In many ways, we take our brains for granted. We don’t have to manually control most of what goes on in our bodies. Thanks to these autonomous functions, we can breathe, blink, and digest without thinking. The same is theorized in psychology; mental shortcuts called heuristics allow us to see big-picture ideas, rather than having to analyze everything piece by piece.

Back when Sigmund Freud wrote his psychoanalytic theory, he made some points with his research on defense mechanisms and why we use them.

When we feel guilt, embarrassment, sadness, or anger, our brains will unconsciously resort to unconscious defense mechanisms to protect us from emotional harm. You may notice how people’s behaviors can dramatically differ from one another. This could be due to many factors, but in the case of protecting oneself, the answer is likely a defense mechanism. Generally, we may all experience these at least once, or from time to time.

Photo by Taylor Hernandez

1. Repression

This, in essence, is what we mean when we say someone is “bottling up feelings” and not allowing themselves to experience their negative emotions. They may appear stoic, or they might hide behind a smile. This is common in situations where showing too much emotion is inappropriate.

2. Denial

If you’ve ever been ignored when trying to talk about something sensitive, a person may just be unconsciously denying that the situation is happening at all. They are automatically pushing it out of their awareness to prevent themselves from hurting. This is one of the five stages of grief, as well.

3. Projection

A person may project their feelings onto someone else when they unconsciously try to relinquish responsibility for their own emotions. Projection basically absolves them of short-term guilt. A liar might accuse someone of lying, or a cheater may accuse someone of cheating, etc.

4. Displacement

Displacement typically manifests in the context of aggression. If someone feels angry, they might not confront the source, but instead, they displace the emotion and take it out on a victim who may be less threatening. It is always best to find the root of the problem before someone else is hurt.

5. Regression

When we regress, we’re moving backward. In this case, adults may exhibit childlike behavior when faced with difficult emotional situations, like children who commonly regress to being a baby or toddler when they don’t get their way, or when they’re experiencing pain themselves.

6. Sublimation

Sublimation is the act of replacing feelings with another more acceptable activity. When a feeling like aggression arises, some people turn to sports to cope, an release their anger in that way. It sounds healthy, but having time to yourself for introspection is also important for emotional healing.

7. Reaction formation

This defense mechanism was coined by Anna Freud. It is similar to repression because they both have to do with keeping emotions inside without expressing them. If someone is really happy but doesn’t want to seem too eager, they may insist on being rude instead.

8. Rationalization

Instead of feeling guilty, someone may rationalize their wrongs by making them ‘right’ in their mind. For example, someone may steal from a large company and justify it by saying, “At least I don’t steal from small businesses.” I could think of endless examples for this one.

If you feel someone needs help, ask if they need someone to talk to, and of course, keep everything (if anything) said in confidence. Rather than force them to come to you, it may be best until the other person is ready to have a conversation. For some, it takes time to fully experience emotions, and some people never get to experience them at all. Identifying these eight automatic mechanisms can help you when a relationship feels strained. We should take a little more time to understand each other and our humanity in this way.

Madeline Goldman

Madeline Goldman

Portland, Oregon / Music / Arts / Humanities

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