Even though you might not realize it, reactions to social settings are your mind’s method of situational coping. They are defense mechanisms, methods your brain uses to cope with stress and anxiety in difficult situations. The theory of defense mechanisms stems from Sigmund Freud’s structural theory of the mind, outlining the brain’s way of protecting someone from stress threatening to undermine mental stability. Understandably, it follows that some defense mechanisms are helpful, while others are not and can impair social interactions.

Helpful vs harmful social reactions

There are 10 common defense mechanisms (denial, repression, rationalization and projection, to name a few) to which individuals are likely to resort. Consider, for example, projection, where you take the thoughts and feelings you have towards an individual and project them onto that person instead (you dislike someone, and convince yourself that they dislike you instead). Instead of dealing with your anxieties head-on (your dislike of this person), you create a differing reality where they dislike you, which allows you to avoid the reality of your own feelings. Obviously, this is unhealthy. Contrarily, sublimation might be a mature sign of coping, where you take accumulated feelings and channel them through a productive activity, such as kick-boxing or running. 

The tricky thing with defense mechanisms is their tendency to reside in your subconscious. If you don’t spend much time reflecting on your daily behaviors, you might not even realize the coping strategies you’ve tapped into, good or bad. However, you might have recognized that you have a difficult time relating to people, opening up to friends or family or building relationships deeper than knowing their favorite color. So how to get over that defensive wall and start fostering healthy relationships?

We’ve got answers for you.

Identifying your defense mechanisms

Defense mechanisms find their origins in all sorts of situations. They might have originated in traumatic events in your past, a situation which triggers a painful memory or a past habit. Sometimes you can identify your most commonly used defense on your own, through careful observation of your tendencies. You can reflect on the way you responded to a stressful situation (“After my coworker criticizes me, did I shut down? Did I yell? Did I go tear down someone else?”). 

Other defenses, such as denial, may require more of a third-party opinion to help identify and work through. If you find yourself relying heavily on defense mechanisms, but can neither identify nor process them, perhaps consider the benefits of conversing with a therapist. Licensed healthcare professionals not only help identify your defenses, they can also provide access to the tools you need to help you stop relying on your own defense mechanisms in social scenarios.

Finding the balance between healthy and unhealthy defense mechanisms

Certain defense mechanisms can keep you closed off to relationships, purely due to fear. As humans, we all desire to reach a deeper level of trust with the people we care for, and this trust comes from a solid foundation of relationships built on mutual care, authenticity and vulnerability. Defense mechanisms are a huge stumbling block for vulnerability – vulnerability forces you to be open and honest with reality, while defense mechanisms paint reality in more acceptable colors whether true or false. Therefore, in order to build healthier relationships, defenses need to be overcome. 

Defense mechanisms are triggered via threats to your mental peace. The big question, then, is why are they triggered when you’re in the presence of people you trust and want to build relationships with? Is it due to past failed friendships characterized by betrayed trust? Is it an internal fear of being rejected or judged? Is it a matter of self-esteem? 

Only you can answer these questions. But know this – defense mechanisms are like weeds in a garden. They’ll keep cropping up again and again unless you dig into the dirt and pull them up by their roots. 

Identifying your common defense mechanisms isn’t necessarily an enjoyable task. In fact, the process does bear similarities to digging in a garden’s dirt. But once it’s a step you accomplish, you’ll no longer feel trapped in the disillusioned reality of a defense. Instead, you’ll be open to receiving and handling the challenges of everyday reality. Plus, you’ll be more responsive to the benefits of friendships.

Improve social relationships 

The choice to invest in authentic, open relationships requires a certain level of humility. No longer can you rely on defense strategies to keep up appearances. Relationships, no matter who they involve, can be bumpy at times, but by having the tools to face those bumps head on, your relationships will be healthy and freeing.

If you find your relationships hampered by substance use habits, Real Recovery Clinical Services is ready to help. We offer PHP, IOP and OP treatment levels that help individuals achieve distance from drug and alcohol use practices. Call 1-855-363-7325 today, or visit us online to learn even more about how you can put the power of addiction recovery to work for you.