Defence Mechanisms

“Ouch”, says your ego as it a feels a burn, deliberate or otherwise. It’s funny how our modern access to the internet and people all over the world lead to a world of butt-hurt on internet comments sections. As an exercise in uncovering the various ways people can wriggle about when they feel they have been criticised it is fascinating.

Some men tend to get very aggressive from the get-go, personally attacking the people disagreeing with them, others fall into snobby intellectualism and suppose they are the expert on everything, some are blatantly sexist (go make me a sandwich). Women tend to be more oh-poor-me, morally superior and judgemental, you’ve just misunderstood me or repeat themselves over and over unable to let it go. We are socially conditioned to respond in certain ways when feeling wounded and defensive, some of these responses are gender specific, some are universal.

Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna, set about categorising various ways in which people defend their egos, their sense of themselves as valuable and worthy people, when a threat to that sense of self-worth is detected. Some of these strategies are healthy and adaptive to getting on with people, some less so and some are downright appalling and cause serious damage to relations unless being used by a tantruming toddler.

I have toyed with the idea of creating a defence mechanism Bingo game to keep myself amused during any visits by the MIL. I could print myself out a card of various possible defensive behaviours and cross them off as the day wears on, extra points for stirring up contentious conversations which deliberately provoke defensive reactions. Then when she has exhausted her repertoire of maladaptive and obnoxious ways of responding I can leap out of my chair shouting “BINGO!” and she’ll look all confused and have no idea why I am wetting myself laughing. Ah yes, I have way to much time on my hands and end up plotting this sort of stuff.

Here are some defence mechanisms listed with the healthy, normal ones at the start and descending down four levels of Hell to the bizarre and psychotic at the end. How many does your disorder mother-in-law use in an average conversation? Which ones get pulled out most often, which are reserved for those moments when she is panicking and feels control is slipping by, which ones are used by your partner? Which ones do you adopt in response to your MIL? Could you use better ones?

Level IV – Mature defences

Found in emotionally healthy adults, socially adaptive and making use of feelings of control or an emphasis on finding pleasure or peace amidst distressing situations.

Acceptance – a person fully accepts reality without attempting to change it, protest or run away (Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference)

Altruism – service to others which feels good

Anticipation – realistically planning for future discomfort, i.e. preparing a plan for how to manage the MIL when she visits

Courage – ability and willingness to confront conflict, fear, pain, obstacles, uncertainty and despair.

Emotional self-regulation – responding to reality in a range of emotional ways which are socially acceptable, modifying the intensity, duration, type and mode of expression of feelings.

Emotional self-sufficiency – independence from the approval or validation of others, freeing yourself from feeling MIL has to like you.

Fantasy – using imagination and day dreaming to posit a more hopeful future (someone getting rejected for a job imagining the day they land their ideal position)

Forgiveness – letting go of resentment, indignation or anger aroused by a perceived offence and no longer demanding recompense or restitution after appropriate grieving and acknowledgement of the hurt.

Gratitude – feeling thankful for the range of people and events in one’s life who don’t cause problems.

Humility – full consideration of one’s own faults and attributes leading to a humble self opinion, you’re not perfect either.

Humour – expressing ideas and feelings in humorous ways to lessen distress.

Identification – modelling one’s self upon the character or behaviour of another (what would Jesus do?).

Mercy – compassionate action when in a powerful position. Believe it or not you are in a powerful position w.r.t. MIL, you control access to the grandchildren and ease of access to her adult child.

Mindfullness – staying conscious of oneself and environment in the present moment, suspending judgment, remaining open, curious and accepting. The opposite of this is dissociating or catastrophising.

Moderation – staying within reasonable limits, exercising self-restraint. Both with your own emotions and with what you are prepared to tolerate from MIL or spouse. This is about boundaries inside and out.

Patience – enduring a difficult or unpleasant circumstance for some time before reacting, God knows we’ve all done this to death!

Respect – willingness to show consideration or appreciation, a feeling of regard towards someone’s qualities, and actions and conduct which reflect that regard.

Sublimation – transforming distressing or unacceptable feelings into a more beneficial product or action, aggression into competitive sport, sexuality in dance, grief into art. Or this blog!

Supression – delaying temporarily an emotional response or need until a more suitable time, a mother squashing her own fear when a child falls from a tree to attend to the child. Not shouting at spouse for siding with their mother but waiting to express your annoyance later when she isn’t around.

Tolerance – deliberately allowing or permitting something which one disapproves of. Your in-laws way of doing Christmas lunch for example.

Level III – Neurotic Defences

Fairly common in adults. Help in the short term to deal with distress but unhelpful if used over the long term, disrupting relationships, work and socialising.

Displacement – shifting an uncomfortable emotion or impulse to a safer target (blaming MIL for all your relationship problems because it’s safer than facing how upset you are with your partner)

Dissociation – temporarily mentally separating from the distress, feeling emotionally numb, out of the body or otherwise not there in an distressing situation (it was like I was watching it happen from outside of myself)

Hypochondria – excessive worry about illness

Intellectualisation – focussing on the rational ideas and intellectual components of a situation so as to avoid the emotional distress, separating emotion from ideas

Isolation – separating out the emotional content of an event so the event can be spoken of in a dispassionate way (describing a grisly car accident with no emotional response).

Rationalisation – making excuses, convincing oneself that no harm was done as you had a good reason (but it wasn’t my intention to hurt so I’m not responsible).

Reaction formation – turning one unconscious and unacceptable thought or feeling into it’s exact opposite, behaving in the opposite way that you really want (a boy struggling with a strong attraction to a girl pulls her pigtails to upset her, you find yourself offering to take MIL on a shopping trip when you first realise how much you hate her).

Regression – temporarily acting in a more childish and dependent way (you totally suck and I hate you!).

Repression – moving a desire or thought that causes you anxiety as you fear punishment for it into the unconscious until you are no longer conscious of the thought or desire but some emotional memory of it lingers (feeling uncomfortable around a rarely seen family member but not remembering what first made you feel that way).

Undoing – trying to undo a threatening or unacceptable thought or feeling by consciously acting in the reverse way to atone or reduce one’s feelings of guilt (being nice to someone you had bad thoughts about).

Social comparison – looking to other people who are seen as worse off in order to distance oneself from similarities with that person/group and to make oneself feel better (well at least I’m not like that Jane Doe).

Withdrawl – avoiding or removing oneself from situations, places and events to stop being reminded of painful thoughts or feelings (I just can’t go back there after what happened). Not the same as planning to avoid situations where you know you will be verbally or emotionally abused (like with MIL), that is sensible.

OK let’s take a breather at this point, before it gets mad, bad and dangerous below. The mature and neurotic defences above are ways people adapt to the occasional awkward or distressing event. The word distressing in this psychoanalytical context doesn’t have to mean reduced to tears sobbing (although it could, loosing your beloved dog in an accident would provoke several of these defences) we could just be talking about how someone tries to play one-upmanship on you in a social conversation, or you became the butt of a joke at work.  BUT and it’s a big but, we are not talking about adaptations and reactions to severe trauma or prolonged abusive scenarios. Nor are we talking about the quite sensible precautions which anyone should take to protect themselves from a known toxic person or situation.

I am not suggesting we should suddenly apply for the Sainthood and start serenely forgiving our MILs, volunteering at the local homeless shelter  and practicing some New Age gratitude practice every morning in an effort to deal with her dysfunction. No no nopety nope. In fact behaving this way would be a defence mechanism, but not the mature ones listed above. This sort of behaviour is a mixture of denial, repression and fantasy. You do not have to forgive people, be endlessly patient or altruistic to be maturely dealing with someone difficult. You can use humour, anticipation and courage when dealing with her, or whatever. And no one expects you to respond with a “mature” defence each and every time. Notice how it says that neurotic defences are helpful in short term acute scenarios.

There is an insidious tendency in self-development books and blogs towards premature forgiveness and gratitude meditations as if it was healthy or even possible for someone to just put aside whatever has wounded them. This is nonsense and has its roots in a bastardisation of the ideas of the Law of Attraction. The healthiest thing to do when wounded is fully feel wounded and acknowledge what is going on inside you. Sit with it, feel it, breathe through it and past it. Premature forgiveness or ignoring hurt and replacing it in your mind with forced thoughts of your blessings is not going to allow you to move beyond those feelings. Grief, disappointment, anger and sadness are normal responses to abusive people. Once you have felt your feelings and fully respected them then you can choose how to respond.

The following two lists of ways to respond are not ones you would want to choose on a regular basis. Bet you’ll never guess where my MIL’s most commonly used reactions lie? Oh you did guess…yeah in these two lists.

Level II – Immature defences

All adults act in these ways occasionally. Habitually acting in these ways makes a person difficult to deal with and the person themselves will find reality difficult to cope with. Taken to an excessive level they are found in mental illnesses like severe depression and personality disorders.

Acting out – an unconscious desire or impulse turned into action which the person isn’t consciously in control of and is unaware of the emotion which triggered it, self-harm is an example (I don’t know why I did that!)

Autistic or Schizoid Fantasy – habitually retreating into fantasy and daydreaming as a way to resolve inner and outer conflicts. This includes retreating into role play and computer games, where the retreat includes non-communication and social isolation.

Idealization – putting someone on a pedestal (my mother is such a good person, she’d never do that)

Introjection – unconsciously taking the qualities and attributes of an idea or person fully into oneself because these qualities help deal with reality (finding yourself speaking with your mother’s voice saying the exact phrase she would say, adopting the behaviour of an aggressive peer thereby reducing threat to oneself. Very common between parents and children who absorb their values)

Passive Aggression – feelings of aggression towards another person expressed in indirect or passive ways (it was an honest mistake! I just forgot to post it)

Projection – attributing one’s own unacceptable and unwanted thoughts and feelings onto another person or group so that the other person/group actually seems to have those thoughts and feelings themselves (I saw you looking at him all flirtatiously – when you were eyeing up an attractive woman moments before). Includes prejudices like misogyny, racism and homophobia, jealousy, hyper vigilance to external dangers and injustice collecting (look at all the ways I’ve been wronged).

Somatization – transformation of uncomfortable feelings into actual physical sensations of pain, sickness and anxiety (I’m not upset about what my mother said, I just have a headache. I feel sick I am so nervous.)

Wishful thinking – acting as if the most pleasing outcome was guaranteed to happen while not paying due attention to facts (oh it’ll be fine – she’s been so much better the last few months).

Level I – Severely pathological defence mechanisms.

These defences are designed to distort and rearrange the external experiences the person is having so the person no longer has to cope with reality. The mind distorts reality into something easier for the person to deal with. These frequently appear irrational or insane to people observing them in adults but they occur as a normal stage of development in children.

Conversion or hysteria – mental or emotional distress transformed into a physical symptom like blindness, deafness, paralysis, numbness.

Delusional Projection – false beliefs about reality and the trustworthiness of people usually of a persecutory nature (e.g. so and so is out to get me, society has set it up so men like me always fail, its a conspiracy of feminazis and the Illuminati, people cannot ever be trusted).

Denial – refusal to accept reality because it is too threatening (she is not leaving me), arguing that a threat to the ego doesn’t exist at all (you’re wrong, he is not cheating on me), refusing to see or accept unpleasant aspects of reality (my mother is not narcissistic) despite evidence to the contrary.

Distortion – a gross reshaping of reality to meet the ego’s needs (He didn’t leave me, I let him go because it was better for him, he has such a fragile mental state; I know I have hoarded 20,000 plastic bags but they will be useful one day).

Extreme projection – the blatant denial of a moral or character trait which is instead seen as a problem for some other person or group (Homosexuality is a disgusting sin, says the preacher who is secretly gay.  Seen in children, one child holding a broken object points the finger at another and says “they did it!”).

Splitting – the unconscious splitting off of characteristics of a person or group into “good” and “bad”  because the immature ego can’t hold the whole person/group in their mind in one go. Can also happen within a person who splits off the “good” from the “bad” parts of themselves as they are unable to hold a complete picture of themselves as having both polarities. One side of the polarity is then adopted as true and any evidence supporting the other side is rejected (The teacher can’t be praising me because I am a bad kid. Favouritism in children/grandchildren Little Johnny is an awful liar and thief, Little Jane is so precious and kind).

Well  that’s rather a lot to take in all in one go! Do digest it at your own leisure. Being aware of these behaviours has certainly given me insight into how well I am coping with certain situations as I can spot my own less helpful defences more readily now.

Dear old MIL does all of the pathological defences, I think now is the time for one of those more mature responses, a little humour maybe…



Filed under Denial, emotions, Examples of narcissistic behaviour, Manipulations, marriage and NPD MIL, narcissistic mother, Understanding narcissism

8 responses to “Defence Mechanisms

  1. Healinginmyforties

    Man, sometimes I wish I didn’t know so much about narcissism.

    I just had a conversation with my Mum (waif type) in which she told me some completely made up garbage about how I hurt her, psychologically, more than 26 years ago. When I asked her for details about when and where I said these awful things, her story fell apart but she held on to her position that I intentionally wounded her.

    I would generally be a bit caught up and feel guilty and try to bring her out of her slump (I was the parentified care taker). This time, though, I thought of your blog and your latest post about defense mechanisms, and recognized a familiar tune: “Yep, there’s that distortion of reality again.”

    I hurriedly told her I’m sorry she felt hurt, and that doesn’t sound like something I would say, even if I thought it, AND said it was possible, because I was a child and that was long ago. I said, “My kids say hurtful things at times too. Anyway, speaking of my kids, it’s time to get back to reality now. Thanks for the chat, Mum. Love you, Bye!”

    I was a bit shocked that it affected me so little. I just feel sorry for her, and not guilty or obligated to rescue her from her delusions and depression.

    Thanks for the information and support.

    • I love how you refused to be drawn into her “Oh poor me” victim game. Well done. It’s funny how you can reach a point where the nonsense is clearly seen and falls off you like water from a ducks back. It is always surprising too. It’s like learning a new language and suddenly finding out oooh I know how to say that and a complete foreign sentence leaves your lips. I live for these moments, it’s such a good sign and means you are successfully freeing yourself from her influence. You must have done a lot of hard work to get to that point. Knowing about narcissism really helps you spot it.

  2. Rebecca

    Thank you,

    and thank goodness for your blog which i have been enjoying for the last 1.5 yrs! i loved what you wrote below:

    “Premature forgiveness or ignoring hurt and replacing it in your mind with forced thoughts of your blessings is not going to allow you to move beyond those feelings. Grief, disappointment, anger and sadness are normal responses to abusive people. Once you have felt your feelings and fully respected them then you can choose how to respond.”

    I have again been struggling with the idea of forgiveness in our culture, with regards to my NMIL. I have come to the conclusion that since we are each responsible for ourselves, it is our job to forgive ourselves, namely by identifying the behaviors we create that negatively affect ourselves and others, and finding healthier ways to do them. If i could sprinkle magical fairy forgivness dust on my NMIL, i would. However she remains resolutely behind her wall of denial and a mental model that twists everything so she is perfect and everyone else is the problem, especially people who get in the way of her complete control of her sons.

    Now if forgiveness means having the awareness that i am dealing with a very sick person, and then removing myself (and my child) from striking range and keeping that awareness in my perception at all times then i’m in. But i really can’t get beyond pity which frankly isn’t that motivating, into any sort of feelings of love or respect for this person, in fact the most respectful thing i can do is keep myself (and my child) at a distance. That is my love and forgiveness.

    I think as you wrote above, once i have had all my feelings about the abuse, and i mean all of them, the anger at my husband, the total sadness that NMIL can not contribute in any meaningful way to our lives as young parents (who needs more help than young parents), and indignation over the way i have been treated, and the way the whole family system conspires to hide and protect the NMIL. Then i can make informed decisions about how to proceed based on my perception and feelings which are trust worthy and good. This seems pretty self forgiving.

    Substituting denial and lack of boundaries for forgiveness, which is sometimes what i think i hear when reading quotes about forgiveness that obviously don’t factor in active narcissism, is the same to me as walking out into 16 lanes of traffic and thinking if i’m just forgiving enough i won’t get run over, and theres something wrong with when it hurts like hell. This is simply a disaster when dealing with NMIL.

    Looking forward to more, of our insightful humorous shares.

    • Hi Rebecca, thank you for your thoughtful reply. I have philosophically and spiritually struggled with forgiveness in the matter of my MIL, my husband’s collusions with her and his repetition of some of her bad behaviour. Raised Irish Catholic I was instilled with a deep respect for reconciliation and not holding onto grudges and anger. After all Catholics are told to confess our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness and He doesn’t withhold it so why should we? We forget the bible was written in a time where clan and family disputes over honour led to escalating rivalry and acts of retribution. The eye for an eye mentality is found in inner city street gangs these days, they could well benefit from letting perceived hurts go, from turning the other cheek. I doubt Jesus meant we have to allow ourselves to be abused and never feel anger of hurt!

      Society as a whole and abusive people in particular are deeply invested in the continued denial of familial abuse. Abused children and adults are told to get over it, respect thy father and mother (in-law). The exhortation to forgive is often just the misuse of the word, when what is really meant is “do not bring this up again because it makes me/society uncomfortable”. In popular self-help circles it has become tangled up with the Law of Attraction and the idea that you must somehow cleanse yourself of every negative thought or negative things will happen to you. This is unmitigated nonsense. There is a big difference in holding a person accountable for their wrongful actions and honouring your own feelings of hurt and grief while you work on the problem or relationship and choosing to live a life of negativity and pessimism. The former situation is healthy and may eventually lead to forgiveness (or not) the latter is more what the Law of Attraction people are on about.

      The action of forgiveness is actually not something one can force any more than you can force love or hate or any other emotion. Forgiveness is the peaceful state reached when all charge and emotion around a difficult event has been dissipated through time, talking, respectful listening to our talking and the mysterious internal digesting of experience that our unconscious mind works through. In that peaceful state which arrives of its own and with its own grace one no longer feels the need for vengeance or punishment. That is all forgiveness is. And it is not necessarily permanent as with any other emotion it waxes and wanes. If I feel forgiveness towards someone and then they commit a further action against me which is hurtful and damaging then that state of forgiveness goes out the window. Its not a once in a lifetime all or nothing thing. And crucially it does not happen in isolation. Forgiveness by the definition of the concept is one person interacting with another who has wronged them. The person who has done wrong has a part to play and that involves taking responsibility for what they have done, hearing respectfully what the wronged person wants to say and taking action to make amends and repair the wound in their relationship. Forgiving someone without any of these needs being met or worse with the other person actively fighting against these needs means forgiveness is almost impossible.

    • crystalstardustblog

      Great post! I’m in a similar boat… I can’t quite get the forgiveness and moving myself out of striking range is one thing but other half still wants a relationship and I’m sure he doesn’t know or believe she’s actually a narcissist so we have a way to go on that 😔 Keep strong! X

  3. Leslie

    Thank you so much. You have made my life finally make sense. I’m the oldest granddaughter of the NMIL, the first child of her only child and son, my father. I spent most of my life with her growing up and so much of your writing has made me finally understand what I was never able to articulate (much less make anyone else understand.) She tried her best to turn me against my mother and turn me into a miniature version of herself. She is a devout Catholic and guilt trips are her specialty. I’m now 40, she’s still alive and my parents finally understand the impact she had on me. I don’t blame them; they were young and she was a willing and free babysitter, I get that. I just wish I could get back all of that time when I thought she was “the only person I could trust.”

    • Im no expert, but I think you just made an excellent point. You certainly unrtasednd what youre talking about, and I can truly get behind that. Thanks for staying so upfront and so truthful.

  4. This piece is so important and has helped me so much for I too navigate similar waters and the insight into splitting… oh my… it’s everywhere… in politics, companies, families, and of course, it starts in one’s self. Thank you so much for your beautiful insights and deep work. It is so needed.

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