How Do We Use Mental Defense Mechanisms In Depression?
Jerry Kennard | June 13, 2018
When it comes to protecting ourselves emotionally, we unconsciously use a number of mental strategies termed “mental defense mechanisms.” During depression, some defense mechanisms become more prominent. Therapy can help you acknowledge the defense mechanisms in play and how these may be blocking progress. Here are just a few examples:
Denial can have both positive and negative consequences. Pushing issues to one side because something else takes priority can sometimes work to our advantage, but denying depression is never useful or helpful. Denial is a very powerful mental defense mechanism, because we use it to protect our very sense of self. A person feeling the early effects of depression may find all sorts of alternative explanations for the way they actually feel.
This mental defense mechanism is closely allied to denial. When we use projection we unconsciously avoid responsibility for the way we feel and we dump this on the shoulders of other people. “If it wasn’t for the way they behave/speak/manage the place, I wouldn’t be like this.” A good therapist will help to identify projection and may encourage you to track the people and situations in which it occurs most frequently.
Sometimes personal standards are set so high they are impossible to maintain. A perceived failure to live up to such standards may result in feelings of shame, guilt, and ultimately, depression. This can challenge your therapist because you might begin to see their abilities to help you in an equally idealized, imposssible to obtain, fashion. Unless skilfully managed by your therapist, your entire therapeutic relationship could collapse.
Passive aggression is incredibly common. We’ve all been subjected to it and we all use it. Gossiping, backbiting, being late, sulking, are everyday examples. In depression, it’s fairly easy to identify resistance, scorn, hostile, bitterness, and sarcasm, all of which may or may not be wrapped in humor. Passive aggression is a form of anger, sometimes so subtle that it’s hard to spot, even for a trained therapist.
It was Sigmund Freud who famously stated that depression was anger turned inward. It’s certainly the case that anger plays a significant role in depression. Anger isn’t always obvious, but we invariably use it to mask deeper pains, diminish our sense of powerlessness, and to push other people away when times are emotionally hard.
Anger may be ugly, but it is certainly a form of empowerment. There are, of course, plenty of times when we feel unable to express anger and so we sit on it. This is called repression, and it reflects Freud’s view, still upheld by many therapists today, that repressed anger is a toxic form of energy that eats away at us. The depth and extent of anger is influential in this context, but the argument goes that it is a major cause of depression.
In reaction formation, you unconsciously behave in the extreme opposite way to how you actually feel. Instead of succumbing to depression, you do the exact opposite. Instead of going to the occasional party, you fit in as many as possible. You behave in an exaggerated fashion of good humor and light-heartedness. This is not the same as so-called “smiling depression” in which the person consciously puts on an outward show of happiness in order to mask their sadness.
Identification with the aggressor
There are many reasons why a person may experience symptoms of depression. Identification with the aggressor is a mental defense mechanism in which a strong emotional bond develops between a person being abused and their aggressor. It is common in abusive relationships for the abused person to love, admire, and depend upon their abuser. Unfortunately, in identifying with their abuser, the abused person may then start to abuse others. For example, a mother may start to abuse her children.
This particular defense mechanism has nothing to do with financial compensation. In psychological terms, compensation is a way of turning to something in order to feel better. So, rather than confront negative or hurtful truths, a compensation may be to turn to drink, or drugs, or possibly to overachieve in some other area of life, such as work.
Are mental defense mechanisms ineffective?
Much like anxiety, which can be useful and necessary, mental defense mechanisms exist for a purpose. It doesn’t really help to think of them as good or bad, but it’s true that some are considered more helpful and mature and others less so. The Defense Style Questionnaire (DSQ) classifies these along with some interesting examples.