Defenses

In mental health, defenses have gotten a “bad rap.” You may have been led to believe that you should not have any. There is a healthy purpose for defenses under ordinary circumstances.

Examples of Defenses

Some psychological defenses can operate at healthy or at unhealthy levels. Most happen unconsciously, although part of the awareness can be conscious. The purpose of defenses is to cushion us from emotional shocks. Too little shock protection and you might be an emotional basket case. Too much and you might be very isolated from others and reality.

Addiction can result in an exaggeration of defenses to protect itself. Most of the following defenses may be seen in addicts’ psychological makeup.

Compensation You try to make up for real or fancied deficiencies in your physical, mental, or emotional abilities.

Denial You disavow thoughts, feelings, needs, or other realities that are consciously intolerable.

Displacement You transfer your emotions or ideas from their original object to a more acceptable substitute.

Dissociation You detach your feelings from an idea, situation, or object.

Identification You pattern yourself after another person.

Intellectualization You use reason and logic to avoid stressful emotions.

Isolation You separate an unacceptable impulse, idea, or act from a memory, making the memory less emotional.

Projection You attribute (project) to others what is emotionally unacceptable in yourself.

Rationalization You try to justify feelings, behavior, or motives that otherwise would be intolerable.

Repression You keep unacceptable ideas, fantasies, feelings, or impulses from becoming conscious.

Sublimation You divert instinctual drives that are consciously unacceptable into acceptable channels.

Substitution You replace an unattainable or unacceptable goal, emotion, or object with one that is more attainable or acceptable.

Undoing You symbolically (and usually repetitiously) act out the reverse of something unacceptable and already done, in hopes of relieving anxiety.

Natural Use

A moderate level of defenses is healthy. You have to be able to detach from things. Defenses can fall on a continuum. For example, people react to death in varying degrees; some act as if they’ll never die, while others may be preoccupied with death.

Need in family of origin In the addictive family, the survival roles its members adopt are defenses that allow them to continue to function. However, they may not be realistic, and they may be carried on into situations where they are no longer necessary or may be detrimental. (See the Survival roles module.)

Need today People need a certain level of defensiveness to function in the world on a daily basis. You may need to guard yourself against the “thirteenth step” where someone takes advantage of your new recovery and vulnerability, sexually or otherwise.

Adjusting Level

You have some choices in recovery relating to the defenses you use. Gaining balance is the key to success in using defenses. Most people find they can be comfortable with more vulnerability as their recovery becomes more stable.


Defenses, see also: Affirmations, Assertiveness, Behavior, Character defects, Control, Dichotomous thinking, Family of origin, Honesty, Intimacy, Inventory, Mental aspects, Perfectionism, Psychological problems, Step Four, Step Six, Step Ten, Surrender, Survival roles.

Updated 30 Nov 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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