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All Unnecessary Suffering Comes From Outdated Defenses

Part 2: How 15 defenses might unconsciously control you.

Burst, photographer/pexels free photo
Source: Burst, photographer/pexels free photo

What your outmoded defenses all share is that each in its own way prevents you from achieving emotional maturity and optimal personality growth. And that can keep you from cultivating psychological equilibrium and functioning at your adult best. As a result, you may not be able to experience the self-esteem, happiness, and contentment that earlier missing for you.

Here are 15 defenses to consider as regards their detrimentally affecting your life:

1. Acting Out — Taking action, usually aggressive, to detach from uncomfortable feelings is a lot more common in children than adults. And it’s a lot less safe when resorted to when you’re older. If, indeed, this has become your MO, you can end up antagonizing or exhausting your support system. It’s one thing for a 3-year-old to have a temper tantrum; it’s something quite different when an adult—say, belligerently demanding another’s attention or compliance—“devolves” into one.

2. Avoidance — Deciding not to act purposefully because you see it as precarious, thereby heightening feelings of personal vulnerability, will immediately reduce your anxiety. But such reluctance doesn’t really solve anything. And in interpersonal contexts others’ trust in you will be undermined once they realize you can't be depended on.

3. Denial — One of the most popularized defenses (as in, “they’re all in denial”), this defense reflects an inability or refusal to confront reality, or admit what’s obviously the truth about a situation. Denial is also operating when the facts are accurately perceived, yet their importance is minimized. And such blatant disregard for “what is” usually carries significant personal, and interpersonal, costs.

4. Displacement — Also an ego-protecting distortion of reality, displacement involves transposing thoughts, feelings, and impulses from someone or something that feels threatening onto others or objects that feel less threatening. One common example is getting furious with your boss yet, fearing retaliation, stifling these hostile feelings until you return home. Then you start yelling at your wife or kids for something trivial, causing friction and bad, hurtful feelings for all concerned.

5. Dissociation — Here, you’re disconnecting from thoughts, feelings, memories, or your environment because they’re unconsciously linked to feelings of past anxiety and unresolved emotional pain. Nonetheless, involuntarily “taking leave” of the present puts you at various risks (e.g., if you’re speaking before a large audience and suddenly blank out).

6. Fantasy — Everyone fantasizes at times, and it’s not always problematic. But if you turn to fantasizing as a substitute for actual engagement (erotic or otherwise) with others, or in unreservedly pursuing attainable goals, then you’ll be forfeiting energy much better spent on productively working to make your ambitions and dreams a reality.

7. Intellectualization — Not as irrational as many other defenses, intellectualization nonetheless dismisses the emotional component of a situation, thinking about something in a coldly analytical, detached manner. As such, the distressful emotions that ordinarily would accompany the experience are blocked or obscured. Doubtless, this can be an awfully handy defense at times. But life can never be fully lived if you’re obliterating the feelings that naturally go with an experience.

8. Overcompensation (my label, for it's generally identified as “compensation”) — This is about developing one’s capabilities or overachieving in one area to make up for deficiencies or failures in another. If you feel inferior at what you’d most like to accomplish, your defense could be to excel at something else. And up to a point, that’s fine (i.e., it’s compensation). But such striving can also throw your whole life off balance—becoming compulsive, and quite possibly addictive (e.g., avariciously “enslaved” to making more money).

9. Passive-Aggressiveness — A defensive strategy that can be conscious as well as unconscious, this coping mechanism can cover up feelings of anxiety, distrust, and poor self-esteem through indirectly attacking others, and in clandestine ways that may be difficult to detect. Ultimately, what it breeds in others is annoyance, distrust, and disrespect. So it can damage or destroy relationships important to you.

10. Procrastination — Not typically recognized as a defense mechanism—especially as at times it characterizes all of us—procrastination that’s habitual can be understood as disordered when so much time is wasted in (unconsciously motivated) “forgetting” that you’re unable to handle what needs to get done in a timely fashion. It could be that you don’t really want to do something or that you think you can’t do it well enough. But routinely putting things off is almost guaranteed to have harmful repercussions for you—and likely those around you, too.

11. Projection — Related to displacement but far more maladaptive, projection is about attributing to others negative qualities you possess but can’t accept in yourself. Needless to say, this defense can wreak havoc in intimate relationships. Besides, if you can’t “own” what you’re ascribing to others, there’s no way you can work through it—and finally get beyond it.

12. Rationalization — Unlike intellectualization, this defense doesn’t simply cogitate away feelings, it represents what’s now termed motivated reasoning in that it involves explaining to yourself and others justifiable, acceptable reasons for what in fact is unacceptable behavior. The reasoning may sound coherent and logical, but it’s simply self-serving, attempting to protect an insecure self-image.

13. Regression — Clearly the most age-inappropriate of defenses, regression is about reverting to a much earlier state of mind and emotion in coping with people and events that trigger powerfully upsetting feelings. Developmentally backwards, binge eating your way out of distress, for example, is plainly dysfunctional—as are various other tactics you might adopt when provoked to return to primal defenses.

14. Repression — More drastic than suppression (see below), this self-protective mechanism eliminates an ego-threatening memory from consciousness—in effect, transferring it from your subconscious (as in, suppression) to the depths of your unconscious where, without making a successful effort to excavate it, may no longer even be available for you to work on. Yet, like most defense mechanisms, it can, paradoxically, continue to exert an outsized influence on your behavior.

15. Suppression — When engaged in suppression, you’re deliberately pushing something out of consciousness, making yourself not think about it because either it relates to others’ punishing you or is just too disturbing to think about. If, say, the behavior was one that during childhood made your parents lambaste you, or later led your fiancée to reject you, it’s understandable that you’d develop a defense making it difficult to access.

It’s essential to realize that defensively deadening yourself to unpleasant or painful emotions, while it does anesthetize you, also makes it impossible for you to feel fully alive. As Robert Firestone emphatically states in his Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life (1989): “To the extent you are defended, you are cut off from being able to experience genuine feeling ... You [go] through your life in a numbed state.”

Beyond this unconsciously contrived desensitizing from life’s grim realities—which, when courageously faced head-on, can make you stronger and more resourceful—if you’re governed by your defenses, you’ll tend to overreact in certain situations and underreact in others. And in both instances your reactions, rooted in unresolved conflicts from your past, will be discordant with present-day circumstances.

It’s therefore critical that you learn to talk to yourself with greater empathy and self-compassion, and also forgive yourself for past mistakes that your defenses (not knowing any better, since they never “grew up”) may have prompted you to make.

To conclude, if you can get beyond your self-limiting defenses, you can start identifying what in life will offer you the greatest satisfaction—whether it be working toward coveted goals, comfortably expressing all your feelings, or scrupulously cultivating the relationships you’ve always wanted.

No longer beset by the inward negative messages that till now may have stopped you in your tracks, you’re finally at liberty to pursue your heart’s desire. And through this newly recovered open-heartedness, you can move forward unimpeded by these outdated self-protective mechanisms.

Note 1: If recognizing your out-of-date defenses isn’t enough to enable you to alter them, an experienced, more objective therapist could help you reduce or eradicate the anxieties and psychic distress that “birthed” them in the first place.

Note 2: Here’s the link to Part 1, which elucidates defense mechanisms generally.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


31 psychological defense mechanisms explained.

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Cherry, K. (2021, Feb 15). 20 common defense mechanisms used for anxiety.

Firestone, R. (1989). Psychological defenses in everyday life. Santa Barbara, CA: The Glendale Association

Holland, K. (2019, Feb11). 10 defense mechanisms: What are they and how they help us cope.

McLeod, S. (2020). Defense mechanisms.

Seltzer, L. F. (2008, Sep 10). The path to unconditional self-acceptance.…

Seltzer, L. F. (2018, Apr 04). Your ideal self is your unadapted self.…

Seltzer, L. F. (2020, Jul 06). How to talk to—and tame—your outdated defenses.…

Seltzer, L. F. (2021, Mar 17). Projection: The great threat to intimate relationships, part 2.…

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