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Old 04-05-2009, 12:09 PM
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Default Defense Mechanisms: What’s Normal and What’s Nuts

“I know you are, but what am I?”
“La, la, la—I can’t hear you!”
How many times have we heard kids taunting each other this way? These statements may sound like childish playground jeers, but they’re actually deeply ingrained and universally acknowledged psychological defense mechanisms. Any time we’re confronted with uncomfortable or troubling information, our minds try to process it in a way that preserves our psychological identity. We all have sensitive self-esteem and our minds have adapted to keep some mental distance between us and the things we find scary or hard to accept, like news of a friend’s terminal illness or the fact that our skinny jeans don’t fit anymore.
The methods we use as children aren’t very mature, but who really expects little kids to be all that grown up, anyway? As we grow and develop, we’re supposed to learn more sophisticated ways to cope. Everyone uses defense mechanisms from time to time, from kids at recess to adults dealing with tragedy. Psychiatry has established a hierarchy for these mechanisms and while the use of some indicates a healthy, well-adjusted adult, others can indicate that a person is just, well, nuts.
Mature Methods
There are some defense mechanisms that indicate overall mental health and maturity. What makes them unique is the fact that people deliberately choose these methods of handling stress, rather than allowing their mind to react unconsciously.
Sublimation is the act of taking strong negative feelings or emotions and then channeling them into something productive or positive. A mother devastated over her son’s drunk driving death might devote her energy to starting a scholarship in his name or educating other teens about alcohol.
Suppression is a very healthy defense involving setting aside your unpleasant feelings for the present and dealing with them later. Family holidays are good places to practice your suppression techniques. The next time your mother-in-law insults your piecrust, don’t let your anger get the best of you; instead, talk with her later in private.
Humor can be a defense mechanism, too. Making people laugh can be a way to lighten and defuse a tense or sad situation. Pointing out absurdities or making jokes is a mature and healthy way to ease tension, so there’s no need to feel bad the next time you feel the urge to crack a joke at an inappropriate time. If you’re driving in a funeral procession, pointing out a hilarious road sign can lighten everyone’s mood.
Intermediate Methods
Intermediate defense mechanisms usually indicate that someone is mildly neurotic, but probably not totally cuckoo. Used in moderation, they can be perfectly healthy outlets for uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.
Displacement is fairly common, although it’s pretty unfair. Sometimes we have feelings of anger or hostility that we can’t directly address. If we’re mad about being stuck in traffic and there’s no way to vent that frustration, we might come home and kick the dog or yell at our partner. Anyone who’s ever been yelled at by their spouse at the end of a hard day knows what it feels like.
Repression is like a slightly more self-aware form of denial, but instead of saying, “No, I don’t believe it,” our minds say, “I’m just not going to deal with it.” If you’ve ever gotten a credit card bill and pretended you didn’t see the balance, you’ve repressed.
Undoing is a pretty transparent defense. After a person does something bad, they try to do something nice, in the hopes that the two acts will karmically cancel each other out. When my boyfriend comes home and displaces his work anger by yelling at me, he invariably tries to undo the injustice later by complimenting me or making dinner on his own. Now that I think about it, the entire floral industry is based on people trying to undo their mistakes.
Primitive Methods
It’s one thing when a small child refuses to deal, but when adults frequently indulge in primitive psychological defense mechanisms, it can indicate that they are emotionally stunted or immature. The primitive methods all rely on deliberately misinterpreting or ignoring reality and they almost always happen unconsciously.
Denial happens when an idea is so hateful that the mind literally refuses to accept it. If you’ve ever doubted the power of denial, watch an episode of American Idol. Some people totally refuse to believe the judges’ advice that they should stop singing and get a day job … denial at its best.
Projection is seeing in other people the qualities that you can’t accept within yourself. People project their fears and insecurities onto others as a way to deflect attention from their own shortcomings. I once had a friend who was extremely critical of other women’s weight, when deep down, she was the one who was incredibly insecure about her body.
Acting out is when an unpleasant feeling or emotion manifests itself physically, so the person doesn’t have to deal with the emotion itself. Small children throw temper tantrums when they are upset or angry and immature adults sometimes scream or commit random acts of violence. Plenty of us have murderous thoughts when we’re in line at the DMV, but only the truly deranged actually carry them out.
Use in Moderation
Psychological defense mechanisms can help us to deal with reality in a productive and healthy way, but they shouldn’t become a crutch. Studies have shown that people who use the mature coping methods are generally healthier and happier than people who rely on more immature defenses. It will always be normal and natural to put up an emotional separation from painful reality, whether that reality is a close friend’s sickness, the truth about our singing capabilities, or that yes, these jeans really do make us look fat.
“Not what we say about our blessings, but how we use them, is the true measure of our thanksgiving.”
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