Lesson 6: Defense Mechanisms

Show Video: Defense Mechanisms #2

Warm-Up Activity: Signature Writing Challenge
-Give each student a piece of paper and a pencil
-Tell them that they will be given 30 seconds to write as many of their full signatures as possible (repeat 2x)
-Next tell them to switch hands, and do the same thing.
-Process: Say, “Defense mechanisms are things we do naturally in response to things that occur around us. We learn to respond to situations in positive and negative ways.

Optional Warm-Up Activity: Lifeboat Exercise
Objective: Teach students to identify negative defense mechanisms that hurt them and to select positive defense mechanisms that will help them deal with difficult situations.

Show: Defense Metaphor from WhyTry? CD and Defense Mechanisms PPT

Question: Do you know what a defense mechanism is?
Answer: A defense mechanism is what you use to protect your feelings in various life situations, like a bulletproof vest for your feelings. A defense mechanism is any behavior used to divert attention away from the pressure situation. What you do when someone “disses” you.

Say, many adults don’t know what defense mechanisms are or how to use them positively. If they learn what a defense mechanisms are and how to select positive ones, they will have a tool for dealing with challenges at home, at school, and with peers. They will also feel like they have more control in these three areas.

Explain that we typically select a defense mechanism in the following way:
1. We experience a pressure situation (i.e., we are disrespected, put down, or confronted)
2. Almost immediately, the pressure situation creates feeling. We usually have a strong tendency to protect our feelings with a coping skill.
3. We then choose a defense mechanism
4. We use either a positive or negative defense mechanism to protect our feelings

Question: How do you respond or act in the following pressure situations? (see scenarios in YTry ppt)

Draw Shield on Board with Positive/hard, Negative/easy

As students respond, choose one word (or two that describes their response) and then place it either on the positive or negative side of the shield.

Say, although negative defense mechanisms may give some short – term relief from the situation, too often they make the situation worse. Negative defense mechanisms are usually the easiest to choose (i.e., if some one hits you, you hit back; or if someone yells at you, you yell back)

Question: What are some consequences to using these negative defense mechanisms? Do these consequences lead to the crash (refer back to the reality ride)? Do the negative defense mechanism give lasting opportunity, freedom, and self respect?

Say, choosing positive defense mechanism can be harder to choose because they require effort and strength. However, the more we choose the positive defense mechanisms, the easier it gets to choose them.


Question: How do you protect your feelings? Are your defense mechanism helping or hurting you?
Everybody experiences pressure situations during their life. The only question is how much effort we are willing to put to put into not letting these situations run your world. Remember, you can take control and select a positive defense mechanism. But, we need to learn to deal with our feelings in a way that does not hurt you or others.

It can be very difficult at times to control your feelings inside as you face different life situations. However, we can control how we respond outwardly – whether we hurt ourselves or others. Controlling our outward responses requires a lot of practice and effort using what motivates us, such as our goals, dreams, and respect for those we care about.

Question: Who chooses the defense mechanism?
Only we can choose our own defense mechanisms. Other people can affect our feelings and sometimes they will do all they can to influence our choices. Because life is not fair, it is easy to blame others for our actions, particularly if we do not have control over our defense mechanisms. (i.e., “He yelled at me so I had to yell back,” “They hit me first,” or “They were disrespectful to me.”

People who are trying to take control of their defense mechanisms will take responsibility for their actions. No one chooses positive defense mechanisms all of the time. The important thing is trying to control our defense mechanisms so that we have more self respect and freedom.

Four Steps to Control Your Defense Mechanisms
1. Notice
When you are in a pressure situation these are the signs you feel: Anger, Frustration, Nervousness
Pay more attention to these feelings, so you can ready yourself to put up a positive defense mechanism

What are some observable behaviors I can use to help control the pressure situation?
Answer: I can walk away, smile, say something positive, ask for or get help, etc.

2. Feeling -- “Identify it”…”Calm it”…”Express it”…”Controlled”
Identify feelings as soon as possible because feelings can intensify like an inferno (irritation to flame of frustration; frustration can ignite into explosive anger)
Calm it by letting it burn in a somewhat controlled manner. Emotions and feelings can be very positive when controlled. They motivate us to accomplish things and to treat others with the respect that we want.
Question: What are the situations in which you need to practice controlling your feelings and expressing them positively? (With whom? Where? When?)

3. Don’t Let Other People Choose or Control How You Will Respond
Question: What are signs that someone might be trying to control you? When someone yells at you, you are physically attacked, or you are put down.

Question: What do you normally do when someone yells at them, hits them, or puts them down? (Tie responses back to Reality Ride and the Crash)
Say, after the initial short term rush or hurting someone in return, they are not left with much long term self respect. T.V., people, friends note that if you don’t lash out or take revenge when someone does that to you, you won’t have self respect. However in reality, people who believe this often crash because they hurt themselves and others.

The biggest mistake people make in life is letting others’ negative defense mechanisms control how they act. We mirror their defense mechanisms. The reality is these actions take our control away and lead us to crash. It is easy to take revenge or lash out. But learning to do this will give us tremendous control over our lives.

4. Select a Positive Defense
Question: What would motivate you to do the tougher thing and select a positive defense? How do you know when you’ve selected a positive defense mechanism?
Answer: When you are helping, not hurting, yourself or others!

What is most important to you? You need to use that as your motivation to stay in control when the pressure situation happens.

Defense Mechanism Activity: Use Defense Mechanism PPT “ What would you do instead of …”

Optional Journal Activity: Game Plan Activity (p. 49)

Show Video: From WhyTry? CD Defense #4

Extra: 15 Common Defense Mechanisms

By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

In some areas of psychology (especially in psychodynamic theory), psychologists talk about “defense mechanisms,” or manners in which we behave or think in certain ways to better protect or “defend” ourselves. Defense mechanisms are one way of looking at how people distance themselves from a full awareness of unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Psychologists have categorized defense mechanisms based upon how primitive they are. The more primitive a defense mechanism, the less effective it works for a person over the long-term. However, more primitive defense mechanisms are usually very effective short-term, and hence are favored by many people and children especially (when such primitive defense mechanisms are first learned). Adults who don’t learn better ways of coping with stress or traumatic events in their lives will often resort to such primitive defense mechanisms as well.
Most defense mechanisms are fairly unconscious – that means most of us don’t realize we’re using them in the moment. Some types of psychotherapy can help a person become aware of what defense mechanisms they are using, how effective they are, and how to use less primitive and more effective mechanisms in the future.

Primitive Defense Mechanisms

1. Denial
Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. It is considered one of the most primitive of the defense mechanisms because it is characteristic of early childhood development. Many people use denial in their everyday lives to avoid dealing with painful feelings or areas of their life they don’t wish to admit. For instance, a person who is a functioning alcoholic will often simply deny they have a drinking problem, pointing to how well they function in their job and relationships.
2. Regression
Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses. For an example an adolescent who is overwhelmed with fear, anger and growing sexual impulses might become clingy and start exhibiting earlier childhood behaviors he has long since overcome, such as bedwetting. An adult may regress when under a great deal of stress, refusing to leave their bed and engage in normal, everyday activities.
3. Acting Out
Acting Out is performing an extreme behavior in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing. Instead of saying, “I’m angry with you,” a person who acts out may instead throw a book at the person, or punch a hole through a wall. When a person acts out, it can act as a pressure release, and often helps the individual feel calmer and peaceful once again. For instance, a child’s temper tantrum is a form of acting out when he or she doesn’t get his or her way with a parent. Self-injury may also be a form of acting-out, expressing in physical pain what one cannot stand to feel emotionally.
4. Dissociation
Dissociation is when a person loses track of time and/or person, and instead finds another representation of their self in order to continue in the moment. A person who dissociates often loses track of time or themselves and their usual thought processes and memories. People who have a history of any kind of childhood abuse often suffer from some form of dissociation. In extreme cases, dissociation can lead to a person believing they have multiple selves (“multiple personality disorder”). People who use dissociation often have a disconnected view of themselves in their world. Time and their own self-image may not flow continuously, as it does for most people. In this manner, a person who dissociates can “disconnect” from the real world for a time, and live in a different world that is not cluttered with thoughts, feelings or memories that are unbearable.
5. Compartmentalization
Compartmentalization is a lesser form of dissociation, wherein parts of oneself are separated from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values. An example might be an honest person who cheats on their income tax return and keeps their two value systems distinct and un-integrated while remaining unconscious of the cognitive dissonance.
6. Projection
Projection is the misattribution of a person’s undesired thoughts, feelings or impulses onto another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings or impulses. Projection is used especially when the thoughts are considered unacceptable for the person to express, or they feel completely ill at ease with having them. For example, a spouse may be angry at their significant other for not listening, when in fact it is the angry spouse who does not listen. Projection is often the result of a lack of insight and acknowledgement of one’s own motivations and feelings.
7. Reaction Formation
Reaction Formation is the converting of unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings or impulses into their opposites. For instance, a woman who is very angry with her boss and would like to quit her job may instead be overly kind and generous toward her boss and express a desire to keep working there forever. She is incapable of expressing the negative emotions of anger and unhappiness with her job, and instead becomes overly kind to publicly demonstrate her lack of anger and unhappiness.

Less Primitive, More Mature Defense Mechanisms

Less primitive defense mechanisms are a step up from the primitive defense mechanisms in the previous section. Many people employ these defenses as adults, and while they work okay for many, they are not ideal ways of dealing with our feelings, stress and anxiety. If you recognize yourself using a few of these, don’t feel bad – everybody does.
8. Repression
Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses. The key to repression is that people do it unconsciously, so they often have very little control over it. “Repressed memories” are memories that have been unconsciously blocked from access or view. But because memory is very malleable and ever-changing, it is not like playing back a DVD of your life. The DVD has been filtered and even altered by your life experiences, even by what you’ve read or viewed.
9. Displacement
Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts feelings and impulses directed at one person or object, but taken out upon another person or object. People often use displacement when they cannot express their feelings in a safe manner to the person they are directed at. The classic example is the man who gets angry at his boss, but can’t express his anger to his boss for fear of being fired. He instead comes home and kicks the dog or starts an argument with his wife. The man is redirecting his anger from his boss to his dog or wife. Naturally, this is a pretty ineffective defense mechanism, because while the anger finds a route for expression, it’s misapplication to other harmless people or objects will cause additional problems for most people.
10. Intellectualization
Intellectualization is the overemphasis on thinking when confronted with an unacceptable impulse, situation or behavior without employing any emotions whatsoever to help mediate and place the thoughts into an emotional, human context. Rather than deal with the painful associated emotions, a person might employ intellectualization to distance themselves from the impulse, event or behavior. For instance, a person who has just been given a terminal medical diagnosis, instead of expressing their sadness and grief, focuses instead on the details of all possible fruitless medical procedures.
11. Rationalization
Rationalization is putting something into a different light or offering a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviors in the face of a changing reality. For instance, a woman who starts dating a man she really, really likes and thinks the world of is suddenly dumped by the man for no reason. She reframes the situation in her mind with, “I suspected he was a loser all along.”
12. Undoing
Undoing is the attempt to take back an unconscious behavior or thought that is unacceptable or hurtful. For instance, after realizing you just insulted your significant other unintentionally, you might spend then next hour praising their beauty, charm and intellect. By “undoing” the previous action, the person is attempting to counteract the damage done by the original comment, hoping the two will balance one another out.

Mature Defense Mechanisms

Mature defense mechanisms are often the most constructive and helpful to most adults, but may require practice and effort to put into daily use. While primitive defense mechanisms do little to try and resolve underlying issues or problems, mature defenses are more focused on helping a person be a more constructive component of their environment. People with more mature defenses tend to be more at peace with themselves and those around them.
13. Sublimation
Sublimation is simply the channeling of unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones. For instance, when a person has sexual impulses they would like not to act upon, they may instead focus on rigorous exercise. Refocusing such unacceptable or harmful impulses into productive use helps a person channel energy that otherwise would be lost or used in a manner that might cause the person more anxiety.
Sublimation can also be done with humor or fantasy. Humor, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable impulses or thoughts into a light-hearted story or joke. Humor reduces the intensity of a situation, and places a cushion of laughter between the person and the impulses. Fantasy, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable or unattainable desires into imagination. For example, imagining one’s ultimate career goals can be helpful when one experiences temporary setbacks in academic achievement. Both can help a person look at a situation in a different way, or focus on aspects of the situation not previously explored.
14. Compensation
Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other arenas. By emphasizing and focusing on one’s strengths, a person is recognizing they cannot be strong at all things and in all areas in their lives. For instance, when a person says, “I may not know how to cook, but I can sure do the dishes!,” they’re trying to compensate for their lack of cooking skills by emphasizing their cleaning skills instead. When done appropriately and not in an attempt to over-compensate, compensation is defense mechanism that helps reinforce a person’s self-esteem and self-image.
15. Assertiveness
Assertiveness is the emphasis of a person’s needs or thoughts in a manner that is respectful, direct and firm. Communication styles exist on a continuum, ranging from passive to aggressive, with assertiveness falling neatly inbetween. People who are passive and communicate in a passive manner tend to be good listeners, but rarely speak up for themselves or their own needs in a relationship. People who are aggressive and communicate in an aggressive manner tend to be good leaders, but often at the expense of being able to listen empathetically to others and their ideas and needs. People who are assertive strike a balance where they speak up for themselves, express their opinions or needs in a respectful yet firm manner, and listen when they are being spoken to. Becoming more assertive is one of the most desired communication skills and helpful defense mechanisms most people want to learn, and would benefit in doing so.