What Are Overdeveloped Defense Mechanisms?
by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program.
- Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
- Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
- Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
- GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019)
Someone sent me email about Defense Mechanisms.
She has the workbook and is currently working through parts of the program that are not in the books. My publisher thought that this section was too long for the book but it’s an integral part of the program that my clients and boot campers work on. It’s also listed in the the steps of the Program if you’re working it on your own. (For the steps of the Program, please see This Post (long version) or This Post (short version). You are also welcome to join the Holiday Boot Camp, coming up October to January. Registration starts soon so be on the list if you want to get in.
by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
Copyright © 2021, All Rights Reserved. No part of this may be duplicated or published without the author’s written consent and a link back to this material in its unedited, original form.
What follows are a few short truths about and examples of defense mechanisms. (For a lengthier discussion, see the GPYP Workbook Chapter 14.) If you have questions, please email me at susan at gettingpastyourbreakup dot com or – for a FASTER REPLY – LEAVE A COMMENT ON ANY VIDEO OR PODCAST on the GETTING PAST YOUR PAST YOUTUBE CHANNEL HERE.
Defense mechanisms are unconscious, psychological processes that defend us against real or perceived dangers.
Defense mechanisms are not necessarily bad or wrong. Living in the world would cause entirely too much anxiety for a person to function if there was no ability to filter out or to defend against perceived dangers.
Defense mechanisms are necessary for psychological health because they are ANXIETY REGULATORS.
However, when there is too much anxiety in one’s life, defense mechanisms begin to work TOO WELL.
Defense mechanisms become overdeveloped and regulate us into unhealthy behaviors. We defend ourselves TOO MUCH. We flee when we PERCEIVE dangers that are not there. We run others over with clingyness when we PERCEIVE dangers that are not there. We can swing from extreme reaction to extreme reaction. Those are signs of overdeveloped defense mechanisms. We engage in endless bouts of action and reaction, avoidance behavior, or suffocating behavior.
We continually react to environmental “dangers” be they real or perceived. We stay tight within our COMFORT ZONES and our FRAME OF REFERENCE (frame of reference is something I talk about on the PODCAST all the time).
Overdeveloped defense mechanisms keep us stuck and prevent healthy, functional, adult relationships. We wonder why we are forever on the receiving end of, “This just isn’t working for me anymore….”
A person with overdeveloped defense mechanisms reacts without thinking. He or she can go hysterical or go numb, depending on the emotional flavor of the week.
Overdeveloped defense mechanisms LIMIT OUR LIFE SCOPE. We start to become very narrow in our reactions or responses to things. When a person presents in therapy for the first time, most reported “issues” come from a place of overdeveloped defense mechanisms. Whether it be “emotional” behavior in general, angry outbursts, being predisposed to depression, intimacy difficulties, relationship problems, employment problems etc., usually defense mechanism interference is in play.
When defense mechanisms become overdeveloped, we react in certain ways WITHOUT THINKING. We are stuck in our ruts, in our grooves, in the comfort zones of our overdeveloped defense mechanisms. In order to change, we need to work with our defense mechanisms.
To be healthy we need to bring overdeveloped defense mechanisms IN LINE with what healthy means. A healthy lifestyle is not about extremes; overdeveloped means extreme.
Examples of Defense Mechanisms
There are more than these listed in the workbook, and an example of working through one, but these are a few common ones:
You react as if someone doesn’t like you because you’ve decided they don’t;
You’ve projected your insecurities onto them and decided they don’t like you. You tend to jump to conclusions and make assumptions and then make judgments based on those assumptions without any evidence that what you assume is true.
I always tell my clients and boot campers: if you don’t hear it, you don’t know it. Make no assumptions. This is helpful to stop the projecting, but the Life Inventories are designed to help you understand why and how you project. What happened in the wayback machine that causes you to jump to conclusions and make assumptions?
Displacement (for example, your partner makes you angry and you take it out on the kids, the dog, the people at work, your extended family etc…sometimes you take it out on yourself…);
Rationalization and justification (“it’s not that bad” “There are good reasons why” “Every relationship has issues.” “My sister’s spouse is so much worse and she stays with him.”);
Blaming This is when it’s chronic. A person with blaming as an overdeveloped defense mechanism is looking to keep the focus off them. This usually looks like the person is always looking for someone or something to blame or looking to shift the blame for something they’ve done to someone/something else. (Well I wouldn’t have done that if you didn’t do this.) There are those who will never accept blame and those who are too quick to blame – every thing that happens in a negative way is someone’s fault. Things can’t just go wrong, accidents don’t just happen, mistakes aren’t just made…there’s never “no big deal,” everything is serious and whatever is wrong HAS TO BE SOMEONE’S FAULT);
Lying when telling the truth would be just as easy (this is a defense mechanism to keep everyone from knowing the truth even when the truth is perfectly acceptable). This usually has its roots in childhood hypervigilance…typically in an ACOA family (see below for an example of how to bring this into balance);
Drama addiction or involvement in chaotic relationships and situations; (keeping things swirling on the outside keeps you from looking at things on the inside).
Again, these are just a few examples. Lying, Fear of Abandonment and Fear of Intimacy are three discussed below. There are also more in the workbook.
Balancing Overdeveloped Defense Mechanisms
We can’t just affirm our way out of a defense mechanism. Affirmations help change the thoughts and behaviors that are rooted in defense mechanisms, but we also have to dig down deep and see what is going on and change it by working through it. THEN we affirm the change we want to see in ourselves. First, we have to recognize it and recognize our REACTIONS that need to be tamed into RESPONSES.
Again, defense mechanisms are not bad or wrong – we NEED our anxiety regulators, but we need them to be in line with what is healthy. We need them to PROTECT us, not to work AGAINST us.
You can do this with ALL defense mechanisms. Figure out how it protected you before, but is hurting you now and what you need to do to regulate its power.
For example, if you have been abandoned by a parent, you begin to develop defenses which reduce your anxiety in the world, reduce the likelihood that you will be abandoned again. You either avoid relationships or stay in relationships too long.
Even if YOU are the one who ends a relationship, you could experience such anxiety at the end of the relationship that it is TOO MUCH for you and you flee back to the relationship no matter how bad it was for you. Any relationship, even the worst ones, are better than the abject terror you feel upon severing a tie to someone with whom you shared a relationship.
This reaction is an overdeveloped defense mechanism: fear of abandonment. It’s not bad or wrong to be afraid to be abandoned–it can help you (once you learn how to regulate it) to avoid the wrong choices – but when it leads you BACK to a bad situation, it’s overdeveloped and is working AGAINST you, not FOR you.
Working with defense mechanisms involves real work. It took me over a year to work on my fear of abandonment. There was much to dig into and so many things I needed to do to bring it into balance – including working on my self-esteem and being okay with being alone as well as the incredibly deep dive into my history of foster care, adoption, abandonment, betrayal etc.
Again, it took me over a year of working hard with my therapist to bring this into balance (it also included NOT eliminating it completely – finding THAT balance and trying to figure out whether or not the anxiety I felt at the beginning of any dating or relationship situation was REAL (I couldn’t trust this person not to leave) or PERCEIVED (it was my overdeveloped defense mechanism projecting it). That was a bit of a sticky wicket.
Often, working on one defense mechanism leads to another. I learned, through this painful though completely enlightening and healing experience, that I was also picking people who would abandon me due to my overdeveloped defense mechanism: fear of intimacy.
With fear of intimacy you say you want a relationship and you truly believe you do, but your choice of mates shows otherwise. You keep choosing the emotionally unavailable. Your subconscious knows em when it seems em and says “Oooh – emotionally unavailable? I choose YOU!” You can rationalize and justify (again, defense mechanisms) that this person IS emotionally available (after all, you asked, didn’t you? And they said they were, didn’t they?) For more about the exciting dance that occurs between those who have fear of abandonment and those that have fear of commitment see THIS POST.
But the person doesn’t know it. He or she doesn’t know it and now you don’t know it either…but you know who does know it? Your subconscious and their subconscious and the two subconsciouses conspire to do the dance of “Come Here. Go Away.” And oh what fun THAT is!
Your fear of intimacy is at work even though you swear up and down and sideways – “But I really thought he/she was available! And I did check! I really did! I REALLY DO WANT A RELATIONSHIP! HONEST! I DO!”
Trust me, you don’t. Too scary. If you keep picking relationship avoidant people, you have got to work on your fear of intimacy. If you really wanted a relationship, you would stop picking people incapable of giving that to you.
As it instructs in the workbook, the way to fix this is:
a) figure out how a defense mechanism protected you before;
b) but is hurting you now;
c) what you need to do to regulate its power.
Defense mechanisms are NOT ALL BAD, just OVERdeveloped. So the idea is to tone it down, not eradicate it completely. If you work with this section of the workbook, make sure you understand how each defense mechanism has helped you as well as hurt you.
For example: if you lied as a child to stay out of trouble, it protected you. Lying for the sake of lying or when it would be just as easy to tell the truth is a hallmark of a dysfunctional childhood…usually alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness was at play in the home and children were not – they were too busy trying to CYA and imagine what madeup crap they were going to be blamed for today. Hypervigilance ruled the day and a very creative imagination took hold. It was a necessary evil that developed as a DEFENSE to the dreaded, “Who did this inconsequential thing that I’m about to make a very big deal about?”
But now you are an adult and you are now lying for the sake of lying. So let’s think about this some more.
As always, there are things to RETAIN about your overdeveloped defense mechanism that you don’t want to get rid of. With fear of abandonment, you want to retain a certain amount of skepticism and to hold back before passing judgment. You want that terrified aspect of fear of abandoment to dissipate (fear of abandonment is NOT simply, “If you leave me, I will feel really really bad.” but more like, “If you leave me, I will DIE.” kind of abject terror.
To balance fear of abandonment, you have to quell the terror but keep some of the awareness that not everyone is there for the long haul and sometimes your gut instincts are right. And if this person up and leaves, you will be okay (attachment affirmations). No matter what, you will be okay. If you have fear of abandonment, that affirmation MUST be part of your daily affirmations. Without it, you are never going to bring it into balance.
But what about lying? You don’t want to tamp it down so that you only lie sometimes or that you don’t lie so “well.” You want to live an honest and healthy life. All the time.
Although researchers seem to suggest that everyone lies to some degree and they do so fairly often, I’m not really sure about that. I know that many of my clients get roped in by narcissists who lie because they believe everyone and it’s not because they are gullible, it’s because they themselves don’t lie and they take everyone at their word.
I know that my frame of reference is that I think everyone is telling the truth because I’m pretty much telling the truth all the time. For this article, I tried to think of an example of some recent lie I’ve told and couldn’t really think of one, but it had to be something fairly inconsequential (why I was late or something, but I really don’t lie about that – if I’m late, I’m late and I give the real reason why. Other than something small along those lines, I can’t really think of anything).
One of my earliest commitments to myself, in the face of all the hypervigilant excuse making and defending myself I did in my childhood and first marriage, was to be open and honest and communicate, “Oh my mistake…” or “I was wrong…” or “That was my fault…” whenever it was. I wanted to be around people where that was okay or allowed. I was determined to learn from my mistakes and do better next time and I wanted that to be okay – not something someone held over my head. I originally started doing it to figure THEM out, but I also wanted to commit to copping to things that were my doing and to give up the goal of perfection. I’ve written in other posts and on the podcast about how freeing it was to say, “I was wrong…” or “I made a mistake.” It was profoundly liberating.
But I did have times when I lied for no reason at all or reasons so complex, it made no sense. When I was in the 8th grade I was so traumatized by a lot of things at home – mostly abandonment by my father and older brother and abuse by my sister after my mother went out to work – that I made up an entire family, full of siblings that didn’t exist. Some of them were nice, some of them annoying, but none were abusive. I think I erased the amount of the family that I could and filled them in with other, imaginary people. On graduation day my friends (whom I suspected knew I was lying all along) were so excited to meet my family and I had to say that the dip shittier ones were on the wrong side of the church for the ceremony. They were supposed to sit on my side and they sat on the other side. The best thing about made-up siblings is you can have them do the stupidest things. My friends and I like to make jokes about my poor sister Colleen who was pretty dense. Poor thing. Even being imaginary brought her no help with that one.
I worked through that early in therapy (having felt so guilty for lying to my best friend and her twin sister). The guilt drove me to unravel my reasons for that off-the-wall behavior even though I’d done nothing similar before or since. But after uncovering all the reason for it, I made a pact to never lie or exaggerate my life again. Maybe it’s me, but I stress honesty in GPYB a lot and I mean real honesty…not mostly honest. So when I ask people to work on honesty, I mean REALLY work on honesty. Not as in “brutally honest” or honest to a fault (that shirt is really ugly), but “good guy” honest (you can refrain from sharing every thought).
So if lying is a defense mechanism, how do you bring lying into balance? How does one take an overdeveloped defense mechanism that should be eradicated completely and keep a “good” part of it?
Think about it.
To be a good liar takes some kind of creativity. Harness that creativity while affirming to be more honest. Sometimes if you feel you are going to lie or exaggerate, say nothing. Sometimes lying is a knee jerk reaction and it takes time to learn to just respond honestly rather than react with a lie.
Let’s apply the GPYB method of OBSERVATION, PREPARATION and CULTIVATION to this defense mechanism. (This is, of course, truncated for the sake of the article).
Start by just not reacting at all. Do nothing. Say nothing.
Think about what you can say that is honest. Sometimes there’s nothing TO say…if your first thought is to make something up so that you’re more interesting, you might draw a blank. Let that be okay. Recognize that, journal about that and AFFIRM that you are OKAY telling the truth or saying nothing. Go through your Foundation Affirmations and look for ones that can help you in these times…what examples help you in times when you’re tempted to stretch the truth. Find examples that ARE the truth and you won’t need to lie.
Remind yourself that lying for the sake of lying has zero value. It’s time to take that creative energy and put it somewhere else.
Then CULTIVATE that change by affirming that every day. In the Power! Affirmations booklet, it talks about pairing visuals or actions to affirmations to really bring it home.
To cement the affirmation, recognize the creativity in the lies you’ve told and channel that to some other use. As you involve yourself in whatever creative activity you choose, affirm that you are doing the healthy “Bringing my creative lying ability into balance by doing x.”
Observation will always help. Many times you can learn to listen for your “reaction” and instead of reacting, learn to say and do NOTHING. Just figure out what the heck your defense mechanisms are driving you toward.
Is it trying to keep you safe?
Is there REALLY a danger?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But learn to think and respond instead of reacting without thinking. Usually it takes stepping back and DOING NOTHING before you can realize what is REALLY going on.
The first step in toning down defense mechanisms is trying to keep reactions to a minimum and learning to respond instead. If you draw a blank on the proper response, know that it’s okay to do nothing.
Affirm the change you want to see in yourself in order to bring this behavior into a more balanced and productive picture.
You can do this with ALL defense mechanisms. Figure out how it protected you before, but is hurting you now and what you need to do to regulate its power.
YOU CAN DO THIS!