Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

You Don’t Choose Your Defenses, Your Defenses Choose You

It’s crucial to identify, evaluate, and revise probably outdated defenses.

Key points

  • You may procrastinate because your desires unconsciously conflict with self-protective programming.
  • To restore sense of safety, our vigilant defense system makes us over-generalize what was originally experienced as hazardous.
  • To transform the original negative impact of a traumatic event, rationally not emotionally, reevaluate what it signified.
Billion Photos/Shutterstock
Source: Billion Photos/Shutterstock

As long as defense mechanisms remain involuntary, they can’t be changed. But once you know enough to make them voluntary, you’re granted the opportunity to alter or extinguish them.

Of course, before attempting this strategic shift, you need to assess whether, in whole or part, the defense might still be required. Or whether (and frankly, much more likely) the defense is outmoded or self-defeatingly exaggerated. For if so, it’s probably leading you to sabotage yourself.

You may be procrastinating in working toward a desired goal or holding fast to a coveted ideal. And why? Merely because your present desires might unconsciously be running afoul of your ancient, yet firmly entrenched, self-protective programming.

So let’s say at age 8 you were severely bullied by someone much older, verbally adept, and stronger than you. You couldn’t fight him off or outsmart him—nor was it possible to run away from him.

Your most viable solution, then, would have been to “freeze” your consciousness—basically offer no resistance and simply detach or dissociate yourself from the loathsome experience. In the moment, that defensive reaction would have enabled you to feel less embarrassed, weak, or powerless.

Frequently, we can’t resist looking back on a humiliating experience and wishing we’d acted differently. If only we’d “stood tall,” braced ourselves, and showed more courage. Or craftily employed language that could have distracted, humbled, or outwitted the abuser. Or found some clever way of turning the regretfully remembered defeat into a stunning David versus Goliath victory.

But in mentally replaying the earlier scene, typically, what we fail to consider is that given the limited resources we had back then, we really did the best we could and that, realistically, there’s really nothing for us to be ashamed of or blame ourselves for.

Additionally, our decision not to challenge our antagonist was at the bottom biologically—or, better, neurologically—determined. For it derived from our parasympathetic, or autonomic, nervous system—operating independent of our conscious will—and overpowered it by shutting us down. At the time, that is, we didn’t have access to our more active sympathetic nervous system, which would, at least potentially, have mobilized us to take action.

Therefore, obliged to follow the dictates of our primal, pre-cognitive survival programming, instead of negatively judging our younger self for our instinctually passive response, we should actually be grateful for not doing anything that conceivably could have made matters worse.

Anything Experienced as Traumatic May Later Prompt Us to Act Dysfunctionally.

In earlier posts written on trauma, I noted the two-word phrase that lives indefinitely within us after experiencing what felt mortally threatening to our survival. And those two seemingly indelible words are “Never again!”

So trauma not only plugs into an automatic alarm device that’s set off by anything resembling what at the time so scared us, it inordinately and irrationally sensitizes us. To restore our sense of safety, our ever-wary, vigilant defense system compels us to over-generalize circumstances originally experienced as terrifying.

Commonly, such an unconsciously dysregulated response results in avoidant behavior. And that behavioral inaction correlates with a passive response, virtually guaranteeing later surrender or defeat.

If, for instance, you were bitten by a pit bull you naively approached to pet, even though its whole demeanor indicated hostility, you could end up experiencing panic regarding dogs in general. This could occur even if your memory of the incident was repressed.

So if in a park you encountered a puppy running toward you and wagging its tail, eagerly wanting you to pet it, you could instantaneously be inflicted with feelings of horror and so freeze up—even if you recognized the flagrant illogic of your reaction.

In short, the superficial similarity of the present situation with the past can involuntarily revivify the unconsciously established “Never again!” response.

To repeat, such a reaction isn’t consciously controlled by you but by your pre-cognitive nervous system, wired at birth to safeguard you from whatever is experientially sensed as threatening your survival.

And here it should be stressed that, contrariwise, your perceptual (versus neurological) faculty relates to the reality-based, conscious awareness of what’s happening in the here-and-now. And that is under your control.

Still, your unconsciously motivated, so-called neuroception is governed by your nervous system—or (even more technically) your polyvagal system (e.g., see Porges, 2018 [its developer], and Dana, 2018).

Although this characterization may sound overly pessimistic or defeatist, there are various ways to free yourself from its shackles. And you hardly need to be an escape artist like Houdini. All that must happen is for you to explore just where this now-inappropriate giving-up response originated.

Moreover, even if you can’t determine its exact origins, you can assume it was once acutely felt as essential to your survival—as a threat you lacked the resources to combat effectively.

How to Liberate Yourself From Past Traumatic Constrictions

It could be said that virtually all intractable psychological problems—as well as many physiological ones—are grounded in trauma, for they involve outmoded defense mechanisms that, contrary to our present-day welfare, prohibit us from taking necessary risks.

Automatically assuming that such risks, however negligible, are dangerous or fearsome (like an urge to anxiously flee from a friendly puppy!), these no-longer-applicable programs literally become our self-generated antagonists. They make us resist, even fight against, what—bio-psycho-socially— would contribute to our growth and well-being.

Finally, it may not matter just how we address and ultimately overcome such needless obstacles. We can do so—either by ourselves or with the help of a trained professional—by employing such mainstream approaches as behavioral (exposure-focused), cognitive-behavioral, psychodynamic, and gestalt therapies—and pharmacotherapy, too.

Or we could make use of therapeutic techniques especially contrived to resolve past trauma. These alternative paths include (but are hardly limited to) EMDR, Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), Somatic Experiencing, Polyvagal Therapy, and the use of psychedelics.

What almost all of these detraumatizing routes share is that they invite you to revisit some aspect of earlier trauma, to open-mindedly reflect on how you originally interpreted and responded to it, and to rationally (versus emotionally) perceive it in a different light.

And that fresh perspective toward what initially was so overwhelming is accomplished through asking yourself such questions as:

  • Could this situation, realistically, happen again?
  • Even if it did, might I now have the knowledge and resources for dealing with it that earlier hadn’t adequately developed?
  • If anything similar happened today, who do I know that could be there to help or support me, so I wouldn’t have to feel anywhere near as alone, disturbed, and abandoned as I felt in the past?
  • Was I as responsible for this event (versus being its victim) as I long ago believed?
  • In what ways did the traumatic situation (which may have been a one-off or an ongoing, longstanding one) lead me to regard myself more negatively than was logically justified?
  • To the extent that the event contributed to my adopting a pessimistic viewpoint toward life and the world generally, how might my reprocessing its magnitude revamp this bearish attitude?

It’s often said that it’s not simply what happened to you that made it register as traumatic, but how you interpreted it. So the way to transform its original meaning is to rationally reassess what it signified.

And you do this by persuading your now conscious defense that even though you realize its only intention was to protect you, it has nonetheless outlived its utility.

© 2022 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.