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4 Defense Mechanisms That Can Hurt Your Relationships

These deep-down responses are useful — to a point. But if you're not aware of them, they can do a lot of harm.

Picture a cabin in the woods. Bear traps surround it. The traps are triggered indiscriminately; they can’t tell bears from bunnies. While the traps snare grizzlies, a lot of innocent forest creatures get hurt as well.

Welcome to your brain during stress. Your ego’s the cabin, anxieties are bears and defense mechanisms are the traps. And unless you’re careful, your spouse or child could be the bunny in the bear trap. 

Defense mechanisms are among the oldest psychological concepts. When Sigmund Freud conceived of the human psyche in terms of the ego, id and superego in the 1920s, he theorized that the our rational consciousness, the ego, is caught between the pleasure-seeking id, the repressive super-ego and the volatility of the real world and that unconsciously deploy defense mechanisms to shield the ego from anxiety. Freud’s daughter, psychoanalysis pioneer Anna Freud, explored defense mechanisms at length in her 1936 book, The Ego and the Mechanism of Defence.

Modern psychological research has recently explored defense mechanisms in greater detail. In the 1990s, when psychiatrist and Harvard Medical School Professor George Valliant proposed breaking defense mechanisms down into two classes: immature, including denial and projection and mature ones like humor and sublimation, which could result in productive activity.  A 2017 paper by Wei Zhang and Ben-yu Guo of Nanjing China’s Normal University proposed that the defense mechanisms protect our perceptions of ourselves, even if those perceptions are incorrect. 

Defense mechanisms aren’t inherently bad. Humor and sublimation, for instance, can yield positive results like being funny or turning frustrations into creativity. Moreover, our brains would be useless puddles of anxiety-ridden goo without defense mechanisms. 

“Defense mechanisms protect people from their deepest vulnerabilities,” says Columbus, Ohio-based therapist Billy Roberts. “They keep core fears away from consciousness and help us avoid facing parts of ourselves or reality that would make us feel unsafe. People are often not aware they are using defense mechanisms, as the point of them is to keep vulnerability out of the conscious. ”

But since defense mechanisms are products of our subconscious that flare up automatically, they can harm our relationships. 

“The only real way to prevent defense mechanisms is to find ways of identifying and working through difficult emotions and facing reality,” Roberts says. “Being real with yourself can disarm psychological defenses and free you up to relate to others in an honest and genuine way.” 

Here are four of the most potentially harmful defense mechanisms in relationships to recognize. 

1. The Defense Mechanism: Displaced Aggression

What Is It: “When a person displaces, they take their resentments and frustrations from one person or situation and take them out on their partner, because their partner is less threatening than what is really upsetting them,” Nashville, TN Mental Health Counselor Gina Marie Guarino says. 

Why it Can Cause Trouble: Nobody likes being yelled at for things that aren’t their fault. “Displacing feelings and unloading them onto your partner causes your partner to become a punching bag,” Guarino says. “It causes them pain and confusion, which causes a rift in your relationship.”

How to prevent it: Self-awareness is the key to getting over displacement. “To prevent displacing feelings onto your partner, reflect on your frustrated feelings to determine if the frustration is due to how they are affecting you, or if it is stemming from a different stressor,” Guarino says. “You may be carrying upset feelings from another area of your life, like work, school, or other personal relationships.”

2. The Defense Mechanism: Denial

What is it: Denial is exactly what it sounds like: refusing to accept a truth for what it really is. Denial is a very common defense mechanism primarily enacted when the individual finds it too emotionally painful to admit the truth,” California-based marriage and family therapist Amber Trueblood says. 

Why it Can Cause Trouble: If defense mechanisms were recipe ingredients, denial would be salt. It’s common to the point of ubiquity, it’s quick and easy to sprinkle and it works for practically everything.  “Denial takes little forethought or explanation, Trueblood says. “Instead you can quickly respond with, ‘that’s not true.’”

How to prevent it: In the moment, slow your roll. Denial is a lizard brain, fight or flight response. Take a deep breath and get to a place where you can at least say “Okay, maybe.” In the long run, Trueblood says time, self-awareness practices like journaling, therapy, and meditation can help to prevent the need for denial and other defense mechanisms. 

3. The Defense Mechanism: Projection

What is it: By responding to insults with “I know you are but what am I,” Pee Wee Herman inadvertently boiled projection down to its essence. “Projection is when we see our own qualities in another and treat them as if they are theirs instead of our own,” says California therapist and radio host Layla Ashley

Why it Can Cause Trouble: Projection isn’t always bad; we can project positive feelings alongside bad ones. Ashley says troubles arise when we project unwanted or rejected parts of ourselves that we are unable and/or unwilling to own. “Projection is pretty harmful because that’s kind of what you see in gaslighting, where you’re doing something and you’re putting it on someone else ,” Roberts says. “It can feel crazy-making.”

How to prevent it: Aim the projector into a mirror. You need to accept responsibility for the thing you’re trying to foist on your partner.  “Projection can be prevented by owning up to the unacceptable or shadowy parts of the self in a way that removes toxic self-shaming and combines personal growth with self-acceptance,” Ashley says.   

4. The Defense Mechanism: Avoidance

What it is: Avoidance occurs when people refuse to acknowledge thoughts or feelings that make them uncomfortable. 

Why it Can Cause Trouble: Avoiding problems can prevent you from feeling the potential discomfort they might cause. But that doesn’t make the problem go away. And it certainly doesn’t help it get better. “Avoidance flares up when a person can see that the present situation may lead to disastrous circumstances and probably ruin the relationship,” says psychologist Cynthia Halow. “They choose to avoid it with the hope that it would pass and everything would go back to normal.”

How to prevent it: Deal with the problem head on as best you can. Accept that it will entail discomfort. Says Harlow, “Rather than run to your defense mechanism when you find yourself in a certain situation, it is best to simply accept the situation and deal with it.”