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Psychology Takes a New Look at Defense Mechanisms


  • Defense mechanisms are typically thought of as psychological processes most people should try to avoid.

  • A new review paper pulls together defense mechanisms with the coping literature to show that both can work.

  • By thinking of defense mechanisms as stress-busters, you can find adaptive ways to handle life's problems.

Has anyone ever told you not to be so “defensive” when they offer up criticism for your behavior? Even worse, have they become angered by your supposed tendencies toward “projecting” your own feelings onto others? If you’re like most people, you’d be quick to assume that this castigation of your interpersonal behaviors, or indeed your personality, shows just how flawed and weak you are.

The term “defense mechanism” originates in the work of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who scoped out a model of personality in which adults constantly need to put up internal walls against the roaring of their aggressive and sexual impulses. In present-day use, though, defense mechanisms are conceptualized by those working in the psychodynamic tradition as almost synonymous with coping strategies, the thoughts and behaviors that people use to manage negative affect (e.g. stress).

No one likes to experience unadulterated feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, or rage. The new view of defense mechanisms suggests using them is exactly what you should do to manage those feelings until, presumably, you are able at some point to examine honestly your inner turmoil.

Brief Background on Defense Mechanisms and Coping

As outlined in a new paper by Yeshiva University’s Jessica Silverman and Katie Aafjes-van Doorn (2023), although the research on defense mechanisms and coping arose out of two separate traditions, they are increasingly being applied in similar ways within the context of treatment. In their words, "the examination of defenses in cognitive behavioral treatments, and coping in psychodynamic treatments have become more commonplace in recent years” (p. 1).

Think about the term “denial.” It is a defense mechanism in psychodynamic theory, but also a coping strategy from the standpoint of cognitive theory.

Coping, by contrast, is “more flexible and intentional” (p. 2) in cognitive theory. Yet not all coping is equally adaptive. The strategies considered psychologically healthier include problem-solving, seeking information, finding social support if needed, and accommodating to a situation, however bad it might be. The less adaptive coping strategies are those that don’t address the situation but instead involve, for example, helplessness, escape, and opposition.

The distinction becomes even knottier when the matter of consciousness comes into play. Not all defense mechanisms are alike in terms of whether they are accessible to a person’s awareness.

In using a so-called “mature” defense mechanism, such as humor, you can be perfectly aware that you’re translating a negative feeling into a form that reduces its pain. The less mature defense mechanisms (e.g. acting out), are called so because they are buried within the unconscious and lack the flexible adaptability of defense mechanisms in your conscious control. It’s possible, then, as the authors argue, that it may not be so psychologically unhealthy to use defense mechanisms as long as they help you grope with tough situations.

Looking at the two forms of dealing with emotions, another distinction lies in the question of which is changeable over time and which you are stuck with forever. Traditionally, defense mechanisms tend to be fixed—but your coping style, in contrast, should be situationally-based and therefore more flexible.

Again, showing that these entities have considerable overlap, the Yeshiva U. authors point to prior research identifying “relationships between habitual styles and personality traits” (p. 2). Highly neurotic people, in this view, would rely on such coping styles as repression or denial regardless of whether these strategies worked or not.

Testing the Defense Mechanism-Coping Relationship

Rather than rely only on theoretical speculation, Silverman and Aafjes-van Doorn tested the possible connections between defense mechanisms and coping with what’s called a “scoping” review, which synthesized knowledge gathered within both traditions. From an initial set of 103 possible empirical studies, they arrived at a final 35 that met the criteria of examining data based on measures of defense mechanisms and measures of coping. About one-third of these studies used a longitudinal design, allowing the research team to examine the question of stability in both sets of measures.

Consistent with the earlier theoretical analysis, the Yeshiva U. researchers were able to demonstrate a positive relationship between adaptive coping methods and mature defense mechanisms as well as the converse. In terms of changes over time, there was no compelling evidence that either coping or defense mechanisms showed much movement.

However, this was true only for studies not involving any kind of therapeutic intervention. Within psychiatric patients, and across at least a two-year time period, there was evidence that people could improve, particularly in response to treatment based on the psychodynamic model.

The authors note that, given the relatively few longitudinal studies, these conclusions about change require further testing. However, the fact remains that the “good” defense mechanisms are just as adaptive as the “good” coping strategies. It may not be such a deficiency to be high on at least a certain type of defensiveness.

How to Make a Bad Defense Mechanism a Good One

One of the advantages of looking at the way people respond to stress from a coping perspective is that it does seem to be less value-laden. Humor is just as much a coping method as a defense mechanism as it accomplishes the goal of helping you achieve perspective on a tough situation. The end result is the same even if the path you take to get there is different based on your theoretical perspective. Making light of a serious situation can, at least momentarily, allow you to regroup until you can start to process that situation at some later point when it’s less painful.

That interaction in which you were labeled “defensive” for being unwilling to hear a hard truth about yourself, though, would suggest that you’re showing signs of denial, or in coping terms, avoidance. Denying the denial only makes things worse. Even though you might not like being called by this term, it may be a sign that you do need to examine the way you react to feedback

Since it’s hard to push entirely into your unconscious the fact of this conversation, might you now start to engage in a more adaptive form of coping? Recall that the Yeshiva U. study identified such strategies as accommodation or seeking information to be ones that can serve functional purposes in reducing negative emotions. Pulling these strategies into your conscious awareness, use them to frame questions that can help you be more open and willing to hear people in the future.

To sum up, this new look at defense mechanisms helps to redefine them in terms that can allow you to be more comfortable with confronting sources of stress or threat. As you do, your fulfillment and your ability to learn from your experiences can only grow and thrive.

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