NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, November 17, 2014

What is the Counterphobic Defense?

The counterphobic defense is an unconscious defense mechanism that some people use to fend off anxiety.  It's the opposite of the avoidant defense mechanism (see my article:  Changing Coping Strategies That No Longer Work For You: Avoidance about the avoidant defense mechanism).

What is the Counterphobic Defense?

When people use a counterphobic defense, instead of moving away from something that they fear, they move towards it.  They seek out what they fear.

The following list gives some examples of the counterphobic defense:
  • a woman, who was traumatized as a child due to domestic violence between her parents, has an unconscious pattern of seeking out romantic relationships as an adult where she will be abused
  • a person who dreads heights seeks out dangerous situations that involve heights as a way to deny that he has this fear
  • a veteran, who was traumatized in combat, seeks out dangerous missions as a soldier during war and dangerous situations as a civilian to deny his fears
  • a person, who has fears of being sexually intimate, engages in hypersexual activity to deny his or her fear of closeness and sexuality
  • a person who compulsively engages in daredevil activities, as a form of denial about these activities, with the hope of feeling a sense of power and control 
  • a teenage boy, who has anxiety about his social environment, engages in acting out behavior at school as a form of denial about his fear
What is the Counterphobic Defense?

There are many other examples of the counterphobic defense, but the list above gives you a sense of how people who use the counterphobic defense actively and often compulsively seek out the very types of people and situations that they fear the most.

This is not to say that everyone who does mountain climbing, rides a motorcycle or engages skydiving or other similar activities is using a counterphobic defense.

The key to understanding this defense mechanism is to understand that there is an underlying fear that the person is defending against.

The counterphobic defense mechanism, which might seem counterintuitive at first, isn't as common as the avoidant defense mechanism.  And, yet, many of us know of people who actively seek out dangerous or anxiety-provoking situations or relationships as a way to deny that they have these fears.

What is the Counterphobic Defense?

As I mentioned earlier, as a defense mechanism, it's usually, for the most part, unconscious, so the person who uses this defense mechanism often doesn't realize that they are in denial about what they're doing and why.

In the next article, I'll give more detailed examples of the counterphobic defense and how facing up to the underlying psychological causes can help people, who use this defense, to overcome their fears.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are behaving in ways that are self destructive, you could be unconsciously using a counterphobic defense as a way to deny underlying traumatic issues that are at the root of your problems.

Rather than continuing to place yourself in dangerous situations, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

See my article:  The Counterphobic Response and Hypersexuality.