Defense mechanisms function as unconscious psychological strategies we deploy to navigate reality and sustain a consistent self-image. They act as a shield, guarding against feelings of anxiety, shame, and vulnerability. They are feeling states that prompt us to avoid contact and trick us into thinking they protect us against emotional harm.
Ancient philosophers recognized the human tendency to evade uncomfortable truths. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, he vividly depicts individuals shackled in a cave, seeing only shadows and illusions. Upon being freed and confronted with the light (truth), some retreat to the familiar darkness, unable to bear the illumination of reality. Aristotle wrote about akrasia, which meant a weakness of will that drives one to act against their better judgment, in essence, rejecting reality as unbearable. The stoic philosopher Epictetus noted that people have fantasies of controlling external events and directing them inward to choose how they respond instead.
Defenses are affective states that can interfere with our clear, reality-based functioning. They may be complex reactions that muddy our perception of reality, effectively shielding us from feelings or knowledge we find intolerable. They can take the form of denial, regression, rationalization, and even altruism. These are not merely intellectual barriers; they are emotional walls that can keep us from connecting with our own experiences and the people around us.
The most common inner conflicts arise from thwarting our instincts. These foundational systems generate intense feelings to guide us. Jung identified multiple instincts: creativity, reflection, activity, sexuality, and hunger. He added the religious instinct to describe how humans naturally generate symbolic systems to link their waking state to the deep unconscious. Freud detailed the multiple symptoms that arise from repressed sexuality, from phobias to hysterical blindness. Jung agreed but understood that thwarting any one of our natural responses would rob us of vitality and distort our adaptation to reality.
Cultural expectations, individual trauma, religious demands, and family patterns can convince our waking personality that any one of our instincts is dangerous. When we are overwhelmed by these inner conflicts, we will likely deploy primal defenses like dissociation or acting out. If we can find a more adaptive stance, we will likely intellectualize the conflict or even find it humorous. The goal is not to banish all defenses; we need to manage our exposure to the intensity of life but to discover self-management strategies that allow us to remain effective even under stress.
Identifying the defenses we commonly use can help us consider what we are evading and make space for more useful responses. Here are the most common ones:
Avoidance is easy to notice because we intentionally steer clear of specific people or situations. This deliberate act helps us prevent confrontational or uncomfortable scenarios, thus mitigating emotional distress. Used sparingly, it may have little effect. When it dominates our personality, we find ourselves constantly muttering, “I just can’t take it,” as our options shrink until we are boxed into a life that cannot sustain us.
Projection is another defense where we attribute our unacceptable feelings, thoughts, or impulses to others. It helps us maintain the fantasy that we are all good. But that price we pay is increased distancing from genuine connection and understanding of ourselves and others.
Denial can be downright dangerous. Complete rejection of a provoking stimulus might convince us to ignore treating a serious medical issue despite clear signs and symptoms. Softer expressions might look like minimalizing a possible danger but not rejecting it’s presence.
Rationalization is rife in our era of unreliable reporting and bizarre explanations from social media. We can find ourselves constructing or agreeing with ideas that follow a construction of logic but offer untrue explanations for behaviors, thoughts, feelings, or events. This defense allows us to obscure underlying emotional conflicts by providing seemingly plausible reasons for avoiding engagement.
Fairytales often depict refusals to accept reality or engage in relationships. The Grimm’s tale, The Sea-Hare, describes a haughty princess in a magical tower who decreed that any suitor must successfully hide from her to win her hand in marriage. She killed them when they were spied on. One suiter hides in her hair in the form of a Sea-hare (a kind of marine slug), making it impossible to catch him as she furiously scanned from her windows. We are shown an exaggerated hostile defense against relatedness, but in modern culture, we find common examples of earnest young men cut down to size for simply presenting their interest. Isolation, loneliness, and lack of support take a terrible toll on the rejecting person, but the defensive hostility justifies its presence as necessary for pseudo-independence.
With subtle insight, we may discover that all our defenses begin by denying we are affected by inner or outer objects. We reject the gift of human vulnerability by refusing to acknowledge evidence of its presence. Yet, it is the key to all relationships and accurate evaluation of the wider world. We need to make contact with life to craft a successful response that satisfies our instincts and needs. Accurately identifying that we are being affected, finding language to capture our experience, and then reflecting on it is the path forward.
We need to experience life fully and honor our instinctive responses. It is our responsibility to satisfy our needs with an aesthetic that delights our body and soul. The two-million-year-old human inside us will sigh with relief, and we will find we are dynamic in ways we did not think were possible.
HERE’S THE DREAM WE ANALYZE:
It’s nighttime, and I’m playing with my children outside, somewhere like the bottom porch of a two-story building. Suddenly, I notice men, possibly soldiers, carrying dead bodies next to us up the stairs. I don’t know what to do. My children haven’t noticed, so I let them continue playing. The next thing I know, one of the soldiers is carrying my son up the stairs over his shoulders, and my husband is carrying a dead body into our house on the adjacent side of the street. The man tosses my son onto a pile of dead bodies on the second-floor porch. I thankfully make it just in time to catch him as he slips off the pile of corpses. Looking up at the room of men on the second floor (the soldier who took my son is in the middle, looking at me with 3 or 4 other soldiers around him), I yell and try to insult them with something like, “What have you blown your brains out? How stupid can you be?!”
MEET LISA IN COLUMBUS OHIO on October 13 & 14, 2023: The Power of Dreamwork – Friday Night Lecture (October 13 from 7 to 8:30 PM) and Saturday Workshop (October 14 from 9:30 AM to Noon): CLICK HERE.
UNLOCK THE SECRETS OF YOUR DREAMS: Dream School provides a gently paced program with live interactive webinars, an uplifting online community, thought-provoking audio modules, and guided journaling to deepen your experience. Lisa, Deb, and Joe crafted the program with you in mind and companion you through the process. “Step-by-step, we’ll teach you how to interpret your dreams.” Join the revolution of consciousness! Join Dream School and Transform Your Sleep into the Greatest Adventure of Your Life: CLICK HERE
PLEASE GIVE US A HAND: Hey folks — We need your help. Please BECOME OUR PATRON and keep This Jungian Life podcast up and running!!
YES, WE HAVE MERCH: Shop HERE
SHARE YOUR DREAM WITH US: SUBMIT YOUR DREAM HERE FOR A POSSIBLE PODCAST INTERPRETATION.
SUGGEST A FUTURE PODCAST TOPIC: HERE.