What Are Defenses?


When he was 3-years-old, Kevin watched his dad drive away. For the few months following his parents’ split, Kevin and his brother had moved in with their father. The three of them lived together contentedly until the day Kevin’s mom showed up out of the blue and announced that she was taking the kids back. Pulled away in his mother’s arms, Kevin remembers he and his brother screaming in unison, “We want to stay, we want to stay!” But his dad gave in and drove away, disappearing from his childhood, but never from his consciousness.

The experiences we have as children are far from our control. From extreme circumstances involving abuse or abandonment to small acts of mistreatment and little ways of being overlooked, childhood leaves us in a constant state of submissiveness. No matter how loving and caring our parents are, we are subject to their every shortcoming. Even the most well-meaning parent is not always able to anticipate or meet all of the needs of their children. We all developed our own ways of coping during these periods of emotional insensitivity and deprivation. For Kevin it was shutting off from going after for what he wanted.

“There was no question–I had to go [with my mother]. I think at that point I just said, ‘Forget it. I don’t want anything from anybody, because anything I do gets taken,’” Kevin remembered, nearly 30 years later. “I feel like even to the current day, any time I get close, I feel afraid that somebody’s going to take it or something is going to happen.”

Kevin’s defenses evolved from being stuck in a situation where he wasn’t getting what he needed from anyone at a time when he was incapable of getting it for himself. To a 3-year-old with an absent father and neglectful mother, these defenses seemed like the rational reaction to an irrational world. As independent adults with our first chance at overcoming past hurts, these tendencies can become our enemy.

“When children are faced with pain and anxiety in their developmental years, they develop defenses to cut off that pain. But the tragedy is that in cutting off the pain, you also cut deeply into their lives, so that defenses that were basically survival-oriented psychologically… also serve as terrible limitations to the self,” said Dr. Robert Firestone author of Psychological Defenses in Everyday Life.

As children, the ways in which we comforted ourselves often served as substitutes for something we were either not getting or wished to avoid. Whatever we did, whether we calmed ourselves with self-soothing habits or disappeared into a world of fantasy, we felt relieved by our behaviors. The pain was lessened, and we were better able to go on with their lives.

As adults, whenever we feel afraid or as if we were going to encounter any pain or unhappiness, we may find ourselves turning to the same defenses that served us so well as children. The irony of this realization lay in that the very defenses that saved us emotionally so long ago are now robbing us of our lives today. What originally served as a reasonable adaptation to an unbearable situation has become our imprisoning agent.

When Kevin realized the rejection he experienced from both his parents as a child caused him to adopt the attitude that he can take care of himself and shouldn’t let anyone too close, he was able to act against these deeply inset instincts. Working as a child counselor, getting married and being present as a father to his three young sons are all gifts he attributes to overcoming these core defenses.

Defenses, however, are not always easy to identify. Rarely are they entirely conscious or black and white. By the time we’ve reached adulthood, they often seem like a fundamental part of who we are. Even as they hurt us, they can still feel safe for their familiarity and original intent to comfort us.

For some, these defenses are more clear than for others. Kelly, a financial advisor in her 40s, felt miserable for much of her childhood. In years of keeping quiet, never causing trouble and crying herself to sleep, Kelly’s parents remained oblivious to her turmoil.

“I feel like they were never there when I needed them. When I was scared, I felt like I couldn’t be scared, because I had no one to turn to. I think that’s really the thing that was missing is just being loved somehow, being held–just that,” said Kelly. Years later, Kelly realized that many of the events that have played out in her life have been the direct result of promises she made to herself in that lonely state as a kid.

“It really was painful when I was thinking back, because I remember these vows, these promises that I made to myself when I was 10-years old, and I remember them very clearly. One, I was never going to have children, and I was never going to be married. I remember how I felt when I made those, and I remember the reasons, but I really feel like I live by them. That’s what’s painful. I really feel like I live by them today.”

It’s helpful to examine how our original defensive adaptations impact our lives today. What methods did we use to cut off from pain and frustration? What were the behaviors or habits that soothed us? Or the promises we made to ourselves? How do these manifest themselves in our lives today?

For instance, many people who soothed themselves with habits like thumb-sucking or holding a favorite blanket now find themselves struggling with addictions to food, drugs or alcohol. Many who calmed themselves with rocking or other repetitive behaviors find themselves restricted by lives of routines and compulsivity. Many who originally withdrew into fantasy, now find themselves lost in daydreaming about success instead of pursuing real goals. And those who vowed to never need anything from anybody now find themselves leading isolated, self-denying, lonely lives.

It is important to understand that our defenses are not us. We should never stubbornly assume that they are part of our identity. By declaring “Well, that’s just the way I am!” “I’m just not an affectionate person,” “I’m just a loner,” or “I just have an addictive personality,” we are giving up on finding out who we really are stripped of our defenses. Only by identifying these reactions as an old adaptation and rejecting their current influence can we lead full existences in which we are truly acting as ourselves.

Defenses are nothing to be proud of. Being guarded or self-sufficient is not the same as being strong, just the same as being self-denying or victimized is not the same as being vulnerable. While we should all be proud that we “survived” our childhoods, we should never pride the means by which we survived: our defenses. By the same token, we should not be ashamed of our defenses. We all have them, and we came be them honestly. However, by recognizing and rejecting them, it is in our power to move on and to no longer be limited by them.

Related Articles:
Self-Limiting Behaviors
How to Identify Your Critical Inner Voice

About the Author

Carolyn Joyce Carolyn Joyce joined PsychAlive in 2009, after receiving her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California. Her interest in psychology led her to pursue writing in the field of mental health education and awareness. Carolyn's training in multimedia reporting has helped support and expand PsychAlive's efforts to provide free articles, videos, podcasts, and Webinars to the public. She now works as an editor for PsychAlive and a communications specialist at The Glendon Association, the non-profit mental health research organization that produced PsychAlive.

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