When We’re Being Defensive, What’s Really Going On

A very angry person can be a person who is hurt. A jokester can really be a person who is afraid to be laughed at. Someone cold can be someone who cares too much. Sometimes you knowingly or unknowingly put on a wall of defense to control your emotions to avoid or lessen feelings you are afraid you may not be able to bear. The technique is called a defense mechanism.

Defense mechanisms as a way of coping are all too common making it difficult for us to judge anyone, even our own selves with our initial reactions to things. Perhaps a bit of understanding and awareness of what’s behind defensiveness can go a long way.

How Are Defense Mechanisms Developed?

The concept of defensive mechanisms derives from psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud, which views personality as the interaction of three parts: the id, ego, and super-ego. We use defense mechanisms to help separate ourselves from possible dangers or from emotions we do not want to bear like guilt or shame.

Every person may have used some form of defense mechanism but they may manifest more strongly and frequently in some persons as a result of insecurities experienced as children. Children might not know how to deal with or overcome particular obstacles, which causes them to doubt themselves and put up barriers to overcome such obstacles. Adults are capable of handling those difficulties, but sometimes old stress-relieving defense mechanisms resurface.

Bullying is an example of a defense mechanism.

There are times when you attribute your unacceptable emotions to someone else. In diverting it to somebody else you forget your personal issues.

Bullying is an example of a defense mechanism

For example, in the case of bullies. You can not really judge a bully for what he does. Bullies give off the impression that they are self-assured, yet frequently their bullying masks a severe lack of confidence and low self-esteem

Some bullies put the focus on someone else to hide how they really feel about themselves. They attempt to divert any unfavorable attention paid to them. Individuals under stress can also turn to aggression and one form of aggression is bullying. Adult bullies can even be victims of bullying themselves as a child.

Denial as a Defense Mechanism

Sometimes reality can be so bad that we choose to just put them aside and pretend it’s not happening. When you can not physically escape from the situation, you can resort to ignoring the facts or experiences that may cause you too much anxiety. A person suffering from substance abuse could be an example. 

Stories we may know may exemplify this denial. A loving husband lost his wife unexpectedly and is struggling with the overwhelming grief that is taking over him. He resorts to alcohol. In his drunken state, he is able to forget about the pain and get some sleep. If only for that moment it did him well but the long-term effect can never be to his benefit as he develops alcoholism.

A diabetic can continue to eat sugary drinks and sweets without facing the fact that life is not the same anymore for them when they can eat whatever they want whenever they want. Denial of this invisible lifetime sickness is easier for many and so they do not visit the doctor even when they need to.

Repression as a Defense Mechanism

A mother who lost her baby was seen partying and having fun. She can be judged as callous and cold but it may just be the only way she can cope. It’s the only way she can block the difficult memories from entering her consciousness. 

Repression as a Defense Mechanism

The tragic experience of losing a loved one. Reliving that moment you were told they are forever gone can be a very painful experience you just want to repress. You escape and create another world where it’s possible to keep on living. 

No one can dictate how a person should mourn because the reality is we all need to go on living despite any tragic events in our lives. Some people may also appear cold and harsh, unable to form relationships because they repress their real emotions. 

For example, a person who is a product of a broken home may have difficulties making commitments. They repress and hide their real emotions as a defense mechanism against getting hurt by broken relationships which they have witnessed with their own parents.

Jokesters Are Not Always Happy People

“Every time you get depressed, comedy will be there to drag your ass out of it,” Robin Williams once told The Guardian in 1996. Jokesters are not always happy people and that can be said not only to comedians but to ordinary people as well. I’ve worked with plenty of comedians back in my days in Hollywood. There wasn’t a single comedy actor who I met off-screen who was as genuinely as funny and content with life as he or she was on-screen.

Some people when they find themselves sad turn to humor as a defense mechanism. Making fun of oneself or of any situation becomes a momentary escape from dragging emotions you cannot allow yourself to be stuck to.

When Anger is Pain in Disguise

A wife may become frustrated with her messy home where her husband and her children are not helping. She keeps on nagging them every day. She turns into a very angry person and one day she breaks down and just cries and cries. The anger was really just pain. Pain due to feelings of being unheard and uncared for. And that negative energy will, unfortunately, transfer to her family members as well. 

Anger is Pain in Disguise

Angry people are sometimes just people who are hurt. And to pacify that anger you must help heal the hurt. Sometimes it’s easier for people to get angry than to deal with their pain.

What We Can Learn From All This

Defense mechanisms aren’t necessarily bad as they can help you somehow navigate and deal with difficult situations in your life. As a matter of fact, defense mechanisms are natural. But if you end up using it too regularly they can become a concern.

The key is to develop self-awareness and to learn to also deal with the underlying threats or reasons of distress when you feel ready.  You can find healing from a mindful place, not from your unconscious state.