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Psychological Defenses

The most important psychological concept we can learn about ourselves is that each of us has an “unconscious”.  Accepting this fact is the first step toward leading a mentally healthy life. (“Unconscious” and “subconscious” are used interchangeably here; they mean the same thing.)

Then, and only then, can we come to understand and accept the PROFOUND effect the unconscious has upon the thoughts, feelings and behaviors present in day-to-day, moment-to-moment living.

The analogy of comparing an iceberg to our mental life is both useful and accurate. Ten percent of an iceberg is above the surface of the water with the remaining 90% below the surface. The same can be said for the psyche; we are conscious and aware of 10% of ourselves and 90% unaware.

This is a startling concept: we are unaware of 90% of our mental functioning, our emotional ‘workings’, including our tolerance and intolerance for intimacy, reasons why we are depressed or phobic or hostile or self-destructive or addicted or unable to sustain a relationship or suicidal. And when we ask ourselves “Why?” the answer is most often, “I don’t know.”

We don’t know because these dynamics, drives, conflicts, etc., dwell at the unconscious level. Within the subconscious reside ALL of our most painful memories, emotions and experiences–our traumas, our experiences of abandonment, times of separation, fears and terrors of the unknown and the “un-understood”.

The subconscious is not just a warehouse for our most difficult of experiences; it is also the battle ground for the conflict between the primitive instinctual drives of sex and aggression and the controls put upon us by society. This conflict is the source of turmoil within the person and is manifested in different forms of depression or anxiety.

When the subconscious becomes an active part of the self is not for this discussion, but it may happen prenatally. Many believe that the trauma experience of birth is recorded at the unconscious level and that the experience of being born is the birth of anxiety.

The significance of the subconscious, perhaps the very reason for its existence, is to mediate infancy and childhood with the self-demands, parental demands and instinctive drives for gratification. Emotional conflicts do not all come from external sources. There is a constant push-desire to express or manifest our most basic instincts regarding self-interest, gratification and survival.

At birth we are a primitive animal with survival our only priority; and, metaphorically speaking, if we have to devour mother in the process of surviving, we will.  The task to successfully moderate our earliest self-centered impulses with the demands for cooperation from our parents, initially, and then from society, is complex and difficult and usually results in a sort of neurotic compromise.

Childhood is an emotionally and developmentally tumultuous time. As we grow, we are perceiving and experiencing life events; but, with our immature developmental skills, we are also distorting and misunderstanding what we are experiencing. We are frightened, overwhelmed, and confused by the complexities of life that we cannot yet comprehend.

We are powerless and dependent on a sometimes unreliable source. As our attachments gradually form, we also experience overwhelming feelings of separation and abandonment. Perhaps Pat Benatar sang it best in her song “Hell is for Children.” Our unconscious psychological defenses keep us sane through those challenging years by repressing what is too painful or too confusing to handle.

We are born with two protective systems that make survival more possible. Physiologically we have the immune system with its different functions, such as the T cells, B cells, the granulocytes and the dendritic cells. Psychologically we have the subconscious defense system with its different defenses that serve to manage and maintain an emotional equilibrium. The immune system defends against attacks upon the body. Our psychological defense system defends against the expressions of instinctive impulses (sexual or aggressive) and protects the self against overwhelming feelings of anxiety, rage or terror. It serves to protect and preserve the identity and integrity of the self.

As infants and toddlers we are not intellectually equipped to consciously understand and manage the emotional ebbs and flows of early life. Our subconscious defense system manages this for us. The unconscious protects us by utilizing one of the psychological defense mechanisms. We develop personality styles based upon the constellation of those defenses and to what degree they are used. Although all of the defenses are available to use, we each settle on a team of defenses that work in a coordinated manner; thus giving rise to a personality style or disorder.

Even though the psychological defenses operate at the unconscious level, through learning we are able to recognize them after the fact. Like an electron–only the path taken by electron can be seen and not the electron itself–so it is with the psychological defenses. We are able to identify the aftereffect of a particular defense. Through psychotherapy, a person can come to see their defensiveness in action.

I am not reinventing the wheel here. Sigmund Freud and later his daughter Anna developed the theory of defenses. You will find many and varied lists of defenses online, and I am presenting yet another.

This is a list and brief explanation of the major unconscious defenses:

Repression/Suppression: Similar mechanisms involving storing thoughts and feelings into the unconscious. Suppression is a conscious process to intentionally not think about or feel something. Repression is an unconscious mechanism and can often result in some sort of neurotic symptom formation.

Denial: A mechanism that operates unconsciously to resolve emotional conflicts and reduce anxiety. Denial is an immature defense that interferes with our capacity to learn while denying aspects of reality.

Displacement: A mechanism whereby the subconscious redirects an emotion from its threatening source to a safe source. An example could be a man angry with his wife yelling at his children. This mechanism is an essential element of phobias: the redirection of fear from its threatening source to a neutral object which can then be avoided.

Intellectualization: Using thought and reasoning as the way of viewing life and understanding experiences. Reasoning is used to blunt the emotions that provoke anxiety. Thinking about experiences rather than experiencing them emotionally.

Projection: The process of attributing to another person feelings that are unacceptable or intolerable at the unconscious level. This usually involves intense anger. Should you have thoughts that another person is judging you, being critical of you, with no real evidence, you have an example of projection.

Rationalization: Justifying our thoughts and actions, creating a logical reason for an irrational emotion. This process can be fully conscious or entirely subconscious. The belief that “everything happens for a reason” is another example.

Reaction Formation: Having an emotion so threatening or anxiety producing that we invest in the opposite. For example, zealots who preach against homosexuality may have latent homosexual desires that they defend against, using this mechanism to take a strong stance against their own subconscious desires. The news is filled with pedophile priests and homophobic pastors who utilize this mechanism.

Regression: A mechanism in which the individual returns to an earlier stage of development where they felt a sense of safety and security. This involves the return to a child’s state. An adult, for example, uses baby talk or acts in other childish manners.

Undoing: A mechanism for ‘erasing’ or ‘undoing’ something done. It is a process driven by guilt and atonement. The simplest example of this is an apology. Obsessive-compulsives use rituals as acts of atonement.

Introjection: The mechanism by which we internalize qualities of people we historically attached to. It is part of the building process of our identity; we incorporate qualities of our parents when we are infants and those we admire or idealize in adulthood.

Dissociation: By this mechanism we can ‘space out’ when faced with boredom, anxiety or pain. This is employed in the face of trauma, extreme pain or a severe identity crisis. Dissociation provides a kind of numbness, vagueness and disconnectedness to one’s emotional self.

Sublimination: The defense that contributes to the development of society. This mechanism involves transforming dangerous, unacceptable, erotic or aggressive impulses–ones that are mostly blocked by repression–into socially constructive and useful activities and achievements.

The above are the most important defenses; there are others. If curious, you can find them elsewhere online.