Defense Mechanisms

How We Manage Anxiety (and Get Stuck)


Photo by Lucas Santos on Unsplash

A Case For Defense Mechanisms

Defense Mechanisms are our inbuilt anxiety management system.

Denial, projection, repression, intellectualization, shield us from anxiety and protect our self-esteem.

Imagine your most embarrassing memories were playing in our head 24/7. Imagine you were constantly aware of the fact that everyone you love is going to die (and not in the motivational memento mori sense). Or that you had no way to repress aggressive impulses — life would be unliveable.

Luckily, just like our bodily immune system fights off intruding pathogens, we have a psychological system that unconsciously fights off intruding emotions, fears, memories, or thoughts.

Defense mechanisms are mechanisms we use to distort reality, ourself, or others to make things more bearable. Helping us to lessen anxiety, shield our self-esteem, and fend of other uncomfortable emotions. Basically making life liveable and culture possible.

The term was originally coined by Freud (who loved biological and military jargon). Later his daughter Anna Freud and many more thinkers in the psychodynamic tradition, elaborated on many more.

So, the first thing I want you to note is that defense mechanisms are unconscious but motivated processes. We employ them to protect ourselves from things that feel threatening, it’s not random. Therefore, they are important, they serve a function and are not just something to get rid of.

How Defense Mechanisms Get in the Way Of Personal Development

But while they are certainly useful to keep us functioning in our everyday life, they can get in the way of thriving. Defense mechanisms can become a problem themselves. Especially if they are rigid or mostly primary or immature defenses (and by the end of this article you’ll know exactly what that means).