What Defensive Behavior Says About You

Medical Reviewer

Coping with reality and finding ways to maintain our own identity is no easy thing. We can all benefit from feedback, but none of us are really immune to criticism, sarcasm, comments or behaviors that seem designed to probe our vulnerabilities before giving them a hefty tweak. Some people have, or appear to have, greater resilience than others. Or do they? Our defenses come in many forms and the mechanisms one individual uses may simply say things about their own uncertainties and fears.

To understand the notion of 'being defensive', we need to revisit the theories of Sigmund Freud. Basically, Freud proposed that some defense mechanisms were regressive and some were not. In some people, Freud argued, the level or severity of stress they experience could take them back to some earlier stage of psychosexual functioning. This is much more likely if the stress experience is similar to problems they experienced at an early age. In Freud's theory, depression and dependency issues suggest problems at the 'oral' stage. Obstinate personality characteristics and OCD, relate to the 'anal' stage. Likewise, the 'phallic' stage is associated with personality problems, the 'latent' stage with excessive self-control and the 'genital' stage with identity diffusion. Actually, the list goes on, but you get the general idea.

Over time certain elements of Freudian theory have been selected, manipulated, and corrupted. It's not uncommon for people to accuse others of being defensive. Of course it depends how this is done as to whether the accusation is used as a weapon or as a form of constructive feedback. Either way, amateur analysis is invariably met with a frosty reception or outright hostility. 'Who are they to tell me . . ' and so it goes. Anyway, the point here is how fully the notion of defensiveness has become embedded within popular culture. But what does 'being defensive' actually mean and what does it say about the person who is supposedly being defensive and about the person who is doing the accusing? I leave you to ponder the question as, for this SharePost at least, there's enough to discuss with the mechanisms themselves.

To my knowledge there is no consensus over just how many defense mechanisms there are. Amongst proponents, there is general agreement that the type of mechanisms used may say something about the severity of the psychological problems the person is dealing with. Here's a list of just six defense mechanisms:

Conversion: a mechanism in which psychological discomfort is changed into a physical malady. For example, a child getting stomach cramps to avoid school; a soldier developing hand paralysis because he finds it unacceptable to use a weapon.

Denial: the none acceptance of an issue or event (e.g. the death of a loved one).

Displacement: what we think of as 'kicking the cat'. For example, after the boss has shouted at you, the resulting anger and frustration is passed down the line to subordinates.

Projection: blaming or attributing some unacceptable action or emotion to someone else.

Repression: the blocking of some painful and threatening situation from consciousness. For example, having no recollection of being sexually abused as a child.

Undoing: a symbolic act, such as repeated hand washing, that might follow an action that makes the person feel guilty (e.g. an extramarital affair). In this example hand washing acts as a form of symbolic atonement.

I think you may agree that there is something undeniably appealing and interesting - maybe even intuitive about such mechanisms. I would also suggest that pretty much everyone can identify with using mechanisms to protect their psyche from damage, whether through humor, fantasy, aggression, or others, such as those previously listed.

From a theoretical standpoint however Freud's theory is beset with interpretive problems and a lack of evidence to either support or disprove the claims. Despite this, the general principles and quite a lot of the terminology is now a part of everyday vocabulary and looks set to remain so for the foreseeable future.