What Are Psychological Defenses?

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From PsychAlive: “When he was 3-years-old, Kevin watched his dad drive away. For the few months following his parents’ split, Kevin and his brother had moved in with their father. The three of them lived together contentedly until the day Kevin’s mom showed up out of the blue and announced that she was taking the kids back. Pulled away in his mother’s arms, Kevin remembers he and his brother screaming in unison, ‘We want to stay, we want to stay!’ But his dad gave in and drove away, disappearing from his childhood, but never from his consciousness.

The experiences we have as children are far from our control. From extreme circumstances involving abuse or abandonment to small acts of mistreatment and little ways of being overlooked, childhood leaves us in a constant state of submissiveness. No matter how loving and caring our parents are, we are subject to their every shortcoming . . . We all developed our own ways of coping during these periods of emotional insensitivity and deprivation. For Kevin it was shutting off from going after what he wanted.

‘There was no question — I had to go [with my mother]. I think at that point I just said, “Forget it. I don’t want anything from anybody, because anything I do gets taken,”’ Kevin remembered, nearly 30 years later. ‘I feel like even to the current day, any time I get close, I feel afraid that somebody’s going to take it or something is going to happen.’

Kevin’s defenses evolved from being stuck in a situation where he wasn’t getting what he needed from anyone at a time when he was incapable of getting it for himself. To a 3-year-old with an absent father and neglectful mother, these defenses seemed like the rational reaction to an irrational world. As independent adults with our first chance at overcoming past hurts, these tendencies can become our enemy.

‘When children are faced with pain and anxiety in their developmental years, they develop defenses to cut off that pain. But the tragedy is that in cutting off the pain, you also cut deeply into their lives, so that defenses that were basically survival-oriented psychologically… also serve as terrible limitations to the self,’ said Dr. Robert Firestone author of Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life.

As children, the ways in which we comforted ourselves often served as substitutes for something we were either not getting or wished to avoid. Whatever we did, whether we calmed ourselves with self-soothing habits or disappeared into a world of fantasy, we felt relieved by our behaviors. The pain was lessened, and we were better able to go on with our lives.

As adults, whenever we feel afraid or as if we were going to encounter pain or unhappiness, we may find ourselves turning to the same defenses that served us so well as children. The irony of this realization lay in that the very defenses that saved us emotionally so long ago are now robbing us of our lives today. What originally served as a reasonable adaptation to an unbearable situation has become our imprisoning agent.

When Kevin realized the rejection he experienced from both his parents as a child caused him to adopt the attitude that he can take care of himself and shouldn’t let anyone too close, he was able to act against these deeply inset instincts. Working as a child counselor, getting married and being present as a father to his three young sons are all gifts he attributes to overcoming these core defenses.

Defenses, however, are not always easy to identify. Rarely are they entirely conscious or black and white. By the time we’ve reached adulthood, they often seem like a fundamental part of who we are. Even as they hurt us, they can still feel safe for their familiarity and original intent to comfort us.”

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