Back to balance. We have discussed the five dimensions of living a balanced life. A discussion which could not be complete without visiting the notion of defense mechanisms, the coping strategies that aid us in our quest for balance. Properly applied, our defense mechanisms help us live in harmony and like our emotions, they are neither good nor bad. When a situation arises for which we are not prepared, defense mechanisms give us time to adjust our emotional self, smooth things out, identify the source of our feelings, and then behave positively.
Allow me a car analogy. I liken our defense mechanisms to the shock absorbers that take the impact from pot holes and bumps in the road, smoothing our ride. Shock absorbers do not eliminate the holes and bumps, but decrease the impact by providing cushion. Likewise, our internal shock absorbers, or defense mechanisms, do not remove the challenging aspects of life, but help cushion us or smooth the impact, and often allow us the pause we need to consider and create an appropriate response.
Three main defense mechanisms:
2. Repression–attempt to minimize
3. Projection–blame someone or something else
We may associate negative thoughts with the above list, but our defense mechanisms play a significant role in keeping our system functioning properly. They integrate naturally with our emotions, keeping us fluid in our response to others or situations and need to be reinforced. We can all remember an example from our personal history in which a moment of properly applied avoidance may have saved us from an inappropriate or embarrassing response.
The problem arises when we become stuck in denial, repression, or projection. We continue too long within the confines of defense, discrediting our internal guidance system and avoiding emotions and an honest evaluation. Locked in a defense mechanism, the outcome will be negative. We put things off. Rather than moving forward toward a behavior that equals positive consequences, we enter a rut of imbalance and fragmentation. This is when clients come to me and say, “I feel stuck.” And truly, they are!
To further complicate, people medicate with behaviors that reinforce their avoidance of their truth. Work, alcohol, drugs, pornography, shopping, eating and food, religious practice, video gaming, television, exercise, and sports may all be used as a distraction. When we are operating from avoidance for a prolonged period of time, we run the risk of creating an addictive behavior lifestyle. The addictive behavior dominates the choices of behavior in which a person engages.
Not to over-simplify, but suitably applied, healthy coping mechanisms, based upon our truth, guided by our emotions, enable us to behave in a way that produces positive consequences. Even when the precursor situation was negative, our defense postures provide feedback, teach.
Healthy application of defense mechanisms: Suppose I have a fear of flying. I admit it rather than deny. I do not secretly avoid flying. I choose not to repress the fear by making making jokes about it or telling myself it does not exist and that I really enjoy eighteen-hour drives. I move forward through steps to desensitize myself to the fear, reducing my anxiety. Before my next trip, I may study relaxation techniques and download a meditation on my phone. I may take a trip to the airport watching people move easily on their way to and from planes. I may study statistics, realizing that it is actually safer to fly than drive my car. I may work with a physician to properly administer an anti-anxiety medication for the situation. All of this may not cure my fear of flying, but may lessen it and keep me from having a panic attack on an airplane or avoiding experiences that warrant an airplane flight.
Seeking balance teaches us that we would be in serious trouble if we allowed our emotions or our defense mechanisms, alone to rule our behavior. But if we allow our “shock absorbers” to function, we have a much better opportunity to live in a constant fashion. Fulfilled. Balanced.