Are Defense Mechanisms Bad or Brilliant?

By Alessandra Mikic, LMSW

You’ve probably heard someone describe a negative or undesirable behavior as a “defense mechanism” or “defense” for short. It’s usually used with a negative connotation, but here’s the thing: we all use defenses at times — and they’re brilliant. 

Hold up. What is a defense? It’s the thing you do when you don’t want to feel a feeling. When you feel sadness and tears are welling up, what do you do to distract yourself from that emotion? When you feel a surge of anger toward someone, what do you do to push that feeling away? Sometimes this is conscious and intentional, so you’re aware of it, and sometimes it’s not (what therapists call “unconscious”). This is, by the way, completely normal. 

But why are defenses brilliant? In very simplified terms: because your go-to defenses were likely developed earlier in life, maybe even way back in childhood, when you didn’t have someone older and wiser to help you regulate your anxiety and effectively tolerate and process your big feelings. If you had, that would have built resilience and that kind of feeling wouldn’t now be so overwhelming or intolerable. Or, someone told you or indirectly insinuated that your feeling wasn’t legitimate, valid or appropriate, so little you was brilliant and figured out a way to squash or cover up that feeling in order to survive socially. It was a strategic, self-preserving move, and it’s extremely important to recognize and honor that.

So then... are defenses bad? No! Not at all. The problem with defenses is that they usually result in their own set of problems, especially once we grow into adults. It’s like having a security blanket that helps you sleep at night and feel safe away from home — brilliant when you’re a kid because it helps you get through life, but not quite as useful after a certain age. For example, maybe you learned to be nice to everyone all the time because that enabled you to avoid conflict with others, even if that meant burying your desires or ignoring your boundaries — that’ll become exhausting eventually. Or maybe you figured out that if you pretend you don’t care how the actions of others affect you, you won’t ever be vulnerable — but this undermines genuine connection and relationships with others. 

Your combination of defenses is as unique as you. If you’re wondering what your defenses are, what problems they may be causing (you probably already have some idea), and what your life might be like if you leaned on them less (spoiler alert: better!), start noticing when feelings come up and how you deal (or don’t) with them. If you’re having trouble dealing with certain feelings, talking to a trusted, calm, and nonjudgmental friend or therapist is a very good next step. 

One last thing: if you’re not ready to give up your defenses yet, I want to emphasize that that’s totally okay and makes perfect sense. Just as no rational adult would ever snatch a security blanket away from an anxious child, trying to relinquish our defenses cold turkey might not be so effective — in fact, too much too soon may backfire. Slower is faster. Recognize the value your defenses have given you and how they have gotten you this far. Take baby steps and playfully experiment with new, more adult-adaptive ways of dealing with your feelings, relationships, and environment. 

Alessandra Mikic is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing reception@cobbpsychotherapy.com, and see how therapy can help.

Elizabeth Cobb