Patience: Not All Defense Mechanisms Are Healthy


By Alisa Patience

Defense mechanisms: we all have them. A defense mechanism is exactly what it sounds like, a mental or emotional defense used to protect us from stress and pain. As college students, we endure a time of intense change and stress, so we use them often. While many are common and seemingly helpful in getting through life, there are certainly some that do more harm than good.

According to Saul McLeod of “Simply Psychology” defense mechanisms include factors like repression, regression, displacement, denial, projection and sublimation. As many are taught in basic psychology, repression occurs when your brain pushes events and memories deep into your brain so you don’t think about them, especially with traumatic events. Regression is when your instinct is to go back to a younger, safer mental state, like going to your parents or guardian with every problem you have. Displacement is when you relieve your stress or urges through something completely unrelated. For example, if you’re angry at your boss, but you know you can’t yell at them, you end up accidentally yelling at a loved one and taking your anger out on them instead. Denial is obviously refusing to accept your problem and not dealing with it. Projection is when you put your own feelings onto another person, so to speak. A very common example of this would be if you regularly cheat on your partner, you may become paranoid that they are cheating on you as well. Finally, sublimation refers to satisfying your impulses in a way that’s socially acceptable. For example, if you want to punch a co-worker in the face, you buy a punching bag and punch that instead. Each of these coping mechanisms started as Freudian concepts. Whether you agree with Freud’s ideas or not, defense mechanisms are real.

The most unhealthy of these defense mechanisms are denial, projection, displacement and regression. Denying a problem is the defense mechanism that does the most damage. If you refuse to accept that you have a problem, you can’t fix it, so it just gets worse. This won’t affect anyone around you, but it’s still unhealthy. When you break a toe, you can’t pretend that it’s fine because if you do and you don’t get your toe treated, you’ll likely suffer more serious consequences later.

Displacement is the worst defense mechanism for your relationships. Not only does it not fix the problem, but it pushes people away. If you break your toe and your only action is to yell at your friend about how much it hurts, your toe will not get fixed and your friend won’t want to support you anymore, which is unfortunate. Displacement is how people isolate themselves or self-destruct. It can lead to things like dropping out of school, leaving jobs on bad terms, maxing out credit cards, unhealthy dating experiences, etc.

Projection is a weird thing and is usually done subconsciously. The biggest problem with this is that it’s hard to fix issues in your own life when all you see are your own problems disguised in everyone else’s lives. However, this defense mechanism can actually lead you to the root of your problem if you can talk through your thought processes. If you see the same problem in everyone else’s lives, it’s probably a problem you have, too that you need to fix.

Sublimation can either be extremely healthy or extremely unhealthy. Sublimation is what leads to stress eating and stress shopping. These things may be socially acceptable, but they hurt you and your wallet in the long run. While eating or shopping are fine temporary outlets for stress that don’t hurt anyone else, they also may not actually solve your problem. The best way to use sublimation is through exercise, allowing the stress, fear or change to give you the energy to make your body healthier, and will clear your mind enough so you can deal with the actual problems.

Regression can become a problem when it’s the only thing you do when faced with stress. No, sleeping over at your parents’ or watching a favorite childhood movie isn’t going to hurt other people in your life, and it won’t really hurt you at first, but problems arise when those outlets become crutches and more than simple sources for comfort.

You can only make your life better and grow as a person if you actually deal with your problems. If you need to buy a pair of shoes, eat a hamburger, call your parents or punch your punching bag, that’s perfectly fine, but after that, you need to figure out what’s wrong and make it better. Do you hate your job? Fine. Just make sure you get a new job before you quit. Are you failing a class? Okay, grab some Starbucks and go see a tutor. There’s always a healthy solution if you’re willing to find it.