As human beings, we are wired to protect ourselves from emotional pain and discomfort, and our ego takes the driver’s seat in this endeavor. One way we do this is through the use of primary defense mechanisms. These are coping strategies that help us deal with stress, anxiety, and difficult emotions. While these are coping mechanisms that prevent or postpone the feelings of discomfort and / or pain, when we use them too much they prevent us from growing and ultimately may actually block us from getting what we want out of life. To be centered within ourselves and show up authentically we also need to learn to weather discomfort and difficulty, this means facing a tough conversation or situation head on instead of leaning into these primary defense mechanisms.
There are seven primary defense mechanisms: acting out, clinging, avoidance, splitting, projection, projective identification, and denial. In this post, we will explore each of these defenses, how they manifest in a person, and how working with a Jungian-based shadow work coach can help to heal and transform these patterns. As you read through these defenses, ask yourself when, where and how do you utilize each one. Perhaps you lean on one more than others, or one is more prevalent right now. As you notice which you’re more inclined toward then ask yourself what would happen or what would I think about myself if I were to truly face my issue instead of leaning on this defense?
Acting Out Defense
Acting out is a defense mechanism where a person expresses their emotions in a physical way, such as through aggression or impulsivity. This can manifest as angry outbursts, self-harm, or substance abuse. It also doesn’t need to be so overtly acting out, this might look like posting dramatic posts on social media, gossiping to friends or family, essentially it’s a process of out-picturing our frustration to or onto something or someone else instead of accessing our emotions, honoring them and working with them. This defense mechanism is often seen in people who have difficulty regulating their emotions and may feel overwhelmed by them. The sensations are too much and seem impossible to deal with so we act them out instead.
Clinging is a defense mechanism where a person becomes overly dependent on others, seeking constant reassurance and validation. This can manifest as clingy behavior in relationships or a fear of being alone. This defense mechanism is often seen in people who have low self-esteem or fear abandonment. When we fear change, we might lean into clinging, we don’t want things to change or shift, especially if we have an abandonment wound. Clinging also removes us from our personal power, we look and lean on others to validate our experience or even our existence instead of finding that security within ourselves.
Avoidance is a defense mechanism where a person avoids confronting or dealing with difficult emotions or situations. This can manifest as procrastination, withdrawing from social situations, or denying that there is a problem. This defense mechanism is often seen in people who have difficulty coping with stress or anxiety. It’s a lot easier to not feel pain or fear if we ignore a problem entirely. This can often show up when it comes to medical diagnoses or illness, such as avoiding going to the doctor because we fear something is wrong, or avoiding believing in a certain treatment or test because the reality of a disease being a threat to us is too frightening. We may also avoid looking at the truth in relationships, such as ignoring our intuition and avoiding a tough conversation because we fear the worst. Avoidance usually simply delays the truth and extends our suffering of not knowing.
Splitting is a defense mechanism where a person sees the world in black and white terms, with no gray areas. They may see people as either all good or all bad, and have difficulty reconciling the two. This can lead to a lack of empathy and an inability to see things from another’s perspective. This defense mechanism is often seen in people who have experienced trauma or have a history of unstable relationships. Splitting can keep us stuck in dysfunctional patterns or relationships because we can’t see the middle path or way forward. It’s stuck in ‘I need to fully love my partner even though they aren’t meeting my needs or I need to break up with them and never speak to them.’ When we do this we might be using splitting as a means to avoid setting a personal boundary or communicating a need, we need to suck it up and stay or cut all ties and go, when there may be a middle path forward which involves self reflection, vulnerability and openness.
Projection is a defense mechanism where a person attributes their own negative qualities or emotions to others. For example, someone who is feeling guilty may accuse others of wrongdoing. This can lead to a lack of self-awareness and difficulty taking responsibility for one’s actions. This defense mechanism is often seen in people who have difficulty acknowledging their own flaws and weaknesses. Projection is something that Jungian based life coaching and shadow work coaching works extensively with. We look at how the things, people, events, etc that trigger you are actually projections of our own internal struggles, subconscious mind and more. Projection absolves us from responsibility and makes us the hero or victim whenever we see fit, but it doesn’t help us grow.
Projective Identification Defense
Projective identification is a defense mechanism where a person projects their own feelings or thoughts onto others, and then identifies with the projected image. This can lead to confusion and a blurring of boundaries between self and other. This defense mechanism is often seen in people who have difficulty regulating their emotions and may feel overwhelmed by them. Projective identification has both negative and positive applications, we may project a fantasy onto another or a group or, more commonly project the unacceptable parts of ourselves onto another we are in relationship with. This is confusing and harmful to those being projected on because we may actually take on these projections as truth, which allows the cycle to complete and the projector to feel absolved of their bad feelings. You may project that another person has a specific choice in a circumstance with you; that person might slough it off or they may take it on as their own. When the other person takes it on as their own then it allows you to erase the bad feeling from yourself and feel relief.
Denial is a defense mechanism where a person refuses to acknowledge the reality of a situation. This can manifest as denying the existence of a problem or downplaying its severity. This defense mechanism is often seen in people who have difficulty coping with stress or anxiety. While similar to avoidance, avoidance is not looking at the situation at all, whereas denial is seeing it clear as day then ignoring the implications it has. For example, this is the primary defense of people who refused to wear masks during the pandemic, they can see full well that others are sick and dying and the severity of what was going on, yet deny it’s reality and continue acting as if it didn’t exist.
Are You Ready for a Change?
If as you read through these defenses you notice a few that stick out at you, and want help learning how to work through them, working with a Jungian based life coach like Kim may be a great option. Working with a Jungian-based shadow work coach can be incredibly helpful in identifying and transforming these primary defenses. Jungian-based shadow work involves exploring and integrating the aspects of the self that are hidden or repressed in the subconscious mind. By doing this work, we can become more self-aware and learn to recognize our defense mechanisms as they arise. This allows us to choose more constructive ways of coping with difficult emotions and situations.
Primary defense mechanisms are a normal part of human psychology, but they can become problematic when they interfere with our ability to lead fulfilling lives. By understanding the seven types of primary defenses it helps us recognize when we are using them, and working with a Jungian-based shadow work coach can help us transform these patterns and heal the wounds that activate them. When we do this work we are able to show up more fully in our lives, more authentic and more secure within our relationship to ourselves. We can make self honoring choices, set boundaries and get what we want out of life.
Curious about coaching? You can read more about Transformational coaching practice here, when you apply for coaching you will be contacted to set up a complimentary mini-shadow work session to see this work first hand.