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Nanja Kolk

Defense mechanisms are one of my favourite topics. Everyone has them. I have them too, gladly: My trusty vanguard soldiers that always make sure things don’t get to me too much. I wouldn’t know what to do without my defenses. Having said that, it’s of course not very enlightened when you always have your defences blasting at full power and no one can get through to you. That’s why this blog is important.

When you’re inside the U-turn, knowing your own defense mechanisms is useful when self-reflecting during Step 3: Sensing. You can only take responsibility for your part in complicated situations once you (1) know your defense mechanisms, and (2) are free to choose to show your authentic self instead.

What are defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are (usually unconsciously deployed) tricks that we play to protect ourselves from feeling moved or hurt. With tricks I mean things we think or feel, as well as things that we do.

In her book “Re-discovering the True Self”, Ingeborg Bosch has developed a useful categorisation of all thinkable defense mechanisms, which I will use below.

Denial of needs | This is the defense mechanism that is completely aimed at not feeling and thereby avoiding pain. An example that many will recognise is rationalising. You’re feeling tension in a conversation or meeting, and to make sure that it won’t be too painful, you make it as much about the content as possible. Even when someone confronts you directly with his or her feelings, you give a content-based answer and avoid the relational level.

In a relationship, this type of defense offers plenty of ways to not feel anything: Working (extremely) hard and not being home much, hiding behind your laptop or newspaper, drinking a lot, taking sleeping pills, watching a lot of television or cheating (platonically) on your partner so that you don’t have to face what you’re missing in your relationship. 

When it helps you:  Sometimes it is useful to not feel everything. It can save you sleepless nights and stressful moments.

When it works against you:  When you don’t feel much yourself, it becomes impossible for you to feel what other people feel. Because of that, problems often stay unsolved and continue to smoulder.

False power |  This is a form of defense where you blame someone else for what is happening, thereby protecting yourself. Imagine, for example, you meet someone who is very dominant. Just slightly ‘bigger’ than you. For a moment you are pretty impressed, but soon you make him a bit ‘smaller’ in your head: He’s acting like he’s cool, but that has to be his own insecurity. Or, he’s probably really stupid. Another example: The results of an extremely important project are not what you expected, and you’re blaming everyone but yourself. Feelings of superiority are also part of false power: you’re secretly always feeling a bit better and smarter than others. When a confrontation happens, you dive in head first. You’ll show them that they’d better come up with something good in a discussion with you! Just ask yourself: when someone attacks you, what’s your very first reaction? Are you someone who instinctively retaliates (reacting defensively, saying “you too,” or getting angry)? Then false power is familiar ground for you.

Within a relationship, men are often physically stronger, while women are verbally stronger. In both cases, false power is abundantly used when accusing the other, embarrassing them in front of others, patronising them as if they are a child, and humiliating them. All of these are ways to stay out of harm’s way, and not get hurt yourself.

When it helps you. Feeling better than others sometimes helps you to feel proud of yourself.

When it works against you. It can get lonely at the top, and getting angry with others too often makes you a pretty unpleasant person to be around.

False hope |  False hope makes you turn to yourself rather than to others – to implode rather than explode. You ask yourself: What more can I do? How can I be better? You just do your best even more, in the hope you’ll be alright with other people when you do. In the hope that you’ll be good enough. Examples are: Perfectionism, wanting to take care of others all the time, always helping out with everything, making sure that your work is spotless, always being on time, pleasing people to be liked, avoiding confrontations by being flexible and complimenting others a lot.

In a relationship, false hope shows up when something is not going well between you. Instead of talking about it, you start to do everything for the other person. Telling yourself: It will be alright if only I take care of him more, if I arrange everything for him, if I am more beautiful or younger looking, if I will forgive every terrible thing he did.

When it helps you. People tend to value someone who always takes responsibility. You come across sympathetic and trustworthy, and you don’t give people a hard time.

When it works against you. It can frustrate you to keep doing your very best at all times without ever being happy with who you already are.

Primary defense |  Whereas false hope was mostly about doing, this form of defense is about thoughts you have about yourself. Imagine that you have just been appointed as a new manager at a business. Your predecessor has gained a promotion and was revered by everybody. When you’re present at his goodbye party, you think: Shit, can I really do this? Do they really want me? That is you in primary defense. Your belief that you don’t meet expectations can also be a more permanent conviction. A little voice inside of your head, telling you: You’re not good enough. You’re having trouble being proud of yourself, celebrating your successes and saying to someone else you’re good at something. In a relationship, primary defense shows itself in feelings of insecurity: Am I good enough? Aren’t other men or women better company, funnier, more successful, more attractive and younger than me? Feelings of jealousy are part of primary defense too.

When it helps you. Perhaps it’s not obvious that negative thoughts about yourself are a defense mechanism. Aren’t they painful enough? The point is, that these thoughts can put you a step ahead of the pain. When you think you can’t do something, you won’t do it, so you can’t be rejected that way. It’s the ultimate inner pre-emptive strike.

When it works against you. In the end, it’s pretty destructive to keep putting yourself down. Doing exciting things and having a job with a lot of responsibility become a constant inner struggle.

Fear |  You’re probably thinking: What? Why is fear a type of defense? Yet, it’s true. Feeling fear, or moments of panic, are our first warning sign that something terrible is going to happen. This defense sometimes stays on for a very short time. For example when you’re shocked for a moment when someone confronts you. You feel the terror for just a moment, then you might ‘gear up’ to false power. However, sometimes it can happen that you experience real panic. Especially at night, people can experience intense episodes of panic. Or you can ‘black out’ during an important presentation.

In a relationship, fear may manifest itself in the fear to be left by the other. Or the fear to be claimed, leaving you nowhere to move. Or the fear that something terrible will happen to your loved ones.

When it helps you: As a warning sign, fear is a healthy and useful mechanism. It tells you: Wait a second, take care now. It makes your adrenaline flow and prepares you for taking action if needed.

When it works against you:  If panic is the only defense you have left – for example, because you have used up all your reserves and you are verging on a burn-out– it’s best to look for help. Or when fear or panic attacks become more or less a constant life companion, it can start to get in your way.

How did I get my defense mechanisms?

Everyone incurs a scratch or two during their youth. Because of a dominant mother, an absent father, a condescending brother or a jealous sister. Or because of traumatic events like early hospitalisation, abuse or the passing away of a parent, a grandparent, a brother or a sister. But also because of loneliness: due to a parent’s illness, or due to the fact that your parents had to put all of their energy into their own company and not into you. And then I haven’t even mentioned the scratches some of us get in the school playground.

People I work with sometimes say, “I had a very nice, safe upbringing. Nobody divorced and we were all lovely to each other. So what’s this all about?” To those people, the mind of a little child can’t compare his scratches with other people’s scratches, so he won’t put them into perspective. He only feels what happens to him.

Please imagine the following. As the youngest child in a big family, you are the only one that is not allowed to go on a ski holiday with the rest of the family and you’re left to stay with grandma. Although, of course, nobody intended anything bad with this. Still, your feelings of being rejected are insurmountably big (“I’m not good enough”, “they don’t love me”). There we go, another scratch: Primary defense.

Another example. When you’re eleven, you realise you’re smarter than the rest of the family. You’re only eleven, so you need someone to learn from and lean onto. Because this need for parental support can’t be met, it has to be tucked away. So you tell yourself that you don’t need it: Denial of needs.

Last example. You secretly feel that your dad actually prefers your younger brother. They get along in such a loving and natural way, while you and your dad are always a bit awkward. Your first feeling might be rejection (primary defense and fear), but that’s such a terrible emotion that, in time, you start to seek out confrontations with him more and more, and humiliate your brother whenever you can: False power.

Fine, another one. Your parents are very strict. At home, there is a tense atmosphere where you feel you have to tiptoe all the time. You want to play outside with your friends, sing, run, get dirty. But your father’s disapproving look and raised finger stop you. You know that there’s no point arguing. But you want them to love you at all costs, so you adapt yourself: False hope.

A final example. Your parents’ marriage is difficult. There are many fights and you’re a witness to many of them. Your parents shout at each other and sometimes there is even a scuffle. The marriage ends in a long, bitter divorce and you find yourself in the middle of it. Fear is the first defense mechanism that you get to deal with. But also a feeling of being torn between your loyalty to both parents. Or feeling that you have to take on the role of a parent because your parents don’t take it on. It’s called parentification: If I take all responsibility, maybe my parents will be happy and see me: false hope.

All these examples force the child to protect itself against feelings and thoughts that are actually too big for him/her to handle. We’ve all discovered our own ways to cope with our ‘scratches.’ So a defense mechanism is actually something to defend against our pains of the past. As an adult, of course we don’t think any more about traumas from our youth from which our defense mechanisms were once supposed to protect us. But the defense mechanisms are still there. And because they have become so conditioned, they remain to be a part of us.

The upside of traumas (because too little defense is no good, either)

If you spent all your childhood in a warm tub of love and safety, growing up can be like a cold shower if you are employed in an environment where you have to fight to stay on your feet. Where you have to master the political game or to be under the spotlight. Perhaps you’re in a workplace where you have to fight back in order not to get the worst of it. You never learned these things as a child because you didn’t need to.

For example, you’re the youngest child out of four – an afterthought. You were so cute that everyone adored you. Actually, you had five parents. You loved home. Everyone loved everything you did. You were used to getting compliments, whatever you did. When you played a part in a musical at your primary school, all five of them were on the front row. You passed all of primary, secondary and high school with flying colours. After university, you start to work in a big organisation. You feel confused when you keep getting told that you’re not doing well. All people your age at the business are being promoted but you’re stuck. They don’t think you’re tough enough. You’re too nice. Immature. It makes you feel extremely insecure, you panic and get angry. But that just makes it worse. Actually, you just have to start building up your defenses all over again. Through trial and error, you will have to try out what type of behaviour works and what doesn’t.

Research done by Esther Nederhof at the Universitary Medical Centre Groningen (UMCG) shows that people with a happy childhood are more prone to slip into a depression after a period of stress. It also works the other way around: a not-so-happy childhood diminishes the chance of getting depressed. Of course, these results are averages, and it probably isn’t true for all groups. But I do believe that traumas from our youth have some advantages too. They teach you that life isn’t easy, and they toughen you against future setbacks.

From childhood defense to adult defense

Adult defense is a reaction that is, in fact, a little out of proportion. It’s a strong reaction to an event or situation to which somebody else perhaps wouldn’t have reacted as strongly. Reacting emotionally to something that wouldn’t cause someone else to react emotionally, is also ‘disproportional’. 

Adult defense is triggered by something that, for one reason or another, takes you back to the old pain. Getting rejected after a job interview recalls being rejected by your father: See? I’m not good enough. Or perhaps gaining responsibility over a group of people revives in you the responsibility you once felt over your family. This unconscious phenomenon where something happening now triggers a reaction from the past, is called Transference (please also read my blog ‘Leadership in a U-turn (2): Recognising patterns in your own behaviour’).   

Is defense a bad thing?

Is it a bad thing to have defenses? Or should I be happy with all this deep-seated trickery to keep out of drama’s way? It’s an illusion to think that you might be able to unlearn your defenses. Unless you’re a buddhist monk. Having said that: your defenses do keep you from being authentic. You are not your defenses, no matter how familiar they feel.  Somewhere behind your ‘defense mask’ exists a pure, authentic little boy or girl.  

The first person to explain this to me was my first coach. I thought it was so soft and stupid that it made my skin crawl (= false power). But now I think it to be a striking metaphor for something inside me that is real and pure, something that is unartificial and unaltered. The more I succeed to give her space, the more impact I have and the more at ease I feel. To be honest, I don’t always manage to do so, because I have chosen a job that puts me in pretty turbulent situations. And sometimes I am happy that I have some well-developed defense mechanisms. However, when I find myself in a complex situation and I am not aware of my defenses, there’s no way out. Once I take responsibility and recognise that I am putting up a wall of false power that makes the other person insecure, there will be a way out of this pattern.