The concept of defense mechanisms was introduced originally by Freud and were a part of the psychoanalytic theory. The definition of defense mechanisms concerned the idea that these were the conscious and unconscious tools the person used to protect their mind from anxiety, fear, guilt and other negative experiences. Since then, the concept of defense mechanisms has been widely adopted in other psychological theories. In particular, defense mechanisms have been used in the study of addiction, outlining the different mechanisms that addicts use to avoid accepting their problem, seeking treatment for the disease or taking active responsibility for change. Let’s examine these mechanisms.
This is a simple enough mechanism and it concerns the lack of awareness that a problem exists. The person will simply say that it’s all fine and that there is nothing to worry about. The person is usually aware on some level that there is a problem, but this is intolerable for them, so they deny it. They can deny it to themselves or to others. The difference between denying and lying, as seen next is that the person who is in denial is not aware of the problem, while lying involves consciously saying falsehoods. Denial is often the first reaction to the problem, but it can be hard to overcome, as it doesn’t allow for the possibility of accepting the situation and often represents a strong barrier.
Lying involves distorting the truth, omitting details or changing the facts. For instance, a person might lie about how much alcohol they consume, how often they use it or how they feel about the situation. Lying can appear as a way of protecting the self, but also of maintaining the situation’s status quo rather than changing anything. Lying might persist until the other person has caught on and confronts the individual or even beyond that. Usually, with lying there is more awareness of the issue, but still there is the unwillingness to accept it as an issue, while the main goal is to keep the others off of the addict’s back.
Here, the person will try to make the other individual feel guilty or confused about the situation so that the person with the addiction is not bothered. A person might mock the accusation, say that it’s ridiculous or complain about what the other person does. For instance, an alcoholic might respond to an accusation about his drinking problem with “You’re accusing me of what? That’s just silly! Though maybe I could cut down on drinking if you were more supportive”. The person might blame the other individual for their problem and they try to make the person feel bad for even suggesting it. They might try to elicit sympathy by mentioning the hard circumstances of their life as well.
Here, the person might accept that something is wrong, but they will put on the blame on other people or situations. They might say that their partner is responsible for their decision or accuse the partner of something else in turn. An alcoholic might say that he drinks, but then blame his wife for being too cold or watching too much TV or having other flaws. They might use gaslighting – saying that what’s happening is not really happening, rather that the other person doesn’t know how to have fun, that they are too sensitive, too “prudish” or other things used to accuse their partner.
This will usually involve demanding that the other person drop the subject or else… The threat can be of leaving the person, of drinking worse or even of hurting the other individual. Threats can escalate to violence, emotional, psychological or financial abuse. The person might even threaten to kill themselves in order to get the other to comply with what they want.
Judging involves shifting focus to the actions of the other person and asking them to do something differently. It places the responsibility for the addict’s behavior on the other individual. For example, a person might say that their wife is too controlling and doesn’t know how to relax, so if she were more easy-going, the husband wouldn’t have to drink. The person might label the concern of the other partner as a desire for control or insecurity, putting a label on it to make it seem like their partner is the one on the wrong.
First described in psychoanalysis, projection is a mechanism in which the person ignores their own flaws in themselves, places them on the other individual and then criticizes or judges them. For instance, a person might say that their partner is the one who is weak-willed and dependent. To make it more clear, a cheating partner might suspect their spouse of cheating and get angry at the idea. In addictions, the person might place all the blame and all the problems on their partner.
Blaming is directly placing the responsibility on the other person, without making it subtle or indirect. The person will admit to drinking, but say it’s the fault of their wife, who doesn’t get them, of their friends, who make them go along with it, of the economy, that doesn’t allow them to get a job and so on. The person fully denies being responsible for their own actions and presents the situation as the fault of someone or something else.
Humor involves making light of the situation and deflecting accusations through jokes and sarcasm. A drug user might say: “Sure, I’m a crackhead. Can’t get through the day without a dose.” Other addicts can talk about similar things and make it seem as though others are exaggerating or that the accusations are ridiculous. The person might be sarcastic about their tendencies to use substances or kid around the situation, making light of the concern of their family to make it seem as if they are paranoid.
This involves the use of logic and arguments grounded in theory to justify the problem. A person might say that drinking alcohol is good for their health or that using substances is the best way to have spiritual experiences and broaden their horizons. Intellectualizing often involves turning to “authority”, such as studies or psychologists or important church members to twist their words or take them out of context in order to justify the situation. A person might have a whole theory worked out to justify their addiction or to use faulty logic to support it.
Although similar to intellectualizing, rationalizing is more focused on finding mundane reasons. A person might say that they can’t be alcoholics because they don’t get drunk every day or because they have never gotten in trouble at work or because they make money, for instance. Rationalizing might involve saying that alcohol is just their way to wind down and other similar arguments that are focused on explaining away the situation. The classic “If I wanted to quit, I would quit” can be a rationalization, as the person uses the argument to calm themselves and others, not seeing that it’s a faulty argument.
Silence involves simply withdrawing from others and not saying anything. The person might refuse to respond to any accusations or pleas and act indifferently. This mechanism involves simply ignoring the situation and either hoping that others will tire of it eventually or showing that the person finds the whole matter beneath them. Indifference can be very frustrating and hard to overcome, as the person refuses to engage in discussions or to change their behavior, rather, they usually continue as they were without responding to other people.
Outwardly this may appear as though the person is complying so that the others will leave the matter to rest. The person might say they will stop using substances and seek treatment, agreeing with the accusations, but in reality they will usually not do any of these things or do the bare minimum, just for show. If a person uses this mechanism, they tend to lack the motivation for real change and still don’t see the real problem. Rather, they think that the problem is the insistence others have on a change and such, so to solve this problem they make false promises or outwardly seem to go along with the treatment to get back to the way things were as soon as they can.
Minimizing is making the problem less. The person might say that they drink, but they don’t drink that much, that other people drink they more, that they are functional and so who cares and other similar matters. The idea is to make the problem look like less or to make it seem small by comparison, for example, by saying that, sure, they use drugs, but it’s not like they do it at work and, besides they only use like once a month, so it’s not a problem. The addict might also minimize the problem for themselves, hoping to believe that it’s under control and, even if it’s not, it’s just a small, unimportant matter, so it doesn’t mean anything either way.
Cockiness is a general attitude. The person will percieve themselves as being invincible, better than others, stronger and smarter and, thus, able to handle the situation. They might challenge themselves to drink more, for instance, believing that they can give up at any minute and that they are not like those other folks who get addicted. This is a narcissistic belief and an illusion the person might cling to to feel safe and untouchable. The idea that they can quit any time can also be associated with a cocky attitude.
Justifying is finding reasons for the problem. It can overlap with blaming and with rationalizing, for instance. Justifying is saying that anyone in their position would use substances or saying that they need it or that it is medical.
The next mechanism is explaining. It involves weaving a story concerning a particular situation to show that their behavior was necessary or expected. For example, an alcoholic might say that they knew they shouldn’t have been drinking, but that all their friends were there and it would have been offensive to reject a drink and that it was tradition and so on. An explanation involves finding a way in which the person’s behavior seemed possible and that it was related to the circumstances, not associated with any larger problem, for instance.
This one usually involves a monologue that involves justifications, explanations and rationalizations for why the person is acting in a specific way. The person might say that they had always suffered from unfulfilled affective needs and that they drink in order to cover them, though they know it’s not right. An analysis usually means that the person is not connecting emotionally to the situation and that they haven’t fully accepted the reality of the situation.
Defiance involves actively resisting treatment and any attempts to change or talk. The person might state that it’s their life and that they don’t agree with the treatment and they won’t comply with it. They might sabotage the treatment in some way or show that they are displeased with the whole situation.
ereThis mechanism involves simply leaving the situation. The person might leave the room, the house or even the treatment center, rejecting the situation. It often occurs together with silence.
Finally, there is the self-explanatory shouting. The person might yell and insult others to intimidate and to be left alone.
One more thing…
Defense mechanisms are a part of who we are. They are built in to help us protect ourselves in physical and emotional situations where we perceive a threat of some sort. They are not a symptom or sign of being “broken” or a problem in and of themselves. However, they can get out of hand, be a strong indicator of something we need to face and have consequences when we let them lead us through our lives. A seasoned and experienced counselor can help you address challenges in your life where defense mechanisms may be serving more as a harmful hindrance than a help.
Defense Mechanisms / Live Better Live Now / Houston