The Defence Mechanisms

Defending against what

I have been prompted to think about the psychological ‘defence mechanisms’.  In general, these come out of Freudian tradition of psychological therapies. A detailed account of some of these mechanisms can be found in several places but have a look on:

Indeed, I have a book Defense Mechanisms in the Counseling Process by Arthur J. Clark (Sage, 1998) that offers an account of the human defence mechanisms. The full list is long so I can only sample some of them.

My main wish in doing so is to identify some safe experiments that might work alongside this knowledge.

Acting Out or In

  • when our energies are diverted into some other action to alleviate a strong impulse.

EXPERIMENT: recall a memory of a time when you were acting out of character.  In retrospect, how would you have preferred it to be? How might you have ‘acted in’; that is, used a Body Scan to notice your internal thoughts, feelings and sensations so you could ‘label’ then more authentically?


  • when I walk around an obstacle rather than looking it in the eye. In my experience, this is one of the ‘first ports of call’ used to protect myself.

EXPERIMENT: recall a time when when you were angry with some-one important in your life.  With the benefit of hindsight, was there something you might have said and done differently that would have addressed that feeling more directly? Also, take a look at: anger can be OK.

Conversion and somatisation

  • when a high emotion stores itself in the body. For example, finger-picking or repeated hair pulling might be a preferred action when fear and anxiety are too intimidating. Babette Rothschild wrote an interesting text about this called The Body Remembers. Her website is well worth a visit if you are keen on researching.

EXPERIMENT: the Body Scan exists to help you be in touch with internal sensations, among other thingsWhen you do the Body Scan over a period of time, it is likely that you will notice a pattern; a discomforting sensation that persistently appears in one particular part of your body.

Can you use meditation and relaxation to relate to that experience differently, rather than medication?


  • what better way to put something to one side than to pretend it does not exist.  If legend is to be believed, then Lord Nelson did this with his “I see no ships” at the Battle of Trafalgar. He got away with it by covering his good eye (he was blind in the other!) This phenomenon is important in safe experimenting and it links very closely to the notion of Discounting, I touch on elsewhere.

EXPERIMENT: call to mind a recent time when you avoided a ‘problem’ in your life. Think about how much you denied that problem using the ‘scale’ I identify below.

You might have said of this problem that:

  1. I have no problem at all.
  2. I have a problem but its not really important in my life.
  3. I have an important problem in my life but it is beyond repair.
  4.  I have a problem and I could fix it if I knew how – but I lack the ability to get it sorted.

Which one applies to you? It may help if I say that the do-able thing becomes easier to find as I move toward stage four, above. At that ‘level’ I understand that it might be difficult for me to sort it, but I have the ability and I will apply myself to it.

At this point, consider what the ‘missing’ skill is and how you might improve it just a little bit.


  • involves diverting energy into an action with little relevance to the stress we are experiencing.

EXPERIMENT: consider whether you have been frustrated about a persistent obstacle in your life. How have you responded to that frustration?  Challenge yourself to consider whether you may have benefited from the displaced energy, e.g. by working harder and thus compensating for an apparent loss, or short-coming.

Equally, you may resolved in your mind to say  ‘dammit’ and rebelled against the issue by becoming the ‘bad boy’ or bad girl’.


  • why not laugh it off? We’ve all done that, eh? I’ll leave you to find the time when you did this. I think you’ll find an example without too much prompting. Emergency service personnel are notorious for using ‘black humour’, an understandable protection against the horrors of their daily round.

EXPERIMENT: carry on laughing, but be open to just noticing how it is protecting you.


  • placing some-one on a pedestal may be easier than looking at a ‘truer’ picture. By the way, have you noticed we can idealise ourselves or, in compensation,  damn ourselves. Anything rather than looking at who we are?!  You may notice how Hollywood makes a virtue of this tendency in some films!

EXPERIMENT: write down one or two words to describe some-one important in your life.  Take a break and return to the description later. Notice ways in which see that other in a rather partial way.  In what way do you miss the ‘true person’, whatever that is?


  • a specific case of this is the so-called Stockholm Syndrome – when individuals taken hostage in a bank raid come to side with their kidnappers.

EXPERIMENT: Be like Baloo the Bear in the Disney film The Jungle Book. He sang the song: I want to be like you. When did you sing the same song, and about whom?! Is the boundary between you, and this other person, as you would like it to be. If not, what can you do about that?


I’m good at this. Let’s explain it all away, rather than feel it! A special case of this is called by the crude name of “mustabation”, when we explain something away with a few rules and commands to ourselves and to others. This phenomenon can be found in several therapy books. Nudgers can find it easy to fall into the trap of ‘telling” people what the must do.

EXPERIMENT: take some time to listen to a conversation in a group of people – preferably one involving in you. Attend to the language and notice the use of words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought’ and ‘absolutely’. Later, as you reflect on this conversation, consider how helpful those words are. Are they a ‘cover’ for telling ourselves and others what to believe, rather than helping the other person reflect and really think something through. What alternative words might you use in a similar situation?

This safe experiment is called ‘editing’ and you may need to do it a lot in your own head before you are fast enough to alter your language in an actual conversation. Slowing down our delivery, however, can help that process along and give us the chance to use the Stop-Look-Listen safe experiment used by many parents – inour childhood.


  • or, how to dump all my ‘badness’ onto some-one else, especially our nearest and dearest. That is a good way to get rid of bad parts of ourselves!

EXPERIMENT: how often have you felt bad about something in your life and dumped any bad feeling on some-one else nearby, e.g. accused them of being angry or perverse? What might you have done differently to express yourself more directly or, as they say, authentically? the Think-Judge-Act experiment may help as it pays to know the limits on the usefulness of actions.


  • or explain it all away. Find a reason for the unreasonable and let every-one know what it is. How many experiments are there for that!

EXPERIMENT: look for alternative experiments, particularly the Body Scan, so you can sense the feelings and the sensations. Dump the thoughts for the moment in favour of listening to alternative ‘explanations’.

Reaction Formation

  • or go in the opposite direction just to be perverse. That is, when love turns into hate and tables get turned. In the transactional analytic (TA) model there is a useful diagram called the Karpman Triangle that demonstrates just how quickly we can move from one extreme to another when passions run high. Well worth some exploration, if you are interested. Does the triangle help you formulate an experiment in your world?


  • a bit like denial, but potentially more accessible. Denial is a high level of discounting whereas repression is maintained by our personal ability to detach from reality – whatever that is.

EXPERIMENT: Follow through on what makes safe experiments falter, or consider the practical application of the Discount Matrix.


  • this is a flight into the security of yesterday when today feels a bit harsh. A ‘fake’ safe place.

EXPERIMENT: Use the ‘inverted tree’ model  or your road-map to compare yesterday and today by ‘stepping back’ and re-assessing what small behaviour might be changed.

This may help you recall times when – on later life – you floated back to your early years in an attempt to find comfort. It may show ways to do it differently.

The EXPERIMENT: finding a Safe Place is, for me, an OK version of this process.


… or “nothing to do with me, Gov; it was him (or her)”.

An EXPERIMENT: negotiating special time so you, and the other person, can safely check out what belongs to you and what belongs to them – and to consider how to respond just that little bit differently.


is conscious repression often of a temporary nature; something we can put out of our mind for a while.


when we take the qualities of past experiences or relationships and project – see above – them onto another person, now, acting towards the other as if. A common example is to see in another person some aspect of ourselves.

The end result is an unreal relationship. There are several forms of transference, including the intensities involved when we fall in love. It is a potential complication in therapy as therapists can be cast into the role of expert, when they are unable to be an expert in you. Transferential experiences can emerge from real or imagined childhood relationships, such as parent, teacher, or charismatic school friend. 

It is knowledge of this phenomenon that led me, in my blog, to caution against the tendency to relate to the idea of some-one rather than their present self.

To be an effective experimenter, I need to approach all of the defence mechanisms with respect and to appreciate that the intention is to protect me. My task is to harness my energy and re-direct it to a response that is just a little bit different.

In what way may these ‘mechanisms’ help you with designing your safe experiments?

Some leads to consider

How to do safe experiments for yourself

Welcome to Find Your Nudge

How to give yourself a nudge

Models of change

Models informing Therapy

Pathways to change