Written by therapist Clair Miller
Defense mechanisms get a bad rap, but what are they really? Defense mechanisms are often misunderstood, but if we take the time to understand what they are and why we have them, I think we’d grow to appreciate their purpose.
Where do we get defense mechanisms?
From an early age, all of us learn what is safe and unsafe in our worlds. We have vastly different experiences, but we each react and learn to respond to any stimuli we encounter in life, especially to stimuli that feel scary or unknown. That is where defense mechanisms come into play. Defense mechanisms are essentially strategies that our psyches develop to protect us from real or perceived threats of any kind. They may show up in obvious ways when our physical safety is threatened, but usually when we’re talking about them, we’re coming from a more social-emotional perspective, within our relationships. The relationships that typically set the tone for our expectations of and security in future relationships are our families (or those we grow up with).
How they help, and how they hurt
From the start, we’re thrown into a family full of individuals with their own histories, needs, and hurt, and we just have to figure out how to survive. For some it’s easier than others, but all of us have to learn what it means to be in relationship with another person. We learn how to get our needs met, and we learn how to protect ourselves. We develop defense mechanisms. Say that your parents were absent much of the time – you may learn to simply do without the attention and attunement you need by keeping a tight, rigid boundary around yourself and pretending not to need or want connection. If you had a caregiver who left you (whether intentionally or not), you may have learned to put up strong walls in your relationships so that when they leave, you won’t get hurt again. Maybe you had a family that was loud and dramatic, and the only way to be heard was to up the ante and be louder and needier so that someone would finally see you.
There are tons of ways we learn to defend ourselves, and usually, they started because they were meeting a real need, protecting us from real pain. They’re helpful, for a time – they can be good things! But as we grow and evolve and begin or continue in relationships with others, they may stop working for us. In future (and hopefully more secure) relationships, you may find that the emotional intensity of drama or loudness does not actually elicit attention, but instead incites your partner to withdraw. Your walls may keep you from being hurt by abandonment, but you might start feeling the hurt of loneliness. Your fierce independence may allow you to take care of yourself, but may leave you in a bind when you find yourself needing others and not knowing how to ask. We outgrow our defense mechanisms.
Leave the Canoe
In a book called The Defining Decade, the author uses an allegory to illustrate this kind of personal growth. Imagine your defense mechanisms like a canoe. Say you’re trying to get up a mountain, and the first thing you have to do is cross a wide river, so you find a canoe! It safely gets you across the river, where you can continue your climb up the mountain. Would you strap the canoe to your back for the rest of your hike? Hopefully not! Can you imagine hiking with a canoe on your back?! The canoe was incredibly helpful for a time. You had to get across the river. Once you’re across, you can appreciate it for its use while also recognizing it is not going to be helpful for the rest of your trip. In fact, it would really get in the way.
Defense mechanisms are very helpful for a time. Our minds develop them for a reason, and they probably have kept us safe in the past. As you age and mature, you will likely realize (at least, if you’re paying attention) that they aren’t helpful anymore. You’ve outgrown them.
If you’re noticing your own defense mechanisms hindering your relationships, acknowledge them with gratitude and grace for the protection they’ve offered, and decide if it’s safe to let them go.
Shedding unhelpful defense mechanisms is much easier said than done! It’s a process, and it takes time. If you’re interested in exploring your own defenses or relationship patterns, don’t hesitate to reach out to our front desk. We’d love to explore this with you!