Four defence mechanisms that can harm us in the long run

Events happen all the time that threaten us with potential pain and anxiety. Criticism from a boss, having to attend a wedding alone or juggling time for yourself when you have children.

In order to bat away feelings of pain or anxiety everyone uses certain techniques, completely without knowing, that psychoanalysts call ‘defence mechanisms’.

This doesn’t make it an unnatural way of coping. In fact using defence mechanisms is very natural, and everyone does it.

And in the short-term defending ourselves from pain can be an effective way of moving on and not having to sit with something that feels uncomfortable.

But the problem lies when our defence mechanisms actually hurt us, or the people we love or make us feel stuck and unable to progress forwards.

Denying reality

A common defence mechanism is denial. This is when we completely deny from our conscious mind the reality of what might be happening. We might have a problem with alcohol but we console ourselves that everyone likes a drink, and we only use it to relax after a stressful day at work.

Or perhaps we are arguing a lot with our partners but we deny the problem by thinking that every couple hates each other really, love just can’t last, it’s not possible.

While denial protects us in the short-term, it may also mean that we stay stuck, that we continue to hurt ourselves or that our relationships have no opportunity to improve.

Burying our pain

Denial is closely linked to another way that we defend ourselves called ‘repression’. This is when we bury things that have happened in our past. These might be things that were traumatic and caused us great pain and suffering. So we repress them into our unconscious, and convince ourselves that they never happened.

The problem with repression is that feelings related to these events often slip out and get expressed in different ways, like pain or insomnia.

So the experience doesn’t stay completely hidden. And we may feel confused and unable to get our heads around what’s happening.

Projecting feelings onto someone else

Something else we all do to protect ourselves from pain is ascribe someone else with the emotions that we’re really feeling ourselves.

We may worry that our partner thinks we’re going out too much. Whereas really we’re having these critical thoughts about ourselves. Maybe because our parents didn’t really let us relax a lot when we were little and were very preoccupied with us doing well at school.

Or we may feel very anxious and self-conscious and that everyone is judging us. Whereas what might be happening is that we are actually very harshly monitoring and judging ourselves. But in order not to recognise these negative feelings, we attribute them to other people.

This way of coping with painful feelings and thoughts can make us feel isolated and increasingly anxious and paranoid. It’s just not a relaxing way of being.


A classic defence mechanism that everyone uses at some point, displacement.

Say you have an awful day at work with your boss so you come home and shout at your partner.

The problem is, your loved one did nothing wrong. And the issue with your boss gets glossed over instead of faced head on.

By redirecting your feelings somewhere less threatening, perhaps you prevented yourself from getting fired, but nothing changes. The problem at work remains. And your partner now won’t talk to you.

Becoming aware of how we defend ourselves

Everyone uses defence mechanisms to deal with things that make us feel bad. And the hardest thing sometimes is actually realising that we’re doing it. That’s where therapy can help.

With someone else’s head offering us an alternative perspective we might be able to work out how we are defending ourselves and what truth we are hiding from.

We might feel more capable, fulfilled and whole.

Our relationships might benefit because we might not apportion feelings where they correctly belong. And we might feel like we know ourselves better and things feel more under control.

Nadine Moore is an experienced counsellor and psychotherapist working with young people and adults. She holds a Masters Degree in Psychodynamic Counselling and Psychotherapy from Birbeck University and has recently relocated to Brighton.

Nadine is an Associate Therapist at Brighton Counselling Collective and regularly writes for Mental Health journals, including Mental Health Today and Therapy Today. For more info or to book an appointment please visit


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