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Understanding Defense Mechanisms


Growing up in the Northwest, I was an excellent tree climber.

I’d climb up trees to put on Christmas lights, I’d climb trees to get away from my three sisters, I’d climb trees to experience silence.

In my mind, trees have always been benevolent, safe  creatures that shelter birds, squirrels, and children. At least, that’s how I saw it before I encountered a tree with thorns growing out of it.

Why would a tree need thorns? The thorns serve as a defense against animals. The thorns aren’t picky; they repel everything, even if that thing poses no threat. The tree doesn’t discriminate between harmful and safe. It simply keeps everyone out.

What are defense mechanisms? Humans may not grow thorns, but we do have defense mechanisms. A good definition of defense mechanisms is: “any of a variety of usually unconscious mental processes used to protect oneself from shame, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, conflict, other unacceptable feelings or thoughts, and including behaviors such as repression, projection, denial, and rationalization.

Some defense mechanisms are more suited to the adult side of us, such as assertiveness (when individuals speak directly and firmly about something they feel strongly about) and compensation (where a person recognizes an area of weakness, such as public speaking, and replaces it with an area of strength, like writing.) Other defense mechanisms are more “primitive,” such as acting out (someone is angry and instead of talking about it the individual punches a hole in the wall.)

Everyone has defenses and everyone uses them throughout life. The problem arises when adults use primitive defense mechanisms to get their needs met.

How many times have you wanted to feel connected with others, only to find yourself becoming more and more anxious? You do things like avoid making phone calls to a friend, or finding excuses to keep yourself from going out. You wonder what negative things others are saying about you.

So you stay distant, while at the same time you long to be close. These are defense mechanisms.

You can imagine all of your defenses like the thorns on a tree. The thorns may seem like they’re keeping you safe, but they can also make you feel lonely and depressed.

Ideally, an adult uses different defense mechanisms for different situations. There are times when assertiveness is needed and there are times when compensation is appropriate.

So what’s a person to do? Awareness of the problem is always the first step. You know something is wrong, but you’re unsure what. Look at your reactions to others. Try and see where your defense mechanisms are; are they mostly immature responses or are they more mature? Then consider if you want your defense mechanisms hanging around. Perhaps you act out in anger, or you dissociate when you are afraid. Try and take charge of your defenses. You don’t need to be a tree covered in thorns.

Working through defenses can be tedious and exhausting. It’s similar to learning a new language or a new skill. You need time to begin allowing yourself to be vulnerable and put yourself out there. Slowly you’ll see that there are kind people in the world who do not have any intention of harming you and can be a great support.

Photo from Shutterstock 


Understanding Defense Mechanisms

Jenise Harmon, MSW, LISW-S

Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. She works with individuals and couples, and specializes in relationship counseling. She's now offering online counseling for residents of Ohio. Stay Connected . Follow her on twitter; and connect with her on Facebook.

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APA Reference
Harmon, J. (2015). Understanding Defense Mechanisms. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Oct 2015
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