Defense Mechanisms

My Wife Thinks I’m Being Defensive. Should I Listen?

Our mind has defense mechanisms working all the time. They don't always help.

Posted Apr 30, 2019

wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

by Chris Heath, MD

One of my jobs around the house is taking out the trash—a task at which I constantly fail. Too often, when my wife asks why I haven’t done it, I get angry and say something meant to distract her. I offer excuses such as “The trashcan doesn’t look full” or “I was waiting until we clean out the refrigerator." My wife says that my excuses are just defenses, but what does that even mean?

What is a defense mechanism?

Sigmund Freud spent thousands of hours listening to people’s stories and saw patterns in the way their minds worked. He noticed that humans have a way of unconsciously protecting themselves from unpleasant emotions without having to think too much about them. He called these unconscious behaviors “defense mechanisms,” used to make life go by more smoothly, or so the theory goes.

Freud identified defenses such as denial, repression, and projection and further defense mechanisms were identified later by other psychoanalysts, including his daughter Anna Freud. These terms have become part of everyday language:

Repression. A kind of unconscious forgetting. When one’s mind is too conflicted about an issue, the related facts sink out of awareness. This is the defense mechanism first identified by Freud, in 1888, but we still refer to it, sometimes by name.

Denial. A more complete forgetting. When a fact or wish is inconsistent with a person’s deeply held view of themselves or their world, sometimes their mind blots it out altogether.

Projection. To aid denial, wishes and feelings are attributed to someone else. Freud first theorized this mechanism in letters to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss.

There are more healthy defense mechanisms as well:

Humor. Finding something funny about a situation, so one is not so mired in it. Freud loved jokes, and wrote an entire book about them, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.

Altruism. Looking out for another person helps deal with one’s own situation. A complex and meaningful defense mechanism, Freud saw altruism as a sign of maturity that has to develop in a person.

Getting back to me and the garbage can, why do I get defensive when my wife asks me to take out the trash? When I think about it, I realize I’m projecting something onto my wife. I have no idea of her motivation; she’s probably just reminding me. But in my head, it feels as if she’s a boss being hard on me, a recurring pet peeve of mine from past experiences. In reality, it’s really my own sense of guilt, me being hard on myself that I conveniently attribute to her.

However, I don’t really see her or myself; I only see this imaginary view of her being critical. One has to be mindful, so one can be aware of doing these things in the moment. It’s not easy, and no one sustains mindfulness all the time, but it’s a very helpful state to strive for.

For the record, why didn’t I take out the trash? I don’t usually just decide not to; I get busy with other stuff. Oh, but not so fast. I forgot? Sort of. I didn’t hold space in my mind for this important task. This sort of forgetting, that springs from my conflict about this annoying chore is an example of what Freud called repression. And it will take my ownership of my role as household partner to overcome it: a work in progress.

Defense mechanisms are in play all the time, operated and powered by unconscious forces, like breathing. As in the case of breathing, we have some control but only when we think about it. Otherwise it just happens. If we let ourselves be aware of our defensiveness, which requires some change (letting go of false pride, for instance), we can improve our relationships and self-care.

People are more likely to resort to defensiveness when stressed, tired, or ill. I might be more ready to project the critical boss on my wife after a hard day at work.

How to be less defensive

The trick — really, the goal — is to listen to yourself, attend to your behavior, and be aware of your feelings. Be honest and forgiving with yourself. For instance, when I’m aware, I might be able to apologize to my wife for being defensive and thank her for helping me stick with my agreement about my chore.

Hopefully there is a new way to frame that situation; I’m actually happy to be a partner in my household functioning, taking out the trash is part of that. And yeah, I still forget sometimes.

Tips

  • We can get defensive for seemingly good but misguided reasons. The more we’re aware of that, the better we get to know ourselves.
  • Listen to people’s reactions to you, especially if there are repeating patterns. Ask yourself what truth there may be in them.
  • Learn to spot rapid emotional reactions in yourself, especially anger or shame. There may be distorted ways you are seeing yourself and others.
  • Be kind to yourself. If you see things you want to change in yourself, use curiosity to find your way through.
  • Always be willing to be surprised by what you find. This is how growth happens.

Watch this video for more on defense mechanisms.

Chris Heath is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and a member of the Committee on Public Information of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Click here to visit his YouTube channel.