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Live Life Fully: What defense mechanisms do you use?

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Let's face it. As evolved as we like to think we are, we still resort to certain behavioral patterns when our backs are against the wall.

The three most common defense mechanisms, according to Dr. Abraham Twerski, are denial, rationalization and projection. Whether these terms sound familiar to you, I'll bet you've had experience with some of the examples below (either as a sender or receiver of communication).

First, let me make a distinction. Usually when we hear the word "deny," we conjure up thoughts that a person is being less than honest. Lying is a willful and conscious distortion of facts or concealment of the truth, while denial can be an unconscious defense mechanism.

Now, let's turn to rationalization. Rationalization means providing other reasons instead of the real reason. Over time, these other reasons can seem perfectly legitimate. And they serve to draw attention away from the true reasons. Here's a fairly reliable rule of thumb: When people offer more than one reason for doing something, they're rationalizing. Usually the true reason for an action is a single one.

Wow -- that speaks volumes to me. And I'll be playing detective by watching my communications -- and listening to that of others -- for these clues. Because rationalizations sound reasonable they're very deceptive, and anyone can be taken in by them. Consider the following examples from Twerski's book, "Addictive Thinking."

A woman who graduated as an accountant was reluctant to apply for a promising job because she was afraid of being turned down. However, she gave her family different reasons: They're probably looking for someone with years of experience; the office is too far away to travel to every day; and the starting wage is unsatisfactory.

Brian, a 29-year-old man, was at an impasse. He had dropped out of school and was unsuccessful holding a job. Brian typically did very well at work. But when his performance led to advancement or increased responsibility, he would leave the job. Brian claimed to know exactly what his problem was. His fiancée had broken off their engagement and he wasn't able to get over the rejection (although this had happened five years earlier).

As painful as romantic rejections are, people do get over them eventually. Why was Brian different? For whatever reasons, he was terribly insecure. On one hand, going to college or accepting advancement at work might result in failure, and he didn't want to take that risk. On the other hand, he couldn't accept that his stagnation was because of his fears -- that would mean admitting he was not confident or brave enough.

As a result, Brian unconsciously used the defense mechanism of rationalization by tying himself to an event in his life that he believed was holding him back. Because being rejected is painful and depressing -- and because people often lose motivation and initiative after a romantic rejection -- this sounded perfectly reasonable to Brian. But it was not the true reason. The truth is that Brian didn't want to deal with his insecurities and anxieties.

Projection means placing the blame on others for things we are really responsible for ourselves. Like rationalization, it serves two functions: It reinforces denial, and it helps preserve the status quo. Blaming someone else, or projecting our feelings upon them, relieves us from the responsibility of making changes. And the only person one can ever change is oneself.

These three defense mechanisms -- denial, rationalization and projection -- often occur in layers, much like the layers of an onion. As one layer is peeled away, another may be discovered underneath. Being willing to peel off these layers -- and to take responsibility for our own circumstances and actions -- can go a long way toward changing ingrained patterns that hold us back.

Here are some other examples of defense mechanisms; while they focus on addictions from Twerski's book, you can see how the techniques could apply to other life situations:

  • Rationalizing: "My entire shift stops in for drinks after work. We deserve a few cold ones."
  • Intellectualizing: "Two ounces of alcohol per day is recommended by health experts."
  • Blaming: "I smoke pot because I'm stuck in a boring job all day with a stupid boss."
  • Switching: "Joe drives all the time when he's drunk. I'm glad I'm not that bad."
  • Minimizing: "I only get high at parties."
  • Joking: "I can stop drinking anytime I want. In fact, I stop at least once a week."
  • Agreeing: "Yes, I think you're right. I should cut down on my drinking."
  • Projecting: "Next year I'll be out of this dump -- and things will be different."
  • Threatening: "I'd like to see you try to make me stop drinking beer with my friends."
  • Generalizing: "We all have a bad habit or two."
  • Linda Arnold, MBA, is a certified wellness instructor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications company specializing in advertising, public relations, government relations and interactive marketing. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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