missing. Like the end of a movie with a cliffhanger. What happens next? And when they never make a sequel, all you wonder is what happened after the end of that movie?
Once our brains have closure, or the final piece of the puzzle, it feels like we are then good to move on and go forward in life. But if the last piece of the puzzle never comes, and you can’t get your mind off the situation, then ask yourself another final question, “Knowing I will keep looking for answers, can I be comfortable while doing so?”
Though you could be just way too obsessed or focused on finding that last piece of the puzzle, at least open your mind to being comfortable while you do so. I understand the need for answers or closure, because I’m somewhat still that way too. But if you can allow yourself to be comfortable while still seeking the answers, then at least your rationalizations won’t be so taxing on your system.
You’ve probably experienced this yourself but never knew it was called sublimation. This is when you take conflicted emotions and impulses, and transform that energy into something creative or productive.
For example, the artist who has a lot of anger toward his father may put that angry energy into every stroke of his work.
Another example is the sexual tension you may feel about someone that you can’t have, so you transmute that energy into your work.
Sublimation can actually create a highly productive person, both in career and recreation. Imagine the energy built up from the years of resentment you have towards someone going towards winning a marathon or tilling a garden, or whatever your invest your time into.
For some people, playing violent video games is a form of sublimation. All redirected energy that goes somewhere in some form of expression.
The emotions in the background can act as motivation for some people. I know someone who tried to get rid of her emotional, passionate self in exchange for more relaxation and peace in her life. Turns out her emotions were the fire that kept her going and motivated. When she tuned those out, her motivation all but disappeared.
Like I said before, some of these defense mechanisms can actually be advantageous. Sublimation can turn negative emotional states into highly charged, productive states, depending on what you do with it.
If you’re not doing anything with it, then you’re probably repressing it, causing depression to build inside you. Or, you are losing your temper a lot, always getting that quick release, but never getting to the root of the issues.
Perhaps that’s why people like to journal. It’s sublimation in the sense that the act of writing is the expression of their inner conflict and stress. It’s the tactile expression of emotion in a way. Inner thoughts and feelings directed outside the body.
Whether it’s playing an instrument, digging ditches, or even playing a sport, sublimation can have very useful qualities. And if you find it motivating to you and benefiting you, then perhaps it’s a defense mechanism that is healthy to have in your life.
If however you are doing not so productive things with that energy, then you might be back at one of the other defense mechanisms we talked about.
Put that stored energy into something productive, and you might just find you are more successful in life.
“Oh, he must have stopped off at the store again. He spends so much time shopping at that store!”
When you have to convince yourself that something else is going on, take a step back and examine the facts. You suspect something to be true for a reason. Remember your instincts!
And also remember, whatever you deny exists, will persist.
Repression is when you simply forget that something happened. I’ve often used this term when talking about the steps to depression, in the sense that you are stuffing emotions.
However, actual psychological repression, at least with memories, is when you are typically, unconsciously blocking those memories. This helps you forget them.
Unfortunately, they don’t stay forgotten and will be expressed in other, sometimes destructive ways.
“Hey, you cut me off, I’m gonna punch you in the face!”
When you revert to childlike behavior like losing your temper, irrational fear, violence, and other behaviors that seem to be beyond conscious control.
You ever see someone crying over something kind of silly? Like getting upset that someone cut in line in front of them? So they act like children, “I was first!”, “No, I was first!” and it escalates to some amazingly exciting levels.
Regressing to a childlike state shows that one may not have the resources to handle certain situations. There is hope for those people, and there is hope for you if you are like this! Sometimes it’s about asking the mature part of you, “Mature part, will you take over please?”
If you’re angry at your boss and take it out on your dog, this is displacement. It’s not pretty, and it can be quite terrible to those who are targeted.
There’s usually a lot deeper stuff going on, and it can take some time to find out what’s really the cause of someone’s upset.
“They must think I’m ugly”
When you project what you feel about yourself, you are acting as if you can read someone else’s mind and believe to know that what you think about yourself, they also think about you.
The quick cure is that everyone is usually too busy thinking about what you’re thinking about them for them to be thinking about you. Uh, does that make sense? Hope so!
6. Reaction Formation
“I hate you!” but the truth may be I love you. Or, “You’re doing a terrible job” could mean, “Wow, I’m so impressed, I actually feel insecure around you.”
Reaction Formation is expressing the opposite of how you feel about someone, so that you avoid expressing your true feelings. Whether because of insecurity or inappropriateness, or whatever.
Reaction Formation is tricky to spot, but if you watch for uncharacteristic exaggeration in someone’s behavior, like hating a little too much, there may be some of that going on.
“Alright, my car broke down in the middle of the desert, and I’m a thousand miles from home with no money in my pocket. The first thing I need to do is find a phone”
Jumping into logical mode and avoiding an emotional reaction is what intellectualization is all about. It can be a very resourceful state, and may be a defense mechanism you want to keep! Just remember to express the emotion sometime in the future. You want to make sure those things make it out of your body.
Oh, and if you are a fairly new reader or listener of The Overwhelmed Brain, my car actually did break down in the desert a thousand miles from home, except instead of intellectualizing, I panicked. I tell the story in several episodes of my podcast.
No doubt about it. When you are trying to rationalize a situation because you don’t have all the facts, you’re just making stuff up until something sticks.
We want to believe what we are making up, but really need to ask ourselves, “Is this real? What are the facts?” We may die never finding out everything we want to know. So it’s important that we are comfortable not knowing everything.
This is taking the years of repressed or unexpressed upset or anger and channeling it into something productive or creative. It could be your job, your hobby, your work, whatever. It’s when you use that stored emotion to take action in your life.
Some artists say their best work comes from high states of emotion. I imagine it could be that way for all of us if we chose to utilize our energy that way.
We humans are complex animals. The bigger our brains get, the more challenges seem to arise. No single person has the exact same problems as another person. It is this uniqueness that makes it challenging to find one solution for everyone.
However, we all share commonalities such as emotions, the same organs, the same bones, the same basic body structure, the same propensity for language and communication. Of course there are always exceptions. Some people are born without certain things, and with other things. But even that is just more proof that we are all amazingly unique, with slight and sometimes giant variations.
But most of us want very similar big picture things in our lives. Most of us seem to gravitate toward happiness and healthiness. Most of us want to feel joy and laughter. Most of us want love and companionship. We are all sharing our time on Earth in our own unique way, but with common potentials, and common limitations.
Remember that sometimes it seems as if we have no other choice in life. We come upon a situation and can’t find any other way to resolve it. But there are ways you may not know about yet. You could trigger a defense mechanism or you could ask yourself, “Am I open to an alternative of this reaction?”
Another way to respond to the challenges in life is, “Does this matter in the grand scheme of things?”
Some defense mechanisms can be helpful and some aren’t. It’s just important to be aware of them and how and when you’re using them. Defense mechanisms are learned behaviors. And all learned behaviors can be replaced with new learned behaviors. It’s just a matter of deciding which ones you want to keep and which ones you want to toss.