How we develop Defense Mechanisms

Alison Poulsen
4 min readDec 3, 2021
“Kiai” by Mimi Stuart©

It is surprising how many of the “choices” we make are not by choice at all. We are frequently driven by unconscious forces. These responses were programmed out of necessity when as children we were trying to get our needs met.

Generally, people experience a parent as either too involved or not involved enough. In the first case, the parent may seem controlling, overwhelming, or hovering. In the second case, a parent may seem indifferent, abandoning, or not present. (Dr. James Hollis)

It is normal to develop mild defense mechanisms even with good parenting. These defenses are healthy when used consciously. However, later in life, they limit our choices if we react unconsciously or in an extreme way.

PART 1: Responding to an over-involved, strong, or engulfing parent

Depending on their personality, children of a strong parent who is engulfing/controlling/hovering tend to develop one of the following belief systems:

1. The compliant person believes “I should be sweet, self-sacrificing, and saintly.”
2. The aggressive person says “I should be powerful, recognized, and a winner.”
3. The withdrawing person believes “I should be independent, aloof, and perfect.”

1. Compliance: While accommodation is sometimes appropriate, it is not okay when it becomes reflexive and automatic. An emotional chameleon ceases to have personal integrity. In extreme cases, compliant people feel they have no will of their own. They become totally dependent on what others think, expect and want of them. This can lead to harm of oneself and others.

2. Power Complex: Assertive behavior is an attempt to try to get control. We need to be self-empowered. But when power becomes one-sided or unconscious, it becomes aggressive and problematic. In the extreme you get the sociopath who must be in total control and disregards the welfare of others. Dictators exhibit the power complex in the extreme.

3. Avoidance: The withdrawing person steps away from anything threatening, and suppresses reflection about difficult issues. This is sometimes a wise move, but not when it is done without conscious choice or in every situation. Whenever there is avoidance, the unconscious perceives that the Other is a large and powerful force and that he or she is not. In extreme cases, a person may become disconnected from reality or even dissociative.

PART 2: Responding to an under-involved, indifferent, or negligent parent

A child often develops defense mechanisms to the under-involved parent. Abandonment includes not only the indifference of the parent, but also environmental insufficiency, for instance, poverty, prejudice, or a wartime childhood.

Children tend to engage in magical thinking, which says to them that the world around them is a message about them.” If my mother neglects me, or I am poor and never have enough food, I must be unworthy and bad.” There are four typical responses to a sense of lack, the first two of which involve internalizing poor self-esteem.*

1. Self-sabbotage: Patterns of self-sabotage develop as a way to confirm poor self-esteem — that I am not worthy of success, happiness or good things happening. The child feels a certain comfort in the familiarity of continuing to fail, and thus, facilitates the failure.

2. Grandiosity: Some people over-compensate for an unconscious sense of poor self-esteem. They try to prove they are worthwhile by driving an expensive car, having a big house, achieving many milestones, and/or developing an impressive outer appearance. If all one’s effort is spent in these pursuits, little time is left for less showy and more personal fulfillment.

3. Serving the narcissist: A chronic sense of emptiness leads children to serve a narcissistic parent, who might be a stage-door mother or hockey-team father. Even when the child makes the parent proud, there’s a feeling of lack in the relationship. The parent is simply unable to relate to the child other than to use his or her accomplishments to feed the parent’s narcissism. Even after growing up, the narcissist’s child experiences a sense of living someone else’s life.

4. Neediness: Through an inordinate search for reassurance or pats on the back the needy person seeks to feel worthwhile. The birth of addictions can occur as an attempt to manage anxiety by connection. For instance, excessive materialism, serial relationships, and distraction result from a longing to satiate. The longing never stops as the human spirit is never satisfied in these ways.

Conclusion

Why bother figuring out what anxiety-management systems you use?

The moment you become aware of your automatic psychological reflexes, you open up the opportunity to make genuine choices. Ask yourself what these responses cause you to do and prevent you from doing? Where are you stuck?

While your defense mechanisms originally served to help you survive or thrive in your childhood environment, as adults, reflexive responses disempower you. Once you recognize that a defense mechanism may imprison you, you can begin to think twice before acting and make new choices to live the life you desire.

With awareness of your unconscious belief systems, you can thoughtfully choose whether to comply, withdraw, or assert yourself, among other possible responses, depending on the situation, rather than having the same knee-jerk reaction in every situation. When you start responding differently, you can transform your old patterns to new adventures of our choosing.

by Alison Poulsen, PhD

*Reference and recommended reading and seminars: James Hollis, PhD, Author and Senior Jungian Analyst.

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Alison Poulsen

Alison Poulsen has a PhD in Psychology, writes a blog called “So what I REALLY meant… Better Communication Better Relationships” focusing on couples solutions.