Growing up in a dysfunctional home, one had to adapt and adjust to the chaos all around. Subconsciously, we adopted coping strategies or defense mechanisms to survive our abnormal situations. Often these habitual patterns of behavior continue way past our childhoods. We unknowingly continue playing out our defensive strategies into our adult lives which inevitably harms/sabotages our relationships.
Psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud described defense mechanisms as protection against anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings, related to internal conflicts and outer stressors.
Though emotionally healthy people also use defense mechanisms. they do so as and when required. Defense mechanisms become pathological only when one unconsciously keeps reacting to the present through our traumatic lens of the past.
Unconsciously reverting to defense mechanisms in current relationships is unhealthy. It is extremely detrimental to the sustenance of that relationship. Reacting from the negative schema of an angry/frightened child harms any adult relationship. Worse, when we use these defense mechanisms with our own innocent children.
For a terrified, helpless child, these defenses allowed some degree of coping with a traumatic situation. However, unconsciously continuing with them in adulthood could be detrimental to any relationship.
Nevertheless, using these defense mechanisms at certain times is normal. But in excess, defense mechanisms deny or distort reality. It leads to fake connections and unfulfilling relationships.
In order to have authentic and fulfilling relationships, we have to stop relying on these defenses. To do that we need need to uncover the reasons for our defenses and heal from the wounds of our past.
The common defense mechanisms we unconsciously adopt are:
1) Transference and Repitiion Compulsion
Transference means we carry what was in the past into the present. Most of the time it happens without us being consciously aware of it. Those of us with a history of childhood trauma unbeknownst tend to repeat our experiences from the past.
According to Freud, a repetition compulsion is the transference of the forgotten past into our current lives. Unless we are aware of our unmet needs and feelings that drive us into relationships that are eerily similar to those of our toxic childhood, we will keep attracting the same type of people in our lives. The familiar is comforting even if is toxic.
I know my desperate need for a father figure subconsciously propelled me towards older men, expecting them to be the daddy I did not have. The partner I chose was rigid, misogynistic, and volatile very similar to my father. Becoming conscious of my longing for a father has saved me from getting into further destructive relationships.
In order to break free from the trance of transference, we can work on noticing and addressing it and eventually working through it with honesty and self-compassion.
2) Projection and Displacement
Projection involves ascribing your own unacceptable qualities or feelings onto another person. It protects you from having to acknowledge parts of yourself you don’t like. For example, one accuses a spouse of being unfaithful when in reality they are the cheating one.
Long-term projection is gaslighting the other person. If every day someone tells you you are lazy, eventually begin accepting that as your truth. This crazy-making style of interaction can really mess up a relationship.
Displacement involves acting out our frustrations, feelings, and impulses on people or objects that are less retaliatory. In toxic families displacement of negative feelings is normal. Parents come home and remove their rage on their unsuspecting kids. Invariably, this has a domino effect.
Parents displace their anger/frustration onto their kids, leading to sibling abuse or peer bullying. My father beat my brother, my brother displaced his rage onto me while I had only the dog to displace onto.
3) Denial and Rationalization
Denial is probably one common defense mechanism most of us employ. Even though we may know something is not good we deny the badness of the situation. We refuse to accept/ face reality and admit an obvious truth. Most of us stay in a situation because we are in denial of the reality of the situation.
Invariably, denial leads to rationalization when we give reasons for someone’s noxious behavior. Rationalization is a defense mechanism that involves explaining an unacceptable behavior in a rational or logical manner, avoiding the true reasons for a person’s actions – they are abusive/evil.
We rationalize our partner’s ill-treatment due to their abusive childhood or maybe they had a tough day at work.
Denial and rationalization keep us in stuck toxic relationships.
4) Repression and Suppression
Repression as a defense mechanism happens reflexively in times of deep distress. It helps protect our sanity by keeping out distressing information. However, these painful memories don’t just disappear, they continue to influence our behavior.
For example, a person who has repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse may later have difficulty becoming intimate with another person. I know I struggled with dealing with attention from the opposite sex.
When we consciously push away information out of our awareness, it is known as suppression. This may not always be a bad thing. It can help us survive a difficult situation by just focussing on what is important.
5) Reaction Formation, Passive Aggressive, and Compulsive Lying
When you do the opposite of what you feel you are employing the defense mechanism of reaction formation. Surviving an abusive home involves constant pretending, You are not free to express what you truly feel.
In fact, one has to keep on acting the opposite of what one is feeling.
You cannot tell your cold-rejecting grandmother you hate her, it will only lead to being further rejected. So you resort to fawning /people-pleasing.
Having to always comply leads to deep resentment which leaches out in passive-aggressive behavior. Like, we will be consistently and unapologetically late or make promises and fail to keep them. This cascades into a compulsive lying in order to cover up for our iniquities.
6) Deflection and Fake Laughter
Right from an early age, children became experts in the art of deflection. This defensive habit is utilized in order to draw the attention away from themselves. When you ask them if they broke the glass, they will instinctively deflect the blame onto their sibling or the dog.
You point at someone/something else to avoid being called into question. It is a form of blame-shifting.
Deflection could also entail changing the topic to something else when one does not feel comfortable or is triggered by the discussion. In that instance, it may not be harmful, rather it could be helpful.
One very common way of deflecting tough questions is through laughter. The current U.S. VP, Kamala Harris has employed this fake laughter defense mechanism much to her detriment. Brushing off difficult questions that require an honest answer only furthers social distrust. When someone smiles/laughs in a situation that doesn’t call for it, you instinctively sense the person is hiding something.
Becoming Authentic – Dismantling Our Defense Mechanism
Over time our defenses become ingrained, like being an intrinsic part of our personality. Dismantling them from our psyche takes a lot of self-work. It involves self-awareness and honesty which can be extremely painful and uncomfortable. Our brain hates change, it doesn’t easily let go of the familiar.
The only way to avoid messing up our current lives is to become aware of our feelings and longing. Instead of hoping for someone else to fill that unmet need one has to work at healing the parenting failures we experienced.
In his book, Healing the Inner Child, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we become aware of that forgotten the wounded child in ourselves and we feel great compassion for that child. We soothingly tell her/him:
Darling, I am here for you.
I will take good care of you. I know you suffer so much. I have been so busy.
I have neglected you, and now I have learned a way to come back to you.
Only by breaking through our defenses are we able to enter the here-and-now reality and not be haunted or swayed by shadows from the past.
Image Source: Pixabay
Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions – Neel Burton