Defense mechanisms are behaviors that people use to detach themselves from unpleasant actions, thoughts, or events, and can be positive or negative. For example, sublimation is a positive defense mechanism in which someone chooses to channel strong emotions and feelings into an appropriate activity such as exercise; so instead of lashing out at others like coworkers, bosses, or family members, they channel those feelings into sports, arts, or music.
Defense mechanisms may also be used to distance oneself from undesirable feelings, particularly guilt and shame. In many cases, people use these psychological responses unconsciously and, therefore, do not consciously decide to utilize them. They are a way for those suffering from addiction to drugs or alcohol to resist change, ignore situations, and rationalize irrational behaviors. Research has identified multiple defense mechanisms, but there are specific ones generally used more than others. The three most common defense mechanisms used by those suffering from substance use disorders are denial, rationalization, and projection.
Denial is the refusal to accept factual information or reality. It contradicts reality. A person with substance use disorder may believe they are truthful through blocking unwanted events from their minds, so they don’t have to deal with their emotional impact. It is an avoidance of painful feelings. What may seem obvious to people around them, such as an addiction to drugs or alcohol, is avoided and ignored by the person with a substance use disorder.
In those with substance use disorder, rationalization is providing good reasons for the use of drugs or alcohol, instead of the real and true reasons. It is used to defend oneself against feelings of guilt, as well as to protect oneself against criticism and maintain self-respect. There is an attempt to explain objectionable behaviors with one’s own set of “facts,” which allows them to feel comfortable with their choice to continue using. They admit there is a problem but rationalize it by blaming other forces than themselves, such as work stress, grief, or childhood experiences.
Projection places the blame for an issue, such as a substance use disorder, on someone else other than the self. Thoughts or feelings about one’s self project onto another person, for instance, an angry person may accuse others of being angry. Projection enables the person that is conflicted about expressing their anger to change, “I hate him/her” to “She/he hates me.” It is attributing feelings, thoughts, or desires that one cannot accept about themselves and placing them onto others. Projection can be positive or negative. Still, in the case of a substance use disorder, it is usually negatively and unconsciously used as a way to shift blame for the addiction.
Repression deals with unconsciously hiding painful memories, unwanted thoughts, or illogical beliefs that cause psychological distress. By repressing them, there is a goal of entirely forgetting about them. However, the memories, thoughts, or beliefs do not disappear. Instead, they may unconsciously influence behaviors, creating anger or sadness, and impacting relationships.
Displacement is targeting strong emotions, such as frustration, towards a person or object that does not feel threatening. Displacement allows one to satisfy the impulse to react or get angry without risking significant consequences, such as being fired, getting arrested, or being abandoned. This defense mechanism explains why we lash out to those closest to us, like family and friends, when we have problems at home, work, or even within ourselves, as is the case with people with substance use disorders.
Regression is escaping to an earlier developmental stage in life. It is caused by feeling anxious or threatened and experiencing loss or trauma. It occurs in both children and adults. Suddenly, the person acts younger and may begin exhibiting behaviors such as sleeping with a stuffed animal, chewing on pencils, or overeating. It is about experiencing comfort amidst feeling overwhelmed. Substance use disorder often leads to traumatic events, and therefore regression is a possibility.
Avoidance consists of staying away from specific environments, situations, individuals, or things. This avoidance may be due to the anticipated negative consequences of encountering these people, places, or things, or due to anxious and painful feelings associated with them. It is a way to cope with anxiety or a response to fear or shame. For example, someone suffering from a substance use disorder may avoid seeing friends or family members who disagree with their life choices. Avoiding these people allows them to continue to engage in risky behaviors without dealing with the shame of being around them.
There are many identified and classified defense mechanisms that we, as humans, use to cope with and deal with our realities. Depending on their use, they can be negative or positive. It is crucial to identify these defense mechanisms, and if they are negatively affecting one’s ability to cope with daily life. Denial, rationalization, and projection are detrimental to recovery from a substance use disorder. One must accept reality, admit there is a problem, and not place blame on others for their addiction to drugs or alcohol to reach a long-lasting recovery.
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Defense mechanisms are a natural occurrence that our brains developed to deal with life and life events on a psychological level. The problem occurs when these defense mechanisms are used to deflect, defend, and support an addiction to drugs or alcohol. At Fort Worth Recovery, we understand the multi-faceted face of addiction and seek to provide a safe, nurturing atmosphere for lifelong recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, call us today at 844.332.1807 or visit us online.