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  • Writer's pictureLinda Buchanan

From Change Your Story - Change Your Life: What is a Defense Mechanism?

At work last week many of the staff and clients dressed up for Halloween. I came as Super Vision (named this by one of my supervisees) who's self proclaimed superpower was "She Who Can See Through Defenses." The timing was appropriate since Halloween plays off the theme of fear and defense mechanisms are strategies that we use when we are afraid. The catch though, is that we usually don't realize when we are using defense mechanisms in that they become habitual and then automatic responses. Now that's really scary! (as is this picture of me, but, hey, I was trying to look powerful).

The dictionary defines defense mechanism as:

  1. an automatic reaction of the body against disease-causing organisms.

  2. a mental process (e.g., repression or projection) initiated, typically unconsciously, to avoid conscious conflict or anxiety.

So clearly, I'm talking here about the second definition but notice that they are both automatic reactions set off by a threat. In psychological terms, these threats might be:

  • Fear that someone will get mad at you

  • Fear that you will be criticized

  • Fear that you will do something wrong

  • Fear that you will be abandoned

  • Fear that you will be misunderstood

  • Fear that someone will take advantage of you

In a therapy group we explored how we often will use defense mechanisms in relationships. We did an activity where I asked members to fill in the following sentence:

I do (or don't) ___________________, because I'm afraid that you will ______________________.

Some of the responses were:

  • "I don't share my feelings because I'm afraid you will hurt me."

  • "I don't introduce myself because I assume you won't like me."

  • "I isolate because I'm afraid you will take advantage of me.

  • "I don't let you know I like you because I'm afraid you will hurt or judge me."

  • "I always say no (or yes) because I fear that you won't approve of me."

Defense mechanisms are natural and normal however the more often we use them, the less uncomfortable we need to feel to resort to them. They can become habitual. For instance, if you have often received a message that your feelings don't make sense, you might first be selective about with whom you shared them. Then over time you might generalize this strategy to keeping your feelings pushed down (repression) regardless of who you are with and finally, maybe even from yourself.

The more often you use a defense mechanism,

the less threat you need to experience for it to automatically kick in.

Anais Nin was a 20th century diarist.  She began what became her life-long work of art in 1914 at the age of eleven and kept writing until her death 63 years later in 1977.  She wrote that

"We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are."

The defense mechanisms that I think are most common and that we all use from time to time are denial and projection.


I remember watching my precious four year old son push down a little boy who was younger than he was. Even though I had seen exactly what happened, it just did not compute with how I thought about my son. I creatively came up with other explanations for what I had seen with my own two eyes. As I sat puzzling whether the younger boy might have slipped, my son pushed him down again. It then seemed to take forever for my brain to recognize what was actually happening so that I could intervene. It later dawned on me that it had been denial - in live and living color! Read here if you want to see a blog I wrote for clinicians for understanding denial as a form of ambivalence.


Projection occurs when we've developed beliefs that are global in nature and then project them onto specific situations. We all distort because we only have our own perspective. A story will help illustrate this point.

Mary and Kinsey are riding the elevator at work. Joy, whom they both know, enters the elevator, glances at them and then turns her back to them without speaking.

Kinsey projects her fear of being rejected onto Joy and reacts by re-tracing recent conversations she’s had with Joy to figure out what she’s done wrong to offend her. In contrast, Mary begins to wonder if Joy is feeling okay.

As they head to their offices, Kinsey avoids Joy and goes straight to her desk. She is thinking about a conversation she had with Joy a while back in which they had what, she thought at the time, was a friendly difference of opinion. She begins to feel irritated with Joy for holding a grudge over something so minor. It makes her feel like she did as a child when it seemed that she could never express her own opinion without someone getting mad.

Meanwhile, Mary approaches Joy and asks if everything is okay. Joy explains that she was lost in thought about an upsetting phone call she just got from her son’s teacher and apologizes for not speaking. She says "honestly, it didn't even register with me that you were there." Mary offers support and their relationship strengthens while Kinsey, because she has projected an assumption based on old feelings, continues to avoid Joy who is oblivious to the reason and never understands why their relationship seemed to have cooled. Kinsey may have a series of experiences where she has projected a belief that people will not treat her right. If so, it is as if she is primed to believe this regardless of what is happening in the moment. Additionally, when she is projecting, she doesn't get the opportunity to create new beliefs.

On Halloween, as I walked around the building in my costume, most people laughed or rolled their eyes at me which was a lot of fun. I hope, too, that people were a little more aware of how their defense mechanisms might be actually increasing discomfort in their lives in the long run rather than providing the promised (yet seldom delivered) increase in safety.

I am currently publishing a book titled I'm Not Good Enough: How the Stories You Tell Yourself are Ruining Your Life. By following my blog, you will be notified when it is ready for purchase. I would love to hear from you. Please scroll down to the bottom of this page (past the banner of recent posts) to leave a comment.

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