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What Your ‘Go-To’ Defense Mechanism Says About You

I’ve joked before that one of the reasons I’m able to remain fairly functional through hard times is that my defense mechanisms are stellar at working overtime.

These defense mechanisms, defined as unconscious attempts to hide, suppress, or control conflict, help us deal with often hard-to-process realities, protecting our egos, our sense of self, our relationships, and the very fabric of truth we cling to in order to survive in this messy, messy world. 

In some ways, it’s good that we have these defense mechanisms – I honestly don’t know if I’d be able to function without them. Being constantly aware of all of the conflict and cognitive dissonance that comes with being human would be too hard, and sometimes we need defense mechanisms to help us keep going. 

Of course, you can’t defense-mechanism your way through life forever, and relying on them too much keeps us further away from our truth. If you also overuse defense mechanisms to block yourself from facing reality, I hope this “quiz” helps you understand a little more about which ones you use and what it might say about how you process the world around you. 

A quick note before we get into it: While it’s interesting to read about psychology, and I hope this is a fun way to learn about defense mechanisms, all psychology-turned-internet content should be consumed with a critical eye. I’d recommend you use this piece as a fun way to think about your own relationship with defense mechanisms, and make conclusions for yourself about what applies to you. 

What Your “Go-To” Defense Mechanism Says About You — A Quiz 

The following super unscientific quiz will take you through a scenario in which you find yourself in a tough situation. Choose which path you’d most likely take and we’ll let you know which defense mechanism you used and what it says about you. 

Part 1: Getting the News

You’re out with a group of friends. One friend who has been giving you strange looks all night finally pulls you aside and reveals something she’s been dying to tell you – your partner has been cheating on you. She knows this because it’s happening with a mutual friend, who broke down and spilled everything the night before. You’ve been dating this person for five years and never suspected a thing. Upon hearing this news you:

  1. Immediately tell her there’s no way this is true and that you don’t believe anything she says. Even when she wants to show you proof, you shut it down.
  2. Tell her she must be self-conscious that her own partner is having an affair, and that “just because your partner would cheat on you doesn’t mean mine would.” Ouch.
  3. Immediately leave the situation and go home. When your friend calls to check in on you, you ignore her. 

Answer Key: 

1. This is an example of denial, the unconscious version of putting your hands over your ears and singing, “Na na na na na na, I can’t hear you.” Officially, denial is avoiding unpleasant realities by ignoring or refusing to acknowledge them, and it’s one of our most primitive defense mechanisms. 

What it could mean when you take part in denial: Your worldview is so carefully constructed and has so little room for nuance and contradiction, any threat to reality as you understand it feels unbearable. If anything or anyone questions the narrative you’ve created about your life, it feels like everything would come crashing down, so you need to hold onto it for dear life and deny anything that calls it into question.

If anything or anyone questions the narrative you’ve created about your life, it feels like everything would come crashing down.

2. This is an example of projection, or accusing others of processing qualities you feel self-conscious about. Another example of projection is when a parent projects their own insecurities on their child. If, for example, a parent grew up believing they were lazy, they may become hypercritical of anything their child does that appears like laziness.

What it could mean when you take part in projection: If you project, you may have a hard time accepting your own faults, or have a lot of shame about what you consider your weaknesses. Because it’s too painful to accept the parts of yourself you’re still working on, it’s much easier to vilify and take it out on others.

You may have a hard time accepting your own faults, or have a lot of shame about what you consider your weaknesses.

3. This is an example of withdrawal, or retreating into solitude to avoid painful emotions and situations. When you withdraw, perhaps to a comfort TV show or into isolation, you’re avoiding facing an issue head-on, and you’re especially not processing it with other people, which may feel too vulnerable.

What it could mean if you withdraw: People who withdraw may have a hard time coping with big emotions, especially when other people are around. Instead, you prefer to process things by yourself, but this pattern of isolation can also prevent you from getting to the root of your issues, especially interpersonal ones. 

This pattern of isolation can also prevent you from getting to the root of your issues.


 

Part 2: Dating Again

You’re single again for the first time in five years. After a few months, you feel hesitant but ready to reenter the dating pool. You haven’t finished working through how the betrayal in your last relationship affected you, but figure it’s worth dipping your toe back in and seeing what happens. What trap do you find yourself falling into? 

  1. Going out and partying like you did in your teens and early 20s while seeking out emotionally immature partners who aren’t interested in anything serious, even though you know deep down that’s not really what you want.
  2. Following every relationship account you can find on social media and obsessively reading books and articles about monogamy and why people cheat. You’re convinced if you can really understand the mind of a cheater, you can prevent it from happening again. 
  3. *You* become a complete player and start leading people on despite not being interested in a relationship. You start being dishonest with the people you’re dating and it gives you a sense of control. 

Answer Key: 

4. This is an example of regression, or retreating to behaviors that were appropriate in earlier stages of development that bring easy satisfaction to desires or needs. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little regression, but it can be a way to avoid processing big “adult” problems. A note that “regression” isn’t always a defense mechanism, and it’s totally fine to enjoy things associated with being “younger.” 

What it could mean if you regress: You’re tired of managing adult responsibilities, both the literal, physical responsibilities and the emotional expectations that come with them. You want to express yourself in ways that relieve you of that pressure, whether that looks like having a mini tantrum when you don’t get what you want, or doing an activity that felt more “appropriate” when you were younger.

You’re tired of managing adult responsibilities, both the literal, physical responsibilities and the emotional expectations that come with them.

5. This is an example of intellectualization, or creating emotional distance through rationalizing and using logic. You might fall into this trap if you were taught that getting good grades in school made you good, so now you believe life is a test you can pass if you just study hard enough and make sense of it.

What it could mean if you intellectualize: It’s often hard for you to deal with the uncertainty of life – you want things to make sense and fall into a particular order. Unfortunately, emotions don’t work that way, and instead of facing the “illogical” nature of your emotions, you’d prefer to explain it away with a deep “understanding” of why you feel the way you feel. I’m sorry to tell you – our feelings don’t always have a thread of logic to follow, and sometimes we have to just feel them rather than try to understand them.

You believe life is a test you can pass if you just study hard enough and make sense of it.

6. This is an example of identifying with the aggressor aka “if you can’t beat them, join them.” People who do this are attempting to increase their own feelings of worth by taking on the attributes of people they perceive to have greater “power.” In this example, someone who gets cheated on becomes a cheater because they’d rather feel like the aggressor than the victim.

What it could mean if you identify with the aggressor: You want to avoid feeling weak or taken advantage of at all costs, so your self-image feels the most stable when you’re in a position of power. Because you’ve been made to feel small by other people, you try to emulate your bullies to never feel that way again.

You want to avoid feeling weak or taken advantage of at all costs.


 

Part 3: Happily Ever After?

It’s a decade later, and you’re in a happy, long-term relationship with a partner. Surely, the cheating that happened years ago doesn’t affect you now. Unless… 

  1. A friend confides in you that their partner cheated on them, but that she’s willing to go to couples therapy to try to work it out. This absolutely infuriates you, and you tell her no one can come back from cheating and that going to therapy would be a waste of time. 
  2. Every once in a while without thinking, you find yourself making a “joke” about your partner’s loyalty, like playfully asking what they were really up to last Friday night when they were with their friends. Your partner never finds these jokes funny, but it doesn’t stop you from bringing it up. 
  3. You become everyone’s go-to friend for when they’re having relationship problems and need a good, old fashioned pep-talk. You love hyping up your friends, and find yourself devaluing their partners in a way that’s fun and makes your friends feel better.

Answer Key: 

7. This is an example of reactive formation, or developing attitudes and behaviors that are the opposite of repressed and unconscious desires. In this example, you may have a lingering sense of “what if” about how things worked out with a past partner who cheated, so it’s triggering to hear another couple is trying to work it out when you and your ex just called it quits.

What it could mean if you engage in reactive formation: You have regrets you haven’t quite made peace with yet, or parts of yourself you haven’t quite accepted. In order to cope with this tension, you have a strong, negative reaction when you see people attempting things you wish you had done or living a life you unconsciously wish you could live.

You have regrets you haven’t quite made peace with yet, or parts of yourself you haven’t quite accepted.

8. This is an example of repression, where painful or unresolved thoughts in your subconscious slip out through dreams, jokes, or statements. A classic example of this is the “Freudian slip.”

What it could mean if you repress: Repressed emotions and thoughts want to come out – but they may be too painful to address head on. If you repress, you may have a hard time identifying your emotions, but find they come out in odd or unplanned ways. Repressed anger at a loved one might come out as snapping at a stranger, or insecurity about a relationship might come out in “jokes” about their loyalty.

You may have a hard time identifying your emotions, but find they come out in odd or unplanned ways.

9. This is an example of sublimation, which means consciously satisfying “unacceptable” needs and desires through socially acceptable activities. An example of this is playing football to satisfy aggressive urges, or writing sad poetry instead of sending your ex a long text. In our example, lingering disdain for an ex-partner becomes a socially acceptable way to hype up your friends when they’re having relationship problems.

What it could mean if you use sublimation: Sublimation is one of our most advanced defense mechanisms! Although it’s still important to address your inner conflicts head on, it’s a beautiful thing to find “productive” ways to process your unconscious feelings. Don’t get too caught up in the socially acceptable part of the definition – as long as you’re doing something that feels good for you and doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s OK. 

Although it’s still important to address your inner conflicts head on, it’s a beautiful thing to find “productive” ways to process your unconscious feelings.

Reference: “Human Behavior in the Social Environment” by Anissa Taun Rogers

Getty image by MaksimYremenko

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