5 Defense Mechanisms That Both Protect and Hurt Us

Rear view photo of adult with short hair wearing hoodie sitting under tree thoughtfullyEvery day, we are bombarded by situations, people, and feelings that have the potential to stress us out. We all have our own ways of dealing with this stress. Some of them are helpful, others not so much. Stress is complicated and highly personal to the individual who experiences it. Consider what makes you feel stressed out. Have you known other people who aren’t bothered by your stressors and seem to deal with them without much fuss? Do you know people who stress out about things that would never occur to you be a problem? Stress is all about perspective.

The reason people react differently to the same stressor has to do with their experiences. Stress is brought on by triggers or situations/people/emotions that you are particularly sensitive to because of things that have happened in your life.

Take anger, for example: A person who was raised in an unpredictable environment in which anger caused yelling, intimidation, or physical violence will likely react differently to anger than someone who was taught to express anger in a healthy way. Both people may experience a partner being angry with them, but only one of them is likely to be triggered. Another example is infertility. Someone who is struggling with fertility issues may react very differently when they find out a friend is pregnant than someone who conceived naturally. Learning of someone else’s pregnancy may trigger their anxiety, grief, and powerlessness related to infertility.

You can imagine there are infinite ways individuals are triggered because there is a such a diverse array of circumstances that affect human beings. In addition to the diversity of triggers that exist, there is a broad spectrum of ways people react to their triggers. People tend to develop defense mechanisms, or unconscious reactions that protect them from the pain of their triggers. It is common to be unaware of the presence of these defense mechanisms as well as when they are in use. Many of us have heard or used the term “become defensive” when we feel that someone is trying to protect or defend themselves in an argument instead of listening to the opposing point of view. This often happens when a person is triggered by the subject matter. Even after the trigger has passed, the defense mechanism remains and may impact relationships and work.

As a therapist who works with women and LGBTQ+ individuals with anxiety, trauma, and body image issues, I see my share of defense mechanisms that come out during the course of a therapy session. A therapist is trained to identify and help people work through these defenses, which is critical in making progress on whatever issue brings them to treatment.

There are many different types of defense mechanisms, but the following are five common ones:

Regardless of how emotionally healthy we are, we all have defense mechanisms at play every day.

  1. Sense-of-humor type. Laughter is the best medicine, right? Not always! People who use humor when talking about difficult situations are often masking pain underneath. Some people make fun of themselves to prevent others from doing it first. Others create humor-tinged stories around bad situations to avoid acknowledging how much they hurt. There isn’t anything wrong with making light of a struggle, but it’s important to also be able to talk about the darkness related to it.
  2. Strong, silent type. You probably know one of these, if you aren’t one yourself. This person is the “rock,” the foundation of the family, the dependable one at work. This defense mechanism causes someone to try to appear strong and stable on the outside, even if they don’t feel that way on the inside. By always taking care of others, the focus never has to be on them because there is always someone in need. Remaining strong and silent not only prevents others from seeing they have pain and vulnerability, it helps the person forget it as well.
  3. Laid-back type. This defense mechanism causes people to “go with the flow” or be overly accommodating. Someone who has this defense mechanism is often passive and waits to be told what to do or for someone else to make plans. This defense can mask feelings of inadequacy or lack of confidence needed to make a decision. When someone is laid back and doesn’t have to have an opinion, they don’t run the risk of upsetting someone or being rejected.
  4. Perfectionistic type. Believe it or not, perfectionism generally isn’t a good thing—and perfection isn’t possible, anyway. Someone affected by the perfectionistic type of defense mechanism avoids making mistakes or being wrong at all costs. Underneath this defense is an intense fear of being judged or admonished. This defense can lead to a general sense of anxiety because there is always a chance something can go wrong.
  5. Passive-aggressive type. Many of us use the term passive-aggressive to describe the behaviors of others, but do you know this behavior stems from a defense mechanism? When someone is passive-aggressive, they are letting others know they are angry or in need of something without doing so directly. Being passive-aggressive is an attempt to get needs met without coming right out with it. It is motivated by fear and avoidance of conflict and anger. Pouting indirectly instead of telling someone what the problem is lets them know something is wrong in a passive-aggressive way. The irony is passive-aggressive behaviors are usually more irritating and cause more anger than being direct.

Again, these behaviors are usually unconscious and people are generally not aware they are engaging in them. Regardless of how emotionally healthy we are, we all have defense mechanisms at play every day. Concerns develop when the defenses negatively impact a person’s life in a significant way. A qualified therapist can help you build your self-awareness, heal past pain and/or trauma, and get you coping in a healthy way with any triggers that come your way.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Levana Slabodnick, LISW-S, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

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