WHAT IF I told you that half of what you think is ‘you’ isn’t actually you? What if I told you that you that almost your entire idea of ‘you’ was just a series of inventive lies that have tricked you into becoming someone that you never, ever wanted to be?
And what if I told you all of this was done in an affectionate effort to keep you safe?
You’d probably be thinking – if that’s true then just who the hell am I?
Your brain isn’t always on your side. As you attempt to do anything that provokes anxiety, your brain almost automatically comes up with patterns of thought and behavior to stop you. These patterns are so convincing that you don’t even spot them for what they are, and often, they come to form your beliefs and eventually your very identity.
Just as you can be full of shit, it turns out you can also be full of poor patterns of thought and behavior.
Psychiatrists call these patterns defense mechanisms.
I call them ‘your bullshit.’ And if there’s a magic pill in any kind of personal development it’s this: ‘learning to spot your own bullshit.’
Because it’s that exact bullshit that keeps you from growing, stifles your happiness, and turns you into a version of yourself you never actually wanted to be.
I first came across defense mechanisms when I was a plucky young man learning about improving my dating life. I was reading as many books and forums as I could (not advised), and trying to combine them as best as I could with some kind of grounding in psychology (also not advised).
A lot of what I came across was toxic, unnecessary, or just flat out wrong.
But in the case of defense mechanisms, it was slightly different. There was something about them that always rung true. That I saw reflected in myself, and everyone I met. And as they seemed to be directly related to anxiety, approaching, and expressing sexuality – they were simply too good for this young man to miss.
Defense mechanisms it seemed, were what stopped me and everyone else from taking the actions with women that we wanted to take.
Whenever we wanted to approach one, kiss one, or even ask one out – there they were. And in this new, fancy psychology, I figured I’d found myself a cure.
So like any good nerd, I was hooked.
A SHORT, UNNECESSARY HISTORY OF DEFENSE MECHANISMS
Even though my focus was on dating, defense mechanisms have been something that have found their way into every aspect of my life.
Whether I was trying to pluck up the courage to talk to a cute girl, or procrastinating my way through video game after video game instead of writing – defense mechanisms were always lurking behind the scenes.
Just as they will be for you.
Defense mechanisms aren’t exactly a new discovery. Whether it’s Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or John Milton’s fallen angels – observers of human behavior have long been pointing their fingers at the bizarre ways people go about avoiding uncomfortable feelings and unraveling their lives.
The idea of defense mechanisms was popularised by Anna Freud. She took what was her father’s rather doom-and-gloom view of the human psyche and created what could be called a roadmap of human self-deception. One that, through understanding it, offered a way of undoing our flaws.
To her, our defense mechanisms were the ways in which we defended our ego from harm, and in order to live properly, we had to understand and manage the ways in which we did this. In other words, these seemed to be the elephant in the psychological room.
Years later, her work was expanded upon again by Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant. And his expanded research was so on point, it paved the way for many of the psychiatric classifications we have today.
He also gave this incredibly good Tedtalk. Unique for teaching what is maybe life’s most important lesson, and is also a good substitute for Nytol.
Vaillant was the first to organize defense mechanisms into hierarchies that corresponded to what was essentially our emotional development. To him, a person’s ability to manage their defense mechanisms healthily was intrinsic to their maturity and well-being as an individual.
And he was right.
What Freud and Vaillant managed to do was lift the lid on everyone’s mind, and reveal the hedge maze of behavioral patterns underneath. Far from being unique snowflakes, we all engaged with highly similar methods of bullshitting ourselves and hiding from our emotions.
Y’know, like children.
Luckily for us, Vaillant also showed that through understanding their patterns of bullshit, people can and would change for the better.
Which is where the next part of this outrageously long article comes in.
THE MANY, MANY DEFENSES FROM ANXIETY
Despite what Darth Vader says, it is wise to lower your defenses. Defense mechanisms don’t actually protect you. They imprison you.
Now, I totally get that’s dramatic. But bear with me:
The more you give into your patterns of bullshit, the more you avoid taking actions which are going to:
- Actually, represent your desires.
- Confront anxiety and make you grow.
I think I speak for all of us when I say nobody wants to live life with the training wheels strapped on. Eventually, we’ve gotta kick those fuckers loose and start nosediving down staircases.
There are many, many ways in which you’ll try and keep your own training wheels on. My bullshit won’t always be your bullshit, but in almost everyone I’ve met, they’ve collected not one, but a cluster of defense mechanisms that hold them back.
Some are lost in denial, fantasizing, and blaming the world. Other’s are always acting out and regressing into a childlike, dependent state.
For me, I was either avoiding reality completely, intellectualizing it, overcompensating, or worst of all, forming my reactions to events in completely disingenuous ways. As you’ll see in a moment, all of these suck.
Now for the sake of brevity, I’m going to try and limit this to anxiety and dating. I do write a blog that covers that topic after all, and to be honest…
Nowhere are people’s defense mechanisms more on show than in dating.
That said, I will add some other, personal development related examples where appropriate.
These all apply whether you’re feeling anxiety, sadness, anger or any emotion you find uncomfortable. And whether you’re dating, trying to start a business, or doing public speaking – it doesn’t matter.
Within every behavior that provokes an uncomfortable emotion, there is a defense mechanism that can and will rise up to ‘protect you.’
Here are the main ways you’re doing this:
Reality can be scary and upsetting. So you deny the reality of situation exists, as to accept it would make you anxious or in emotional pain. This is called denial, and it’s pretty much every teenager ever.
There are thousands of ways this can crop up in your life. In dating, this is most commonly seen as:
“I don’t really want to speak to her.’ When you’re attracted to her. Or “I don’t have anxiety around women.” When you quite clearly feel anxiety around women. Or ‘I don’t care about winning.’ When in reality winning is extremely important to you.
If you’re racist, sexist, or bigoted, this one almost definitely applies to you. Projection is where you start seeing in other people what you refuse to acknowledge in yourself. Whether this is a feeling you don’t want to feel or some unconscious motivation – projection is your easy way out.
Instead of dealing with it yourself, you protect it onto someone else – and you see it everywhere.
These are projections are usually persecutory in nature (i.e racist/sexist).
This is deeply tied to blame and anger, and in my experience sits at the origin of many generalizations about the opposite sex. “Women are sluts” is actually “I’m scared of women”, “All women are over-emotional” becomes “I’m emotional and just not conscious of it.”
Instead of pointing the finger at everyone else, maybe it’s a better idea to look in the mirror.
There isn’t a single person reading this who isn’t guilty of this. In fact, this is less a defense mechanism than just a part of being human.
The idea behind fantasy is simple: what you want provokes anxiety, so you seek out some kind of unthreatening fantasy to ‘achieve it.’
For example, this could be:
“Expressing my sexuality makes me anxious, so I’m gonna feel good about myself by fantasizing about being some sexuality confident guy all the time.”
I have a friend who does this with violent movies and he doesn’t even realize it. That’s his defense mechanism for being afraid of confrontation. I have another friend who does the same thing with video games.
What’s your method?
Regression is where you adopt a childlike, dependent state in order to feel safe from whatever anxiety you re currently experiencing. This can be anything, but I always tend to notice regression in social situations.
For example, you’ve come to a party to socialize and meet new people, but doing so makes you anxious, so instead, you cling to the people you know, often following them around like a lost puppy.
Regression is a relinquishment of your own personal power. You’re saying ‘I can’t confront my anxiety, but I hope you can do it for me.’
This might seem like a downer, but almost everyone engages with this on some level. If I haven’t been on a night out in weeks, and am feeling nervous, this can be something I spot in myself.
The trick is to spot it, then break the dependency.
If you live in the western world, please stop and read this section. It applies to pretty much every element of your day to day life. If you’re British, read it twice.
Passive aggression is where the confrontation that comes from direct aggression makes you anxious, so you attempt to mask it or sidestep in socially acceptable, but unpleasant behavior.
An easy example of this would be someone has annoyed you, and instead of confronting that directly, you say something shitty in the guise of being socially acceptable. All because the idea of direct confrontation makes you anxious.
But in terms of dating… I find this directly relates to sexuality. For example, you’re sexually attracted to a woman and want to express that. But expressing sexuality makes you anxious. So instead you throw some bullshit lines at her, or you tease her, or you try to be her friend.
These are all passive forms of expressing your sexual aggression, which makes you anxious. Instead of saying ‘you’re cute’ or something direct, you dodge it, smother it, and stifle it.
In any instance, whether its sexual, or just confrontation – the rule is almost always the same:
There is no good substitute for being direct.
Acting out is an action that you take almost impulsively, without awareness of the motivation that drives it.
This one is more complex, and often hard to spot. But in my own life, this came in the form of being highly impulsive with alcohol and eventually, with sex.
I had unconscious needs to avoid anxiety and to get validation, and I ended up taking those actions as ways to get those needs met. For a long time I just thought I was a big drinker and so on, but in reality, I was just acting out.
A while later, when that was less on an issue, I found myself avoiding anxiety about my future by procrastinating and impulsively watching garbage on youtube. It was the same shit, but with a new outlet.
I see this all the time in people who cheat on their partners, need excessive attention from the opposite sex, and guys who objectify their sex lives. They just don’t know what’s really motivating them, and they’re acting out on autopilot.
They have something they don’t want to feel, so the immediately start to smother it.
A woman is more likely to acknowledge her own duality. A man is continually blinded by his intellect and does not learn through insight. ~Carl Jung
This is probably the reason you arrived at this blog. And if you’re male, almost definitely the reason for 99.9999% of your issues in personal development.
Intellectualization is where you try to learn/understand as much as you can about whatever causes your anxiety in the hopes that it will make it go away. I.e. You feel anxious about expressing sexuality, so you learn as much as you can in the hopes the fear will go away.
But here’s the thing…
This never works. It cannot work. It is impossible.
If your problem is emotional, then dealing with it is an emotional process. Thinking has nothing to do with it.
Whether your problem is anxiety in dating, fear of failure in your work life, or underlying issues with procrastination and motivation – the issue is always emotional.
Some probably think this sounds like the least masculine thing in the world to do. All I have to say to that is this:
You don’t become a well-rounded man without getting in touch with your feminine side. It’s not possible.
Moving away from the feelings is what made you end up here. Maybe instead you should start moving towards them.
Compensation is where you attempt to cover up your perceived weaknesses or anxiety by taking actions that ‘mask’ them.
This is usually where people overcompensate. You feel inferior to women and that makes you anxious, so you pretend you’re superior to them. You act cool. You act indifferent. You try to demean them by insulting them.
In reality, you’re just scared.
When it comes to dating, one of, if not the main reasons for this is feelings of inferiority. An inferiority that we desperately try to compensate for.
Alfred Adler, a psychologist back in Sigmund Freud / Carl Jung era has a quote that explains this perfectly:
‘If people feel inferior and weak in one area, they try to compensate for it somewhere else.’
In regards to dating, or even socially, what he’s saying is:
If you feel ‘less’ than other people you will act in a way to compensate for this feeling.
Nearly ALL your bullshit behavior comes from this one principle of Adler’s. All the faking, trying to impress people, and delusions of superiority – they all come from this. Jokes about the guy with the sports car who has the small dick? This too.
In my experience, compensators always know what they’re doing deep down. They’re the small kid on the playground shouting about his dad being bigger than everyone else’s.
Rationalization is where you use faulty logic to explain a poor behavior or feeling.
You get rejected by a woman and it makes you feel ashamed and embarrassed. Which is normal. But instead of going ‘oh well’ you go ‘she’s a fucking bitch’. In reality, she’s allowed to reject you, and it doesn’t make her anything.
You procrastinate on your work, telling yourself that you don’t need to do it yet, even though putting it off longer noticeable causes you more stress.
You cheat on your partner, telling yourself you shouldn’t tell them because it would just hurt them if they found out.
Rationalization is where you try to turn whatever is obviously an unacceptable act into an acceptable one. But you don’t do this for others. You do it for yourself. To rationalize away the feeling that comes from your shame, guilt, or anxiety.
Have you ever had someone you completely disliked, thought they were an asshole, but instead of making this obvious, you were in fact really nice to them?
Reaction formation is where you start acting in completely the opposite way to how you want to act due to feelings of anxiety.
I.e. In the example above, it causes you social anxiety to be upfront about your feelings with that person, so you ‘form’ a new, non-threatening reaction.
Or, you want to have sex with women, but this provokes anxiety in you, so you outwardly express zero sexuality and may even claim to not care about it all. In truth, you do, you’re just scared. (This was pretty much my entire teenage life).
Have you ever noticed that when people are fresh out of a breakup they suddenly start hitting the gym and setting themselves wildly ambitious life goals?
This is dissociation. Drastically changing who you are to avoid emotional pain.
In the case of a breakup, you feel shame about yourself for having been part of a failed relationship, and you don’t want to keep seeing the person in the mirror. This was me 100%. In reality, I was just sad and needed to confront it and accept it.
It’s also anyone who felt like a loser back home, moves to a new country and suddenly drastically overhauls their identity. The geek at school who becomes a try-hard later in life. Pretty much any stereotypical “zero-to-hero” cliche.
But as with my own post-breakup life change – it doesn’t fix the feeling. At best it just puts down a band-aid.
Funnily enough, dissociation is also nearly always the plot of superhero origin stories. Which I think lies in their appeal.
Displacement is when you shift your sexual or aggressive desires to a safer, less emotionally threatening outlet.
I.e. the guy who wants to shout at his boss, but can’t so comes home and screams at his wife.
This is one of the more complex defense mechanisms, as it tends to burst out of you unaware. Something happened to you earlier that you repressed, and later it erupts out of your when it feels safe.
This can be obvious, like the example above, or it can extremely subtle. Like pornography.
You feel sexual desire, but you’re afraid of women. Approaching women and asking them out threatens your anxiety, so instead, you seek out somewhere ‘safe’ to outlet that sexual desire. In reality, all you’re doing is avoiding anxiety.
Displacement can also be seen in the micro-moments of your life, where stresses at your own failures are repressed (see below) and then you lash out at people with anger you’d actually been directing at yourself. This is something I do all the time, and have to work hard to get a handle on.
What you want causes you anxiety, so you attempt to force it out of your mind and pretend it doesn’t exist.
I.e. You avoid anxiety by repressing any sexuality whatsoever.
I.e. You tell yourself you’re happy without a social life.
I.e. You say you don’t care about achieving anything.
And the sad thing is that you can do this so much that it eventually does become unconscious, and begins affecting you in subtle, almost imperceptible ways. Not only is this a bad idea, for reasons Carl Jung expresses nicely in this quote:
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
But it’s also a bad idea because you’re taking who it is you really want to be and driving it deep down into the back of your mind. Which, if you’re honest, isn’t something you truly want to do.
Instead of repression, you just need to develop a better method of confronting your fear.
THE DANGER OF YOUR DEFENSES
Remember when I said that if our defense mechanisms get repeated enough they become our identity? Well if you acted in all these ways enough you’d probably end up hating and avoiding women, socially needy, addicted to pornography and shallow escapism, and at the same time decrying sex and behaving sexless.
A bizarre, living contradiction. All because of simple mental patterns.
You can probably imagine why it’s so important to bring awareness to these. If we want to direct our lives, we have to know what’s already pushing us, or in this case, protecting us.
Even though I’ve kept much of the focus of this article on dating and sexuality – defense mechanisms affect every part of our lives. Procrastination, fear of failure, and all the ways in which we avoid bringing to life the person we wish to be – these all sit hand in hand with our defense mechanisms.
When you bring these kinds of tools to the story that you tell yourself about your own life, it’ll soon become apparent that not everything you consider ‘you’ is actually you. In most cases, it’s just armor that you’ve accumulated to make yourself feel only what you want to feel.
But you can’t live life picking and choosing your feelings.
You have to feel it all. Especially anxiety. Especially the feelings which suck.
As long as you succumb to your defense mechanisms and allow them to protect you from uncomfortable feelings, you will always hinder your growth as an individual – keeping yourself immature, infantile, and incapable.
In all the ways you never had to be.
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