As humans we require the capacity for self-preservation. Simply put, we have an innate need to protect ourselves from harm. Harm can present itself in many ways. The ‘harm’, I refer to here can be a variety of painful emotions such as sadness, grief, anger and anxiety.
Painful emotions are triggered by a difficult event such as being bullied, the loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship etc. and can often remain with us from childhood. Experiences like this are emotionally discombobulating! Consequently, an implicit set of skills is developed so as to prevent any potential emotional discomfort of this nature. Unfortunately, we can’t avoid these painful feelings. Instead we develop coping strategies and deference mechanisms to do so.
This is usually effective in the short term, but when it inhibits us from processing our ‘real or true’ feelings, it can become problematic.
Humour is a very common form of defense particularly in Ireland! We love nothing more than making fun of ourselves before other people can do it to us. It’s classic deflective behaviour (see below for explanation).
Other forms of defences and/or coping styles include:
- Avoidance – Procrastination and staying ‘on the go’ so as not to feel emotional discomfort.
- Denial – Not allowing emotions to become admissible into our awareness ‘This is not happening’. This is a very popular coping style!
- Distortion – Building a different narrative around our experience so as to make it less painful. for example, ‘I’m so angry with X’ when we truly feel hurt.
- Regression – behaving in a childlike manner or reverting to an old, redundant coping styles.
- Deflection – pushing the blame away or blaming someone else.
- Dissociation – pretending we are somewhere else entirely or daydreaming. For example,imagining ourselves on an exotic beach when someone is getting angry at us and pretending we are listening when we’re really thinking about what cocktail we’d order!
When (is it helpful)?
Having effective defenses can be really helpful when we are going through a hard time, for example, a loss of a family member or relationship. It can serve a function here to enable us to survive until we can enjoy life again. I’m sure you can relate to many of the examples above. I know I certainly can.
It is only when these behaviors inhibit us from processing our true emotions or our intentions, that it can become problematic.
And when is it not?
Our defenses are designed to be transient i.e. they protect us when we need protecting, for a certain length of time. This can be short-term, such as during a conversation we might use humour to deviate from our own embarrassment. Or we may avoid something that we’ve been procrastinating on because we know it will make us feel stressed.
It is when our coping or defensive style becomes long-term and we procrastinate in general that it becomes problematic.
Avoidance is a classic example of this. It is usually informed by fear. An example of this would be not going for a job interview as it will make you very nervous but you also know it will benefit you long- term. Or knowing ‘deep down’ that you’re in an unhappy relationship but you won’t end it. That’s long-term denial and eventually what you are fearing and consequently avoiding, will occur.
Defences can also be layered. We might have all of the defences above available to us at any given time. Sometimes they may all be active simultaneously.
How do I know if I am in denial mode?
It may be that you notice yourself feeling sporadic bouts of anxiousness or low mood. It may be that you lack clarity in certain areas of your life or you feel unclear about a next step to take. It may be that someone you know and trust expresses concern for you.
In her book, an author called Hilary Jacobs Hendel, discusses the link between what she describes as core emotions, inhibitory emotions and our defences. Core emotions are hard wired into our brain and inform us about our environment. They include sadness, fear, anger, joy, excitement, sexual excitement and disgust. She describes inhibitory emotions as those which block our core emotions as a means of protection. She suggests that our defences enable us to avoid core and inhibitory emotions. If you would like more in depth understanding of defences, I suggest reading her book which has some useful information on emotions and defences.
Is there a healthier way to use defence mechanisms?
In short, yes. If you’re in ostrich mode, i.e. burying your head in the sand it’s likely informed by fear. Allowing yourself to tolerate the fear and the consequent feelings you’ve been avoiding is the end goal. The first step forwards is allowing yourself to process the feelings you’re defending against. This can seem very scary, but there are things that can help such as therapy.
The next step would be to consider what narrative you’ve created around this way of coping. For example ‘I can’t do that job interview, because I’m too nervous’ will link back to link back to a core feeling of ‘I’m unworthy and don’t deserve success and I would be awful at that job anyway’.
An important thing to remember here is that we all require a healthy level of denial and at times that is highly appropriate. It is only when it becomes excessive or prolonged that we need to address it as it can lead to more serious implications. If you relate to ‘being in ostrich mode’ then why not look into finding a therapist and begin to address your fear? It’s never too late!