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If the world is to make progress in reducing violence, children must be raised protected from fearful situations, and when that is not possible, encouraged to talk about them—to keep them conscious and aware so they can be ameliorated. As it is, many of us with hang-ups, are not aware of reality to the extent we could be. And this works against the cause of peace. We develop defense mechanisms--we do not know we have them--even though they get in our way. The more we can learn about them, the easier it will be to find inner peace on our collective ways to a more peaceful earth.

Definition: The process by which we protect ourselves from awareness of our undesired and feared impulses. Defense mechanisms are our way of distancing ourselves from a full awareness of unpleasant thoughts, feelings and desires. By altering and distorting our awareness of the original impulse, we make it more tolerable. Since a defense mechanism is unconscious, its owner remains unaware of it. A defense mechanism usually develops during childhood in response to situations such as violence at home or school. Fear is most often the major component.

Eventually, after much repetition, defense mechanisms become unconscious. However, while defense mechanisms are used in an attempt to protect one’s self from unpleasant emotions, they too often result in equally harmful problems. Initially protective, they usually end up doing more harm to their owners than to others.

Some of the more common defense mechanisms follow.

  • Compartmentalization is a process of separating parts of the self from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values. An example might be an otherwise honest person who cheats on his/her income tax return. Such a person keeps two value systems distinct and non-integrated--while remaining unconscious of the cognitive dissonance.
  • Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other arenas. The "I'm not a fighter, I'm a lover" philosophy can be an example of compensation as can the Napoleonic complex. If you know a person with a crushing hand shake, s/he may be compensating. So also for the compulsive talkers or pedantic personalities.
  • Denial is the refusal to accept reality and to act as if a painful event, thought, or feeling did not exist. It is considered one of the most primitive of the defense mechanisms because it is characteristic of very early childhood development. Denial often underlies other defense mechanisms.
  • Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts feelings and impulses from an object that gives rise to anxiety to a safer, more acceptable, one. Being angry at the boss, but kicking the dog instead to blow off steam, can be an example of displacement.
  • Fantasy, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable or unattainable desires into imagination. This can protect one’s self esteem as when educational, vocational or social expectations are not being met. One imagines success in these areas and wards off self condemnation. This one, ironically, can plague otherwise accomplished individuals. In that case it may have in fact driven their very success. Defenses are not always all bad.
  • Intellectualization is the use of a cognitive approach without the attendant emotions to suppress and attempt to gain mastery over the perceived disorderly and potentially overwhelming impulses. An example might be an individual who when told they had a life threatening disease focuses exclusively on the statistical percentages of recovery and is unable to cope with their fear and sadness.
  • Projection is the attribution of one's undesired impulses onto another. Thus, an angry spouse accuses his/her partner of hostility. Similarly, we project our own world-views upon others. Aside from denial, which underlies most if not all hang-ups, projection is the most common.
  • Rationalization is the cognitive reframing of one’s perceptions to protect the ego in the face of changing realities. In this way, the job promotion a person fervently wished for and didn't get becomes "a dead end job for brown-nosers and yes men" in his/her mind.
  • Reaction Formation is the converting of impulses felt to be dangerous into their opposites. A woman who is furious at her child and wishes her harm might become overly concerned and protective of the child's health. A police chief, famous for busting prostitutes, is caught patronizing one.
  • Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses. For an example an adolescent who is overwhelmed with fear, anger and growing sexual impulses might become clinging and begin thumb sucking or bed wetting.
  • Repression is the blocking of socially-unacceptable impulses from consciousness. This is equivalent to denial.
  • Sublimation is the channeling of unacceptable impulses into more acceptable outlets. A too-strong sexual urge might be channeled into furthering their owner’s education. This is another hang-up that can have positive effects.
  • Undoing is the attempt to take back behavior or thoughts that are unacceptable. An example of undoing would be excessively praising someone after having insulted them.

Defenses affect our world-views and hence our ability not only to relate, but to interpret others and events properly. An example is projection--where we may see another person in certain ways as a mirror of ourselves, when they may in fact be quite different. Too many marriages start out with this illusion. In the vernacular, defenses are just hang-ups.

For a real-life anecdote, see: Little Boy Saved.


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