• What is a defense mechanism?
A defense mechanism is a way of coping with criticism. It's a method we employ, sometimes without even being aware of it, that allows us to develop a thicker skin. There are some pitfalls involved in using emotional defense mechanisms, though. It's important to keep in mind that the walls we think give us security sometimes end up imprisoning us.
In many cases a defense mechanism kicks in when we predict we're about to be attacked. So how do we make these predictions? We base our predictions off past experiences. We guess based on what we know. When these predictions and guesses turn out to be wrong our relationships suffer. If you're always feeling as though you're going to be attacked, you'll be constantly employing emotional defense mechanisms, which can have deleterious consequences on relationships.
• Why do we feel defensive?
We feel defensive when we get hurt. Sometimes we feel defensive before we get hurt, in which case we're simply guessing we're about to get hurt. Many times these guesses are wrong or based on a situation that is no longer true.
If, as a child, we were picked on for having a certain trait or mocked by an older sibling for being different from them, we might grow to develop sensitivity to whatever issue might have caused us to suffer in the past.
• How can emotional defense mechanisms be destructive?
If you predict you're going to get hurt, you might put up some psychological defenses. You'll probably become emotionally distant and for someone who is close to you, that might feel like a form of abandonment. Another emotional defense mechanism is to deploy a preemptive strike. That also doesn't work very well to form happy and functional relationships as it hurts people you're close to.
Emotional defense mechanisms can also cause lasting damage when they're employed too often. This might happen in a long-term relationship that's constantly causing one person to feel as though they might be attacked. This person might be putting up emotional defense mechanisms all the time and in doing so, they create a situation where the relationship survives, but in some cases it's better to let the relationship go to make room for a new one where the aforementioned person isn't always feeling like they might be attacked.
• What good is an emotional defense mechanism?
Emotional defense mechanisms aren't always bad. In some cases they allow us to discredit someone who chooses to insult us. If you spend any length of time with someone you don't care to have a lasting relationship with and they say or do things that might cause you emotional grief, using an emotional defense mechanism like putting an emotional distance between the two of you can prevent them from being able to hurt you as much as they otherwise would.
The most important aspect of putting emotional defense mechanisms to use is the fact that sometimes they're helpful but it's rare. Most of the time emotional defense mechanisms are subconsciously employed when we're feeling attacked or criticized and they work to cause more harm than good, sometimes in hurting another person we suspect of planning to hurt us. Oftentimes, it's not the case at all and we end up causing another person a great deal of anguish through misunderstandings.
It's much better to use our heads than our hearts when it comes to defense mechanisms. When we think about what we're about to do when we defend ourselves not only do we tend to defend ourselves better but we also tend to do just that defend ourselves and avoid necessarily offending someone else.