Common Defense Mechanisms
Defense Mechanisms help us deal with our internal
conflicts, but they can be both helpful and harmful to us. As you
look at the chart below, think about how the Mechanism could have both
a positive application, and
a negative one. (I'll give you an example at the end of the
chart.) Understanding the defense mechanisms we use is a key to
understanding why some of us realize our full potential, and others do
not. Even healthy individuals use defense mechanisms to deal with
certain types of stress, so this process is not at all unusual.
If we take the mechanism to an extreme, though, it can eventually
prevent us from having a proper connection to reality.
In the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual IV, defense mechanisms are defined as "automatic psychological processes that protect the individual against anxiety and from the awareness of internal or external dangers or stressors". (The DSM is the book that psychologists use to define all types of psychological processes, explain their functions and implications, and suggest treatment for unhealthy situations.) These mechanisms are structured into Defense Levels, or families, based on how they work and their measured effectiveness. The levels range from those that are most healthy and productive to those that are least healthy. Level 1 is called the High Adaptive Level, in which we are fully aware of our feelings, ideas, and consequences, but feel satisfied that we are handling our anxiety well, and are staying in balance. This level is frequently used by healthy individuals to handle the common but sometimes overwhelming feelings we encounter. Level 2 is the Mental Inhibitions Level, in which we simply put threatening ideas, feelings, memories, wishes, or fears outside our awareness - we choose not to think about them. Level 3 is the Minor Image-Distorting Level, in which we make subtle changes to our image of ourself in order to change the way we feel about ourselves. Level 4 is the Disavowal Level, in which we keep unpleasant stressors outside our awareness, sometimes altering reality to suit our purposes. Level 5 is the Major Image-distorting Level, in which we make major changes in reality so it will fit our image of it. Level 6 is the Action Level, in which we respond to stressors through physical, in addition to mental, action. This also includes a complete lack of action, known as withdrawal. Level 7, which is not dealt with here, is the Level of Defensive Dysregulation, in which our defense mechanisms have failed completely, and there is an exaggerated break with reality, so we will not have to face fears and ideas that we find totally overwhelming.
Again, the defense mechanism itself does not indicate how "messed up" we are, but the extent to which we use that mechanism contains important information about our level of mental health.
||We turn to others for help or
||You ask a friend or teacher to
help you remember your keys for dealing with stress.
||We feel better about our
problems when we help others with theirs.
||Your coach feels good when you
succeed because she taught you how to perform.
||We experience our emotional
reactions to situations in advance.
||You know just what you are going
to say when you win the championship, because you've already "seen" it
in your mind.
||Humor||We laugh at our mistakes because
we can see the amusing or ironic aspects
||"I guess that mistake I made really did look pretty funny on the videotape!"|
||We openly express our feelings,
but not in a way that will manipulate others
||"I'm really devastated about
that loss, but I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me, I'll survive."
||We reflect on our own thoughts
and feelings and respond appropriately.
||"I know why I made the mistakes
I did, and I have a list of 3 things to do that will fix them."
||Sublimation||We channel our undesireable impulses into a socially-acceptable form||One reason you play football is because it's a good way to get out your aggression and anger.|
||Suppression||We actively avoid thinking about
things that disturb us
||Most athletes who have been injured avoid thinking about their fear that it could occur again.|
||Displacement||We aim our anger and bad feelings away from what is really bothering us||You yelled at your teammates because you just had an argument with your parents|
||Dissociation||We have a break in the way our
emotional, intellectual, and physical self usually connect.
||"I don't even feel the pain in
my leg right now, because my team is losing and I'm just sitting here."
||Intellectualization||We turn our feelings into
abstract thoughts or generalizations.
||"It would be alright for me to get angry because scientific studies prove that 88% of people get angry about this."|
||We separate what is happening to us from what we really feel or think.||"I don't care at all that we lost the championship, it's just another game."|
||Reaction Formation||We exaggerate one feeling or thought so we can hide the opposite one||"I want to pass the ball 20 times tonight because I need to prove that I'm not a ballhog."|
||Repression||We push bad thoughts and
feelings out of our conscious mind.
||"I know I did the wrong thing
today, but I am just not
going to think about it.
||Undoing||We try to take back the bad thing we did, as though it never really happened||You feel bad about yelling at your teammate yesterday so you brought them a candy bar today.|
||Devaluation||We exaggerate the negative
feelings we have about an event or person
||"Look how cheap those trophies are! Who'd want to win a state championship for that thing?"|
||Idealization||We overly exaggerate the good qualities of a person we admire.||"My father is the strongest, smartest, most handsome man in the entire world!"|
||We act as though we have special
powers or abilities, and are superior to others.
||"I can read my teammates' minds,
but despite what they think, I'm the best player on this team."
||We refuse to accept the reality
of a situation that is obvious to others.
||"This cannot be happening to ME! I
did not miss that shot - maybe there was an earthquake."
||Projection||We put our own bad traits, thoughts, or feelings off onto others||You constantly accuse a teammate of being selfish because it diverts attention from your selfishness|
|4||Rationalization||We justify our action by making up a "reason" for it||"I failed because it rained. Or maybe it was because I forgot my lucky charm."|
||We daydream about solutions
instead of taking effective action.
||You imagine that attractive
classmate takes you to the dance instead of calling and talking to them.
||We project our thoughts and
feelings, but see our reactions as justifiable.
||"I know that Coach hates me as
much as I hate him, but I've got a right to because he disrespects me."
||Splitting||We divide the world into only opposites, making everything bad OR good||"That referee never calls our games right. He hates us. Every call he makes goes against us. He's evil."|
||Acting Out||We use attention-getting behaviors to cover up our lack of real skill.||"I can't believe I just made that mistake, but if I fall down right now, everyone will laugh and forget it."|
||We pretend that we do not care,
and remove ourselves from the situation.
||"I don't care about my sport
anymore at all, and I quit."
||We ask for help from someone who
annoys us, then reject their assistance.
||You asked your coach for extra
practice drills, but then did the exact opposite of what was
||We minimally do what is asked of
us, but are angry about it all along.
||"If that's what Coach wants, OK,
but I can still think whatever I want to, and I think this is stupid!"
To show you how these mechanisms can function in
more than one way, let's look at Denial,
which is considered one of the potentially less healthy
mechanisms. As a productive mechanism, denial allows a team that
is behind by a huge number of points to keep exerting their best
effort, even though they "know" they cannot win. In athletics, it
is considered a great characteristic of a team or player to "refuse to
lose", even when all statistical probability and common sense indicate
that continued effort is futile. On the other hand, denial can
work against us if we fail to give our opponents proper respect.
If we actually believe that
"they have no right to be on this field with you - you're far better than they are",
we may find ourselves unable to perform at our best, because we have
denied even the possibility
that we can lose. In its most extreme form, denial causes us to
refuse to believe even the most obvious things. Maybe years
later, a player really "remembers" winning that most important of
games, because they have continued to deny their loss.
~ Using this list for reference, write a journal that discusses the 5 defense mechanisms you use most often to deal with disappointment in your athletic life. Are you using these mechanisms in a healthy way? Are you using them in a positive or negative manner? Are they helping you develop as an athlete, or are they holding you back? Write down 3 mechanisms you think you should use more often, especially if you can use them to replace ones that are not currently working well for you. When you have completed this assignment, see me for a strategy that will help you be healthier.
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