NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 23, 2018

Understanding Internal and External Psychological Defense Mechanisms - Part 1

I have discussed defense mechanisms in prior articles, including:
Understanding Internal and External Psychological Defense Mechanisms

In this article, I'm beginning a discussion about internal/intrapsychic and external/interpersonal defense mechanisms by identifying them.

In my next article, I'll discuss the consequences of using these defense mechanisms that alienate you from yourself and others.

Generally speaking, defense mechanisms are either directed inward against your own uncomfortable feelings or they are directed outward to avoid closeness or meaningful contact with others.

As I've mentioned in prior articles, defense mechanisms are often perceived as being negative.  But they can be life-saving for a child and living in a home where s/he is being abused or neglected (or both).  They serve as an important emotional survival strategy (also known as defense mechanisms) to keep the child from feeling overwhelmed in a situation where s/he can neither fight nor flee.

But, unfortunately, as that same child becomes an adult, these emotional survival strategies get in the way of having healthy relationships with oneself and others.  In order to maintain emotional distance, the adult ends up paying a high price by staying in a "bubble" (see my article: Emotional Survival Strategies That No Longer Work For You: "I Don't Need Anyone").

If you have been using defense mechanisms extensively in your life, they become so much a part of you that they are difficult for you to see without the help of a psychotherapist.  A skilled psychotherapist can help you to see how these defenses are "protecting" you and, at the same time, how they're also getting in the way of your relationship with yourself and others.

Of course, it's all a matter of degree.  No one would survive emotionally if s/he didn't use defense mechanisms at certain times to a degree.  But defense mechanisms become a problem when they alienate you from yourself and others.  I'll write more about this in my next article.

Common Intrapsychic/Internal Psychological Defense Mechanisms
Intrapsychic/internal defense mechanisms are used between you and your inner world to ward off what would be uncomfortable for you to experience.

These include both repressive and regressive defense mechanisms.

The repressive defense mechanisms serve to hold back uncomfortable feelings, thoughts, fantasies or impulses.

The regressive defense mechanisms are child-like mechanisms that were used at a younger stage in life that are used again as an adult.  These defense mechanisms are usually unconscious and, as previously mentioned, difficult for the individual who uses them to see.

  • Intellectualization
  • Rationalization
  • Worrying
  • Rumination
  • Minimization
  • Displacement
  • Reaction Formation
  • Ignoring
  • Avoidance
  • Procrastination
  • Externalization
  • Distraction
  • Self-attacking thoughts
  • Addictive Behavior

  • Projection
  • Denial 
  • Acting Out
  • Repetition Compulsion
  • Imitation
  • Identifying with the Aggressor
  • Passive-Aggressiveness
  • Isolation of Affect
  • Somatization

Common Tactical/External Defense Mechanisms
Tactical/external defense mechanisms are character defenses that are used between you and others.  If you habitually use tactical defense mechanisms, they're ingrained in your personality.

In effect, these defense mechanisms provide a wall between you and others to avoid closeness or to keep others at a distance.

Aside from personal relationships, these defense mechanisms are also used unconsciously by many clients in psychotherapy as a way to avoid developing a therapeutic relationship with their psychotherapist.  Since the behavior is unconscious, clients don't realize that they're doing it.  But, at the same time, using these defense mechanisms hampers the work in therapy because a positive outcome in psychotherapy is dependent upon a good working alliance between the client and the psychotherapist.

Like intrapsychic conflicts, these defense mechanisms are usually unconscious so they are difficult for you to detect on your own without help from a psychotherapist.

  • Vagueness
  • Speaking in generalities
  • Contradictory statements
  • Sarcasm
  • Changing the subject
  • Argumentativeness
  • Dismissiveness and blaming
  • Distancing
  • Passivity
  • 3rd person speech
  • Playing games
  • Body language
  • Physical presence
  • Eye contact/lack of eye contact
  • Fake smile and laughter
  • Weepiness and crying
  • Acting out
  • Posture
  • Voice and tonality
  • Speed of talk
  • Withdrawal
  • Detachment
  • Grooming and appearance
  • Weight and physical shape

Most people who tend to use defense mechanisms to ward off uncomfortable feelings internally and/or externally to keep others at a distance, don't seek help until they're experiencing significant consequences either within themselves or in their relationships or both.

See my next upcoming article for a continuation of this discussion.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you think your defensiveness causes problems in your life, you could benefit from seeking help in therapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to identify the defense mechanisms that you use either internally and/or externally.  Also, over time, a skilled mental health professional can help you to feel safe enough to relate to yourself and others in a healthier way (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

As I mentioned before, defensive behavior is usually longstanding and ingrained by the time you become an adult, so the work in therapy isn't easy or fast.

A psychotherapist can assist you to expand your emotional window of tolerance so you can gradually tolerate emotions that were once too uncomfortable for you.  An expanded window of tolerance can allow you to come out of the "bubble" that you've kept yourself in (see my article: Expanding Your Emotional Window of Tolerance in Psychotherapy).

Once you're free of the kind of defensive behavior that is keeping you alienated from yourself and others, you can live a fuller, more meaningful life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome developmental and shock trauma.  

I have also helped clients, who used defensive behavior for self alienation as well as alienation from others, to gradually feel safe enough to expand their emotional window of tolerance, so they could change.

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.