Most of the human brain's defense mechanisms operate outside of our conscious awareness, and that's because they're designed to protect us from various factors that might damage our brain function. Psychodynamic theory (Sigmund Freud et al.), states that these defenses are a way of distancing ourselves from acknowledging unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as we go through our lives.
The thing is that mental strength and balance diminishes the brain's necessity for using them. A mentally strong person will not feel the need to hide behind the brain’s defenses, and moreover, knows how to deal with the unpleasant truths found within. Here are nine brain defense mechanisms to be aware of, and ask yourself whether you're relying on them to deal with problems, rather than facing them head-on:
This a defense mechanism that prevents the brain from being able to consciously access thoughts, memories, feelings or impulses that interfere with staying calm. These are usually thoughts that cause a person to feel guilty or something that has hurt them physically or mentally.
The mind keeps these thoughts in the unconscious area to protect itself from harm. However, repression limits the brain's available energy for creative and constructive behavior, and may even be a basis for mental illness.
The well-known saying “the hunchback sees only his companion’s hump” alludes to this defense mechanism. Projection is a situation where a person projects their emotions on someone else, thereby ignoring the fact that they are really their own. Usually, these are aggressive or sexual thoughts that a person can’t accept that they have come from themselves. For example, a husband may think that his wife makes bad choices in friends, when in fact he is the one who doesn’t keep good company.
When faced with a stressful situation, we sometimes revert to child behavior in order to deal with it. For example, boys who learn sex education at school may start giggling to hide their embarrassment. Similarly, Freudian psychoanalysts theorize that smoking or overeating during stressful moments is a regression to the first developmental stage of that theory, namely the oral phase.
Many psychiatrists view regression as a therapeutic method that may be useful to a person as long as it is overseen by a professional, and is used for guided imagery or hypnosis.
Displacement is when the mind unconsciously substitutes either an aim or object for a new one when the aim or object in its original form is deemed too dangerous to confront. For example, a person who is always being reprimanded at work will come home and reprimand his children (the new "object") instead of getting back at the person he wants, which is his boss (the original, dangerous "object).
The purpose of this mechanism is to reduce stress, and it exists even in animals. For example, a sparrow will begin to peck frantically at a tree when it's confronted with a rival bird that it cannot attack due to being too small or otherwise.
Another simpler name for this mechanism could be "inventing excuses". Rationalization involves our unconscious mind distorting the objective facts of a given situation or event in order to fit in with a narrative that will make us feel better about ourselves. For example, a person who was offered a wonderful job, but was fired after a single week, can rationalize the situation by holding a belief that the company they worked for is bad, and that they didn't want to work there in the first place.
Another example is a father who constantly yells at his children and claims that it is to educate and discipline them. Instead of acknowledging responsibility for his undesirable and damaging behavior, he rationalizes it in his own mind by telling himself that he's only doing it for the sake of "educating" and "disciplining" his children.
7. Reaction formation
This defense mechanism causes a person to behave in a manner that's diametrically opposed to their genuine thoughts and emotions. The defense mechanism has two stages - the first is unconscious and is similar to denial, and the second is conscious.
For example, a celebrity or person in a position of power, such as a politician or a footballer, may denounce homosexual behavior, when he himself has homosexual tendencies. For the most part, the things he says about homosexuality will be very mean and harsh, in order to best clarify his "true" stance on the matter.
Intellectualization is the avoidance of uncomfortable emotions by focusing on the facts and logic of a given situation. This results in the emotional (uncomfortable) aspects of the situation being deemed irrelevant.
For example, intellectualization allows a wife that has been diagnosed with cancer to have no qualms about investigating her illness at length without feeling the need to confront the devastation that her husband feels as a result of having a seriously ill partner. This can have a negative impact on the relationship, because seeing his wife intellectualizing her illness and appearing to feel relatively okay about it will prevent him from speaking up about his true feelings.
Un other defense mechanisms, sublimation is considered a positive mechanism, because makes the person deal with unacceptable impulses in a healthy, productive and creative way. For example, a young man with sadistic tendencies toward animals might turn his unacceptable impulses into a career as a surgeon later in life.
The greatest advantage of this mechanism is that there is no need for constant investment of energy to prevent impulses, and therefore it is considered much healthier and more positive for the person’s mental health.