This is a question I ask myself quite often when instinct tells me the defense mechanism of the person I’m having a conversation with has just been triggered. Am I debating with the person or their defense mechanism?
Obviously, if the fence is up, there is no point to keep talking or negotiating, because when the defense mechanism is up, active listening has just been shut off.
What is the psychological defense mechanism?
Just like how animals have thick skin and leather to protect the more vulnerable parts of their anatomy. Just like how we have hair, skin, layers of fats to protect our vital organs, the defense mechanism protects the fragile and vulnerable parts of our mind – our ego.
The defense mechanism is a natural phenomenon that has been with us forever, and it’s not inherently bad. We might feel that it’s the ugly part of the mind, when we are at the receiving end of snap comments, emotional outburst and snide remarks. However, it really is more about the other person than it is about us.
What are the 8 types of defense mechanisms?
There are 8 main categories. If you work with a lot of people everyday, especially if you’re a supervisor of some sort, it’s worth it to know these.
- Repression: When the mind blocks out difficult thoughts, shutting out memories of it or unconsciously become oblivious to it.
- Regression: This is when the mind rolls back to an earlier stage of development when things were more manageable. Such as a person who may feel overwhelmed by a demanding spouse and regresses to an earlier young adult stage when he/she was still living with his/her parents.
- Rationalisation: When the mind justifies a challenge to the ego with what appears to be logical explanations. For the person, at that moment, it seems perfectly logical, but for on-lookers the logic may nevertheless seem illogical.
- Displacement: This one you can more easily identify and it occurs quite often. A person got told off at work, doesn’t defend him/herself there and then, but takes the baggage home and yells at their spouse or child that evening. Many times it looks like illogical blaming.
- Reaction Formation: Acting in the exact opposite of the person’s true feelings. For example, a women who fears she will never be good enough, jumps from one relationship to another. Or a man who feels insecure may act overly aggressive.
- Sublimation: This is probably one of the healthier defense mechanisms. It’s about channeling unacceptable urges into more productive outlets. Such as going out on runs when you feel like punching someone, or an anger outburst coming – to sweat it out. For this example, instead of ending up in a brawl, the person gets to exercise for better health.
When does the defense mechanism become a problem?
The defense mechanism is health when it happens in short bursts. However, if it is prolonged or triggered too frequently, it can become problematic as the mind learns that the new norms is to always have its guards up.
This may manifest into projection or passive-aggressive behaviours.
Prolonged, the mind will at some point protect itself by externalising everything. Basically pushing out all responsibilities outside of the mind, which may manifest itself in chronic blaming behaviour.
Why does it matter to take note of it when communication?
In essence, the defense mechanism is a way the mind mediates between the person’s needs and perception of the world, against the true external reality.
When we’re in communication with each other, the other person is always part of the true external reality. Knowing this defense mechanism exist and how it works, ensures we are able to keep our own in check, to enable us to practice active listening.
On the other hand, knowing the mechansim exist also makes us more aware how our words and action may impact the other person. And we can more naturally identify when the other person’s defenses has just gone up.
Are there ways to tame the Defense Mechanism that has gone on overdrive?
Yes, there always is a way. A more widely known self-help technique is re-learning. In psychotherapy terms, it’s the REBT process (Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy).
At the end of the day, it starts with self-awareness.