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Life 101: Are your defense mechanisms hurting you?

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By Linda Arnold EBS Contributor

There you go again, overreacting to a situation.

Let’s face it, as evolved as we think we are, we still resort to certain behaviors when our backs are against the wall. Especially in stressful times like these.

Last week I allowed something to get to me. I reacted to the tone of someone’s voice and became defensive. It wasn’t the communicator’s intention by any means. On a gut level, though, it triggered something in me and I allowed it to get the best of me.

Fortunately, this only lasted a few minutes. That’s the thing with our “living laboratory of life.” When we get lessons over and over, we’re able to spot them quickly. In my case, I processed the situation with the other person, and we both learned from it. It turns out she was unaware of how her tone came across, and I was unaware of being hypersensitive.

When you fall back on familiar patterns—defense mechanisms—you think you’re defending your position and you’re probably not even aware you’re doing this.

The three most common defense mechanisms are denial, rationalization and projection. I’ll bet you’ve had some experience with the examples below, either as a sender or receiver of communication. 

Are you in Denial?

Denial is the refusal to accept reality. Many people use denial to avoid dealing with problem areas in their lives. For example, an alcoholic may deny he has a drinking problem by pointing out how well he functions at the office.

Do you Rationalize?

Rationalization means providing other reasons than the truereason. These other reasons draw attention away from the root cause. 

When someone offers more than one reason for doing something, they’re likely rationalizing. Usually, the true reason for an action is a single one.

That speaks volumes to me! I’ll be playing detective by watching my communication and listening to that of others.

You may see a familiar pattern in the example below. I’ve encountered many of these either directly or through my research. A particularly helpful resource is the book, Addictive Thinking, by Abraham Twerski.

Lisa, a recent Accounting graduate, was reluctant to apply for a position because she was afraid of being turned down.  However, the reasons she gave her family were different: They’re probably looking for someone with years of experience. The office is too far away to commute. And the starting wage is unsatisfactory.

Are you Projecting?

Projecting means blaming others when you actually bear responsibility yourself. It serves two functions:  it reinforces denial and it preserves the status quo.

Projecting your feelings upon someone else relieves you from the responsibility of making changes.  Because the only person you can ever change is yourself.   

Peeling off the Layers

Denial, rationalization and projection often occur in layers, like an onion. As one layer is peeled away, another may be discovered underneath. Being willing to peel off these layers and take responsibility for your actions can go a long way toward changing ingrained patterns.

Below are some examples of defense mechanisms, while they focus on addictions (and times that don’t deal with social distancing), you can see how the techniques could apply to other life situations:

  • Rationalizing – “My entire shift stops for drinks after work. We deserve a few cold ones.”
  • Blaming – “I drink because I’m stuck in a boring job all day.”
  • Minimizing – “I only get high at parties.”
  • Joking – “I can stop drinking anytime I want. In fact, I stop at least once a week.”
  • Projecting – “Next year I’ll be out of this dump, and things will be different.”
  • Generalizing – “We all have a bad habit or two.”

If you find yourself stuck in a pattern that repeats itself over and over, you may want to see if you’re contributing to the problem – either consciously or unconsciously. Defense mechanisms really don’t defend us.

Linda Arnold is a syndicated columnist, psychological counselor and Founder of a multistate marketing company. Reader comments are welcome at  or visit for more information on her books.

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