Are Your Coping Skills Backfiring?

by Andrea M. Darcy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Have a certain way of acting when someone is upset with you, or when you feel stressed? And think it’s ‘just the way you are?’

Think again.

Defense mechanisms in psychology are ways of behaving and responding we develop as a child that tend to hold us back as adults, but which we have the power to change.

What are defence mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are really survival strategies as well as a form of self-deception. Somewhere along the road of growing up, we made choices of how we’d behave in order to

  • avoid emotional upset
  • be liked by others
  • maintain our self-image.

Of course we didn’t consciously decide to deceive ourselves or others. We unconsciously learned a defence mechanism from the adults around us. Or we experienced something upsetting, and found a way to behave that helped us get by that we just naturally continued to apply.

Why are defence mechanisms a big deal?

The problem is, that these very strategies that worked when we were helpless children with few options? Don’t work so well when we are adults who can make choices.

Defense mechanisms can stop you from really knowing yourself. And this can of course cause troubles in your relationships.

7 Common defence mechanisms

Do any of the following sound familiar?

1. Projection.

You are always seeing what is wrong with others. What you don’t realise is that you are projecting your own issues onto others. You think your c0lleague is too impatient and can’t see that actually, it’s you that is impatient with everyone.


Denial can be subtle. You can have a habit of constantly denying you are upset about things when everyone else tells you that you are. Or it could be on a bigger scale. You deny that you have an alcohol problem, or that your marriage is a mess, and carry on as if everything is fine.

3. Repression.

You don’t feel big emotions because not only do you bury them away, you bury the experiences that caused them. This can result in things like foggy memories about childhood, or immediately forgetting recent stressful events. Did a sales person actually yell at you last week? You can’t quite remember….

4. Rationalisation.

Nothing is that big of a deal because you can explain it away, even if that means rewriting some of the finer details. No, you are not upset that your best friend stole your money, you completely can see how much she needed it, it’s fine. You overlook the fact that she makes more money than you.

5. Sublimation.

You aren’t angry, you are just funny! Those terrible things you say about people are just jokes. Sublimation means you take socially unacceptable behaviours and morph them into acceptable ones.

6. Reaction Formation.

You want to eat every cake in sight, so you quit eating sugar and go on an extreme detox until you are worryingly thin. With reaction formation, you respond to the stress of your unconscious impulses by doing the exact opposite.

7. Regression.

Suddenly, on a stressful date with someone you don’t like, you go all giggly and girly and floppy, and let him order your food for you. Regression means you make yourself feel safe in response to stress by acting out childish behaviours, as if you have gone back in time mentally or even physically.

Can I just stop defence mechanisms if I put my mind to it?

You can certainly try. The first step is admitting you are using a defence mechanism, and wanting to change it. Things like mindfulness can help us become more aware of the moment we are going into a defence mechanism, and more able to choose not to.

But the problem with defence mechanisms is that they are ingrained behaviours that we have generally been committed to for a very long time.

They exist because we either didn't get the support and love we needed, or we experienced something difficult or traumatic in childhood. Therapy is recommended because it helps you get to the root of what you need to be defensive about in the first place.

Ready to drop the defense mechanisms and improve your relationships? Book a therapist now at a price you can afford and start to break free.

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