Have you ever felt attacked by the things your partner said or the way he or she said it? Did you ever feel anger, fear and powerlessness that made you react in unusual ways? Have you ever thought about the way you and your partner are communicating? And what this has to do with protection strategies?
In this article, we’ll explore how defense mechanisms work. You can improve your communication skills by identifying your unconscious coping behaviours.
Defense mechanisms are usually unconscious processes. But, you can learn to understand your own and other people’s defense mechanisms better. It is a journey of personal reflection to become aware of one’s protection strategies.
Defense mechanisms are neither good nor bad. They are just sometimes hindering us from leading the life we want. From having the relationships we want. And from experiencing the communication we desire with others.
Where do defense mechanisms come from?
Growing up, human beings develop their personality. This involves to internalize experiences and to learn and unlearn different behaviours. Most of this happens beyond our perception.
As long as we were children the tolerance limit for our behaviour was higher. But, as we grow up, much of the once learned behaviour becomes less acceptable. In the process we learn what works and is okay, and what is not. That’s how personal growth takes place.
We gain understanding of how to communicate wiser and to know ourselves better. It becomes our own responsibility to learn certain behaviours. And also, to unlearn behaviour that hinders personal growth or relationships from flourishing.
Arguments, conflicts and disagreements are part of daily communication for many people. Also rejection is a common experience for many. How we react to this depends on the mechanisms we’ve internalized to protect our self-esteem.
Rejection or disagreement can feel like a threat or a personal attack to one’s ego and self-esteem. Then, conversations can turn emotional. This happens when people’s soft spots, world views or personality is under attack.
Rejection or conflicts may involve unpleasant feelings of anxiety or shame. This can happen when you share your opinion and people disagree, or even attack you for your beliefs. Or, when you invite people you want to get to know, and they decline your invitation due to whatever reasons. Also, when the feelings you have towards a person after a nice date are not reciprocal.
These forms of rejection may trigger old wounds. It may remind you of earlier childhood experiences. It may cause you feelings, emotions or thoughts that you find difficult to deal with.
People try to protect their ego from threats and unpleasant feelings. They use different coping mechanisms.
There are different categories of defense mechanisms
Psychological researchers use a variety of categorizations and descriptions to describe defense mechanisms. One of these categorizations is to cluster them from primitive to mature.
Primitive mechanisms like denial, regression or dissociation work well in the short-term. They are the ones we learn first when growing up. More mature and long-term mechanisms are assertiveness or compensation.
Are you someone who tends to feel threatened by other people’s opinions or ideas? In conversations, do you tend to explode easily? Then, you may be using immature defense mechanisms (Laczkovics et al. 2018).
Many people try to avoid conflicts. It is no surprise that denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms. People behave like the painful feeling, thought or event never happened. This is also how they handle the conflicts within them. They refuse to accept the reality. This, of course, is not very sustainable.
Also acting out on someone or hurting oneself is only a short-term relief. Instead, you could replace this by clear communication with the causer of the anger. Tell this person: “I’m angry with you”.
Other common defense mechanisms are projection, dissociation, regression. Awareness and self-reflection are the first steps for growth and change.
How you defend yourself depends on your attachment style
A recent study suggests that one can predict defense mechanisms by attachment. People who have
“attachment styles characterized by a positive self-image predict greater levels of mature defense mechanisms, and lower levels of immature defense mechanisms, both in the interpersonal and intrapsychic domains.”
(Laczkovics et al. 2018)
So, it makes a difference how you think about yourself and the people around you. Positive-thinking people tend to be less anxious and self-protective in their communication.
An assertive way to deal with disagreement or rejection is to take your power back. This is possible without taking the other person’s power away.
Don’t attack their world view, rather accept that they can’t agree with you at the moment and it’s okay. In fact, you can always agree to disagree.
The strategy we should be thriving for...
Smart communicators know how to resolve conflicts without an explosion of emotions. They know how to address topics in an assertive way. They don’t end up defending their ego, stuck in a flood of emotions.
Assertiveness is the ability to express your thoughts in a respectful and honest way. Being assertive in your communication is a skill. It means to find the balance between speaking up for yourself and listening to others. This includes being polite and respectful in the whole process.
Having an assertive communication style will benefit you a lot in your relationships. It means you don’t blame your partner with your words. Make sure that you don’t accost your partner. Express your thoughts and feelings. Be truthful and sincere while doing that.
This is why self-reflection is so important. Start to understand your defense mechanisms. Observe your own reactions to those triggers!
These habits usually take place outside of our awareness. That’s why it requires active efforts to unlearn them. As soon as you start to understand them, you will have less conflict in your relationships. If this is something you want, your time is well invested in learning more about these mechanisms.
This also protects your partner from the need of using their own defense mechanisms. Then, they won’t feel like they have to protect their self-esteem.
The best thing about it: You actually deliver the message. Messages often get lost in poor communication settings or emotional turmoils. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
In arguments or discussions, people’s behaviour depends on their defense mechanisms. Everyone does it, and it is likely that you’re doing it too. Knowing your defense mechanisms will help you to improve your communication skills and your relationships.
It involves a lot of self-reflection, which will help you get to know yourself better. This will cause you less stress in your relationships.
We hope this article motivates you to get to know yourself better and have the relationships you want.
Laczkovics, C., Fonzo, G., Bendixsen, B. et al. Defense mechanism is predicted by attachment and mediates the maladaptive influence of insecure attachment on adolescent mental health. Curr Psychol 39, 1388–1396 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-018-9839-1