Denial, Repression and Other Wonderful Self Defenses

Individual Counseling Insights From Westlake Village-Based Patricia McTague-Loft 

Have you ever thought about the situations or relationships that have helped you grow in any respect – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually or simply as a human being? Without going out on a limb, it’s probably safe to say that the situation or relationship that has helped you grow has also involved a bit of pain.

In a wonderful book by Richard Rohr titled Falling Upward, the premise is that we only grow by experiencing a setback. We grow not by doing right but by doing wrong. Unfortunately, this is typically a painful experience. Quite naturally, we try to avoid the pain by setting up defense mechanisms. That’s a problem. In an article by Team Tony on, the issue is stated clearly: “in the long run, the effect of these defense mechanisms is actually the opposite. Due to defense mechanisms psychology, when we routinely employ our defenses, it can actually reduce the effectiveness of our emotional processing. We begin to feel as if we are not in charge of our own emotions, which prevents us from working through issues.”

In short, we have to realize that it’s okay to confront stressful situations or relationships and deal with them, instead of allowing your own defense system to avoid the situation. The key is identifying our own tendency to avoid the pain. Team Tony points out a simple observation: “Like most matters of the heart, creating a defense mechanism definition that resonates requires self-awareness.” They then go on to list many examples of typical defense mechanisms. See if you identify with any of these.

“Denial.” Let’s start with an easy one that most all of us have experienced. If you’re in a social or business situation that is tense and full of emotion, you may simply say to yourself, “Well, this happens to everyone, that’s life,” and emotionally disengage. To a degree, that’s okay – you’re just emotionally protecting yourself. But if the situation involves deeper issues, beware. Team Tony writes, “If you tell yourself ‘I’m just a social drinker’ instead of dealing with your serious drinking problem, or that ‘Every couple eventually loses the romance’ instead of facing your failing marriage, you are utilizing denial as a defense mechanism. And while this may alleviate any short-term pain, in the long run, denial can prevent you from making positive changes in your life and can have potentially destructive ramifications.”

“Repression.” Literally hundreds of books have been written about the relationship between the conscious and the sub-conscious. A key point in many of these books is that it is possible for the mind to take an unpleasant memory and banish it to the subconscious. “There is a fine line between denial and repression when it comes to defense mechanisms,” writes Team Tony. “But where denial involves the outright refusal to accept a given reality, repression involves completely forgetting the experience. With repression, your mind makes the decision to bury the memory in your subconscious, thereby preventing painful, disturbing or dangerous thoughts from entering your awareness.” Angry outbursts that come out of nowhere, recurring nightmares and depression are signals that repression may be an issue.

“Sublimation.” This is a complex reaction to stressful situations. It involves transferring an unmet desire or unacceptable impulse into an entirely different action – one, perhaps surprisingly, that is somewhat positive. On a very basic level, it can be as simple as going for a long run after a particularly stressful day at work. What’s wrong with that? Well, actually, nothing, except for the fact that you may be going for a run instead of dealing with the issues that made the day so stressful. On a more personal level, you may turn away from a conflict with your partner and then retire to your personal space to write or read — seemingly positive activities — but the real issue is that you’re not dealing with the underlying conflict in your relationship.

Read about many more defense mechanisms identified by Team Tony here.