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Defense Mechanisms

When Defense Mechanisms Interfere with Therapy

How both therapist and client can deal with "Did I just say that?" moments.

Key points

  • Defense mechanisms like denial, dissociation, and intellectualization are normal aspects of communication.
  • Developing equitable communication means normalizing our biases and preconceived notions about how we label others.
  • Therapists provide a client centered space to ensure clients feel safe and secure in a session to be challenged respectfully.
  • Responding to a client's triggers in a therapy session with compassion and empathy can strengthen the therapeutic framework.
Keren Fedida/Unsplash
Source: Keren Fedida/Unsplash

Our tongue is a powerful muscle. Human beings have learned to utilize language to love, comfort, destroy, and even protect our emotions.

Defense mechanisms can arise at any moment when we feel challenged, or perhaps when someone hits a nerve by speaking a truth that we may not be ready to hear or deal with in life. I define defense mechanisms as unconscious thoughts that trigger behaviors and reactions to avoid uncomfortable feelings, situations, and emotions.

For therapist and client, both may be triggered by something that is said or a nonverbal cue that may seem misleading. I encourage us to acknowledge that our emotions are valid, and we should never be judged for having a reaction that is human. Yes, even therapists at times say something they wish to forget was said in a session. When this does occur, I believe that this moment presents the perfect opportunity to pause, take a deep breath, and truly reflect on how to process our feelings.

It is important to note that is not your responsibility as a client to ensure that your therapist is not being triggered by your reaction, but counselors are human. In addition, the space that we are honored to hold for clients takes on many shapes and forms during a session, because we are constantly trying to align our thoughts with yours to understand how to best meet your needs.

Mark Adriane/Unsplash
Source: Mark Adriane/Unsplash

The intimacy that exists between therapist and client within a counseling session can feel awkward and intimidating. There are usually two individuals in the room trying to utilize our best language skills to deepen an interpersonal professional relationship, all while trying to avoid feelings of judgment and shame within a session that may arise.

Within this communication dynamic, vulnerability often becomes the catalyst for a defense mechanism. In any given moment, there exists this strange window of opportunity for our defense mechanisms to come forth when we don’t feel secure or safe.

I challenge myself to constantly build a deeper rapport with my clients by fostering a therapeutic relationship that is built upon establishing a safe, secure, and affirming client-centered space. In doing so, here are three defense mechanisms that my clients and I often explore and process together in session. Perhaps this discussion about these defense mechanisms will enhance your self-awareness of the unconscious feelings, biases, and triggers that might arise in all our lives.

1. Denial

Denial can be helpful in situations where we feel like things are out of control or as a response when we feel that the truth that we wish to convey will not be supported or heard by others. However, denial can also be a positive thing. For example, for a client who is optimistic that their loved one will recover from a surgery or a car accident, denial can be helpful in finding hope in this situation.

Nevertheless, denial can cause us to not pay attention to the warning signs that something needs to be addressed in our life for mental health conditions such as addiction. Some addictions may not stand out in the lives of clients because they are still able to work, meet their daily needs, and socially interact with others. If a client living with addiction believes that they are meeting most of their general needs each day without major interruptions to their survival, it is hard to face that there is a problem and accept how it affects their lives and the lives of those who care for them.

Obie Fernandez/Unsplash
Source: Obie Fernandez/Unsplash

2. Dissociation

Dissociation entails being emotionally and mentally disconnected from life events, stressful situations, and trauma. The degree of dissociation is different for everyone. This depends upon if the person has healthy coping mechanisms to bring them back to the present to see their current reality from a positive perspective.

I dissociated from my trauma in the past so much that I couldn’t recall certain memories of my childhood and lived experiences. I have learned to work through my trauma. However, for my clients as well as myself, dissociation may serve as protection to not remember memories that could cause duress.

3. Intellectualization

This defense mechanism involves a person utilizing reason, logic, and analytical thinking to avoid uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking emotions.

Intellectualization can be very useful in analyzing events and situations to rationalize our behaviors. For example, if I notice that someone is annoyed or upset because they are cursing, I could deduct that they are angry. There may be serval reasons for their annoyance, which I may or may not have been able to witness. However, in intellectualizing their situation, I might downplay the importance of the person’s underlying feeling or reason for being upset.

In society, we often prescribe or assign behavior that we deem acceptable or not. Based on our childhood experiences, for example, we may have biases regarding what we deem as an acceptable response to anger. Some clients who are marginalized or oppressed, for instance, report that they feel like they don’t have the space to express their feelings like others who have privilege in society. Thus, they may feel like their emotions and feelings need to be downplayed, in order to be heard.

Nathan Anderson/Unsplash
Source: Nathan Anderson/Unsplash

No matter what our verbal and nonverbal cues are in therapy or in life, we owe it to ourselves and others to create a space where we all can communicate to the best of our ability. Of course, defense mechanisms will occur all the time. I believe the first step in normalizing them is to admit that they are there and be sensitive to hierarchical systems of power dynamics (ex: gender, class, and race) that may cause us to be biased about a person’s lived experiences.

If we own how we wish to improve our communication, we can be held more accountable in affirming the type of support we would like to receive in communication to feel heard and validated with acceptance and compassion.

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