Throughout my schooling years, I was a horrible procrastinator. I would leave everything to the last minute, sometimes even having to take a day off high school so that I could finish an assignment that was meant to be due that day.
Once I got to university, I couldn’t do this anymore, as the due date remained the same whether I went to classes or not. I would instead consume a lot of energy drinks the night before an assignment was due, and generally do the majority of the assignment in an anxious, tense and sleep-deprived state; printing it out and submitting it 20 minutes before the deadline.
Exams were the same. I’d miss classes, not pay attention when I was there, and then try to cram an entire semester’s contents into the last 4 days before an exam. I would lock myself in my room, and study up to 12 hours a day, only leaving for toilet breaks and something to eat until I was utterly exhausted. Luckily, I have a knack for remembering vast amounts of information in short periods of time, so I always passed, but it wasn’t easy, or fun.
I sometimes tried to start early, but never found this effective, as the negative consequences seemed so far away. Eventually, I figured I would just follow the mantra, “if you leave everything to the last minute, it only takes a minute’. This mantra actually helped me to fit a lot of things into my life by being more efficient, but it did have its limitations.
Once I got to my Doctorate of Clinical Psychology degree at Monash University, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to do a 70,000-word thesis that was meant to take 3.5 years to do. How could I possibly cram something so big, especially when it consisted of doing a research proposal, ethics application, recruiting participants, conducting a clinical trial, collating all the results, running data analysis and writing up the thesis and journal articles? It turns out I couldn’t.
The thesis ended up taking me 4 years to complete, and there wasn’t too much of it that I enjoyed. It required a direct challenging of my usual defence mechanisms, and this was no easy feat, especially because I didn’t know what they were. I knew that I had always procrastinated with my studies, but I was never entirely sure why.
What Are Your Defence Mechanisms?
Fortunately, there was a fun test over at personalityassessor.com on coping styles’ titled ‘How Do You Deal?’ that helped me to identify which defence mechanisms I typically used. If you are interested in knowing what yours are, I definitely recommend taking it.
It is a bit time consuming as there are 2 parts and over 200 questions, but the reason I like this questionnaire so much is that it is tough to fudge the test to get desirable results. This is because the survey doesn’t have face validity, and therefore doesn’t appear to measure how much someone engages in a particular defence mechanism. Two examples of questions are:
“I am bothered by stomach acid several times per week” or
“It is annoying to listen to a lecturer who cannot seem to make up his mind as to what he really believes“.
I’m not even sure which defence mechanisms these questions are tapping into or if the correct answer is true or false. However, previous research has shown that specific patterns of responses on the questionnaire are quite good at identifying people who regularly use 10 common defence mechanisms, including repression, displacement, denial, regression, projection, reaction formation, intellectualisation, rationalisation, isolation and doubt. My results were astonishing to me.
My Defence Mechanisms
I first took the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire in February 2013. I had just finished a year-long practical internship at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and I found supporting individuals with cancer really rewarding and meaningful, but also quite challenging as I had lost a dear friend to cancer when I was 21. I was wanting to finish up my thesis by July but was falling way behind, and I was also a month away from getting married and moving in with my then fiancé. I had a lot of big changes coming up, and I was both stressed and scared with how everything was going to go.
Here are my February 2013 results, alongside the descriptions of these defence mechanisms given by the personality assessor website:
1. Denial – 94th percentile – extremely high
Denial is a defense mechanism where people avoid thinking about problems, or even pretend like their problems don’t exist. For example, someone might deny that they have a drug problem. Or someone might deny that they’re currently having conflict in their romantic relationship.
Since denial can be subconscious, people who use denial might honestly believe that their problems don’t exist!
2. Isolation – 91st percentile – extremely high
Isolation is a defense mechanism where people compartmentalize their thoughts and feelings so that their thoughts don’t affect their feelings.
Isolation differs from denial. Using denial, a person with a drug problem might refuse to even see that they have a drug problem. Using isolation, a person with a drug problem would acknowledge they have a problem, but would not let the fact they have a problem affect their feelings. If intellectualization is all about staying in your head to avoid your heart, isolation is about keeping your head and your heart separate.
3. Displacement – 81st percentile – very high
Displacement occurs when we “take out” our frustrations on someone/something else. For example, imagine that you hate your boss. It might have dire consequences if you expressed your hate toward your boss. So, if you displaced those feelings, you might go home and yell at your family.
This is different than projection. In projection, we don’t see our own feelings—we see them in other people (e.g., I am not angry, my boss is). In displacement, however, we still “own” our feelings (e.g., I am angry) but we “take out” those feelings on the wrong target (e.g., angry at boss, but kick dog instead of boss).
4. Regression – 73rd percentile – high
Regression is a defense mechanism where people essentially start acting or thinking like a child. The idea is that when life feels too overwhelming or our problems feel too big, that we regress to an earlier, easier time when other people (our parents) used to take care of us. As such, regression can include:
- desiring for other people to take care of your problems for you
- acting dependent on other people
- acting like a child (e.g., temper tantrums)
- refusing to take responsibility for your actions
5. Doubt – 72nd percentile – high
The defense mechanism of doubt occurs when people doubt their senses or thought processes when they encounter problems. For example, imagine a good friend tells you they don’t really like you. You might utilize the defense mechanism of doubt by thinking “I must have misunderstood what they meant.”
Doubt is kind of like a mixture of denial, intellectualization, and rationalization. Doubt lets us deny that our problems are real (or avoid making big decisions we’re afraid of) by questioning our ability to accurately see the world and make good decisions. In contrast to denial, when people use doubt, they are aware of their problems on some level.
6. Rationalization – 68th percentile – high
Rationalization is when people excuse their actions with usually irrational false explanations. For example, if someone binges and eats an entire large pizza, they might think “Well, the food was going to waste anyway! I might as well have eaten it.”
Rationalization is kind of like a mixture of denial and intellectualization. Essentially, rationalization allows people to “explain away” their problems (usually bad habits, personal flaws, etc.) with a superficially valid explanation. The biggest difference between rationalization and intellectualization is that intellectualization is used to avoid feelings, whereas rationalization is used to avoid seeing our own personal flaws.
7. Intellectualisation – 64th percentile – high
Intellectualization occurs when people avoid painful feelings by thinking oftentimes inappropriate impersonal thoughts. For example, if someone’s pet dies, they might think, “Pets die every day. Why should I be upset?”
Basically, the idea is that people who use intellectualization minimize their problems—or at least their feelings— and avoid the pain in their hearts by staying lodged solidly in their heads.
8. Projection – 47th percentile – about average
Projection occurs when we project our own thoughts and feelings onto other people. For example, you might really hate your boss. If you used the defense mechanism of projection, you might be unaware of your own feelings toward your boss, but instead think your boss hated you. This defense mechanism would allow you to deny your feelings and, in turn, believe that any conflict between you and your boss is your boss’s fault (not yours).
Projection basically lets us believe that are problems aren’t really ours—they’re someone else’s!
9. Repression – 37th percentile – low
Repression occurs when people push down or block-out memories or desires that they feel are threatening. For example, someone might repress painful childhood memories and try to not think about them. As another example, someone might repress their attraction to a friend that they fear wouldn’t reciprocate their interest.
Repression is similar to denial, but slightly different. Denial is about convincing yourself that your problems don’t exist. Repression is about blocking out part of yourself—memories or desires, usually—perhaps to avoid creating a problem!
10. Reaction formation – 15th percentile – very low
Reaction formation is a fascinating defense mechanism where we do the opposite of what we really want to do. For example, imagine you are very attracted to another person. If, for some reason that attraction is a problem (e.g., you are married, they are married, etc.), you might start to feel the opposite toward them—you may think they are disgusting and/or actively dislike them.
Reaction formation allows you to avoid your problems—and also creates a buffer to ensure you avoid your problems. In the example above, you’re not merely repressing your attraction toward the other person—you’re actually feeling negative feelings toward them. These negative feelings will ensure the attraction doesn’t resurface.
Seeing that my marriage ended up being far worse than I had predicted, I maybe should have paid attention to these results a bit more, especially my denial and doubt scores.
It did help with the writing up of my thesis, however, as I stopped trying to avoid the problem, started coming into the lab from 9am-5pm every weekday regardless of how I felt and began making some real and consistent progress without cramming for the first time in my life. I finished a full draft of my thesis by September 2013, started working as a Psychologist in private practice shortly after that, and submitted the final copy of my thesis for examination in February 2014.
Have My Defence Mechanisms Improved?
I retook the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire at the end of April 2017. I am living a life that is much more consistent with the experiences I want to have rather than what society says that I should be doing. I believe that I am a lot happier and in the best place that I have ever been psychological. But have my defence mechanisms actually changed?
As you can see, eight of my results had improved, with denial dropping 19 percentile points and losing its position as my most used defence mechanism. This is great, as I am now more aware of the issues that I have and can actually do something about them.
My most noticeable improvement was my reduction in intellectualising things, but I also repress things much less than I used to, rationalise my actions less, and doubt myself less too. This means that I am now turning into what I feel and need more, and not just remaining in my head. By understanding and accepting my emotions rather than avoiding them or explaining them away, it really does make it easier to know what action I need to take. Regular journaling, mindfulness and therapy have definitely helped me to create these changes. So has being more honest and authentic with others.
The two defence mechanism scores that have increased are projection and isolation. The increase in projection isn’t helpful, as this means I could be externalising some problems rather than taking responsibility for the role that I played in creating them. The high isolation score isn’t so bad though, as separating my head and heart is something that I have worked on to make sure that I am making decisions in line with my values and not my fears going forward. If this never changes, that will be fine by me.
Can We Change How We Deal With Problems?
It’s not possible to completely avoid engaging in defence mechanisms. We all have different ways of coping, and many of these coping styles are developed in childhood and modelled on what everyone else in our family did.
Some defence mechanisms are more helpful than others, however, and they can change in time with deliberate practice. Head researcher of the Grant longitudinal study, George Vaillant, has separated defence mechanisms into immature, intermediate and mature defences. Acting out, projection passive-aggressive behaviour, and denial is considered immature. Reaction formation, repression and displacement are intermediate defences. Mature defences include:
- humour: seeing the funny side of things,
- sublimation: channelling difficult emotions into something prosocial and constructive,
- anticipation: planning ahead for upcoming situations that might be challenging,
- suppression: not reacting to your feelings or letting them show if this would interfere with you achieving your goals, and
- altruism: deriving pleasure from helping others.
A 2013 study by Malone and colleagues found that men who used more mature defence mechanisms between 47 and 63 years of age had better health between the ages of 70 and 80. This was mostly because the people who regularly engaged in more mature defence mechanisms had better social support and stronger interpersonal connections than individuals who used immature defence mechanisms (Malone et al., 2013).
If you want to build up healthier coping strategies, understanding which defences you currently use is a great place to start. The best ways to do this apart from taking the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire is consulting with a therapist, especially a psychologist or a psychiatrist trained in psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy. Friends and family might be able to point out some potential defence mechanisms that you use, but I do think it is better to get this feedback from someone that is both professionally trained and impartial. They can then help you to replace these defences with more mature and adaptive coping strategies so that you too can have more supportive relationships and better long-term health and well-being.
Dr Damon Ashworth