Early in our childhood, we begin forming protective measures in response to circumstances we believe are threatening. These “disguises” are created unconsciously as a means to protect ourselves from wounds or trauma. For example, when a two year old child has a toy taken away by their parent, their response might be, ‘I don’t care that you took that truck away. I never liked it anyway!’ Despite the fact that the particular truck was their most favorite possession, they react in a manner that conceals their true feelings.
We begin forming defense mechanisms at a young age, either through observing the behavior modeled by our parents, caretakers, teachers, coaches, babysitters, etc., or as a result of our learned fear, anxiety, or distrust. Defense mechanisms are common amongst all human beings as a coping strategy. We use these protective measures when we feel vulnerable or threatened. All living organisms possess an instinctive response for self-protection and preservation.
Understanding our Disguises
Our unconscious response to issues that cause anxiety, fear, pain, frustration, and manifold other emotions becomes a learned pattern of thought and behavior. There are several types of defense mechanisms that form within us that eventually become habitual responses. Whether we are aware or not, we rely upon these during episodes of conflict.
How do these disguises affect us?
Defense mechanisms form a wall between our external self, who we are to the world, and our internal self, our inner core self so that we do not have to face our innermost fears. They cause us to swallow our emotions rather than allow them to flow out of us. When we behave in a way that suggests we don’t care, nothing bothers us, when we act out by yelling and spewing forth angry words, or we say the opposite of how we feel, we are creating a fictitious border between ourselves and the world. You are not going to hurt me anymore, because I don’t give a darn what you think of me. I never wanted you in my life in the first place!
These are examples of behaving as though we are unaffected by what we are experiencing. However, we are deeply affected, we just pretend not to be. Not only are we deceiving others, we are being dishonest with ourselves. And, when we react in this manner, we are in actuality intensifying our inner strain, the incongruity between how we truly feel and how we are behaving.
Identifying Your Disguises
Before beginning the work to eliminate the layers of disguises you have amassed throughout your life, it is important to identify which ones you rely upon. Without knowing how you respond, you will be challenged to alter your behavior.
One of the most common forms of disguises is denial. Anyone who has ever experienced any form of addiction is acutely aware of denial as a prominent symptom of their disease. Denial is probably the most common form of self-deception and disguise. It is easier to act is if you aren’t struggling both for yourself and for those in your life. ‘I am not an alcoholic just because I drink two bottles of wine a night.’ ‘I don’t think about what happened that dreadful night, I just take pills to numb myself.’ ‘I wasn’t rude to that person, he asked for it!’
Denial is an unhealthy way of managing your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Pretending you are okay when you clearly are not is never wise. In time, using denial as a defense can cause a series of serious health consequences.
When we force something away that has caused us strain, we are psychologically taking it from our conscious thought and moving it to our unconscious thought. We are typically unaware that we are restraining our thoughts so that we don’t have to feel them.This is another defense mechanism that protects us from experiencing painful emotion.
I used repression frequently throughout my childhood without conscious awareness. Anytime I was subjected to family trauma, which was a common occurrence during my youth, I would try to inhale the confusing and frightening emotions associated with what I was witnessing, and store it in a cavern in my brain. I became so accustomed to using this tactic every time I was in an uncomfortable situation, that it became a habit upon which I frequently relied.
What we repress never disappears, and with time, it becomes a central deterrent in your journey to heal yourself. The more we work to restrain our thoughts and emotions, the larger the space they occupy within us.
Projection is when you feel insecure about something—this could be an internal thought or an external action—and you project what you are feeling onto someone else. For example, after I was bullied as a child, I was distrustful of everyone. If I walked into a room and saw some people whispering, I would immediately believe they were judging me. My tendency would be to say something such as, “What did I do this time to offend you?”
Projection is when you believe someone is thinking negatively you when it is how you actually feel about yourself.
Many people live their entire lives harboring unresolved issues from childhood. Regression is a defense mechanism that elicits childlike behavior triggered by a circumstance that takes you back to your childhood. When you are facing a circumstance that subconsciously arouses emotions from your youth, you may act as you did when you were a child.
It is easy to observe regression in adults. For example, I worked for a CEO that personified regression on a daily basis. Whenever he was in a meeting with us and someone disagreed with him, rather than facing the issue with dignity and respect for himself and others, he would stomp out of the office, slamming the door as he exited. Another example is when someone feels hurt by a comment a friend made to them. Rather than addressing it in a mature manner, they would shut down and pout about it for days.
Displacement, or shifting the blame, is another common defense mechanism. When you take out your anger on someone who doesn’t deserve it, you are displacing or casting blame in order to excuse your behavior. When for example, you have an argument with your partner, and you go into work and snap at your colleagues. This is a way to shift your emotions to someone else because it is more convenient and less painful than to direct it to yourself or your spouse.
We often use displacement as an outlet for our emotions. We take out our frustration on someone we might view as a subordinate rather than face the person with whom we are having the issue.
This is another form of self-protection I used throughout my life. When you intellectualize a problem, you are thinking yourself out of that issue, rather than facing it head-on. The truth is one cannot intellectualize a problem. As I write about in my book, A Human Mosaic: Heal, Renew & Develop Self-Worth, when we try to think away our problems, we are actually making them bigger than they are.
When we compartmentalize our thoughts and emotions, we are separating them from our conscious thought to protect ourselves from trauma. Compartmentalizing can be a productive tool when we need to concentrate as it is a way to focus and shut out distractions.
As a defense mechanism, however, when we compartmentalize painful wounds, we are pushing them down further into our psyche, which could lead to more severe mental and emotional issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
How often have you caught yourself rationalizing about something, whether it is making up an excuse to yourself and to others, or simply telling yourself a story that does not reflect the reality of the situation? We all have been subject to rationalizing our behavior as a defense mechanism in an attempt to minimize it, justify something we did, or take the sting away.
When we rationalize something, for instance, when we have made a mistake or have said something that caused someone pain, rather than taking responsibility for our behavior, we minimize it in our minds by coming up with a reason for what we said or did, explaining it away, an excuse for ourselves so that we don’t have to feel shame or insecurity.
Rationalizing is another mechanism that distances you from reality and from your true thoughts and emotions by changing the outcome of your actions to suit your internal doubt or feelings of inadequacy.
How to Eliminate Your Disguises to Live a More Meaningful Life
Many of us live our entire lives hiding beneath the disguises that we have used to cope with our internal fears, anxieties, and self-doubt, as well as a way to deal with uncomfortable or distressing situations. And, there are times in our lives when protecting ourselves from heartache by rationalizing or turning away from a difficult situation is healthier than facing it, especially when dealing with a potential harmful one.
When we continually run away from or defend ourselves, we are not managing or processing our emotions, which leaves them cycling within our brain for our lifetime. And, this requires valuable energy to keep these emotions from surfacing. From personal experience, when I used to employ defense mechanisms, they left me feeling bad, guilty, and off-center.
Practices to Apply to Begin Shedding Your Disguises
Since I have mentioned multiple times that when we rely on defense mechanisms we are disengaging from our lives, it would seem evident that what might help us release these is to be self-aware and practice mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness has been used for centuries as a way to center oneself. People have asked me how they can practice mindfulness as their lives are a constant race to the end of each day. What I know is that when you direct your energy outwardly, all day, every day, you are further subjugating your emotions.
Making time during your day to spend in self-awareness is key to your holistic health. It does not take long, however, the benefit is that when you focus on the present moment, calmly breathing and accepting whatever it is you are feeling and thinking, you will experience a cleansing and reinvigoration. Mindfulness is a practice that involves being nonjudgmental of yourself, fully embracing who you are and letting your thoughts flow through you.
For those of you who have not experienced mindfulness, you can begin any moment of any day. The more you practice this cathartic and healing form of meditation, the easier it will become. And, as you become more self-aware, you will have an easier time recognizing the triggers that elicit your defense mechanisms.
Do the Opposite
Cold Turkey. Sounds familiar? There are instances in our lives when simply stopping behavioral patterns that have caused us discomfort and stress is the way to go. It is not easy, but with determination, it is a powerful way to eliminate toxic stuff from our lives.
The approach is simple: STOP. I created an acronym with the word STOP so that my clients and those suffering could quickly recall why they are trying to eliminate negative thoughts and actions.
Strong ~ Tenacious ~ Optimistic ~ Purposeful
Strong: You have the inner strength to pay attention to your thoughts and emotions and when you feel triggered by something, whether it is something a person says or does, or a circumstance that threatens you, STOP, observe what you are feeling, and have the strength to blow it out of you before you react.
Tenacious: This is your opportunity to be stubborn, to be determined no matter what because you deserve it. Cling to your commitment to withhold your typical behavior and choose to respond with dignity, grace, and self-understanding.
Optimistic: Optimism drives change more than any other emotion. Passion is the energetic mindset that can catalyze any sort of transformational change. Do not despair when feeling vulnerable, instead, choose to be positive about your decision to not be defensive or on guard. Instead, you will permit your natural emotions to flow through you and have the presence of mind to move forward without your fallback defense mechanism.
Purposeful: When we have a purpose, a mission, for ourselves, we are committed, heart and mind. Be committed to yourself. What could be more meaningful than focusing on changing and feeling internally powerful and at peace? When you decide you will eliminate your defense mechanisms, make this your purpose and be resolute in your commitment.
The act of thinking the opposite or differently from what you are used to, feels exhilarating. Instead of using a defense mechanism, choose to face the facts and respond honestly. It may be hard at first, and it will take some time to become comfortable in this new practice, however, it will be a huge relief and a soul detox for you in the long run. When you let your emotions flow out of you without restraint, you will feel a sense of power within like no other. And, more importantly, an inner calm that will keep you centered.
Reflection, the act of looking back at your behavior, is a wonderful practice to apply when working to let go of your defense mechanisms. Reflection is a powerful form of self-understanding and self-awareness, as I point out in my book. John Dewey’s quote will provide clarity: “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”
Until we evaluate our thoughts and emotions, we will continue to repeat unhealthy patterns.
Reflection is a way to consciously think through and analyze your defense mechanisms, and as importantly, recognize their negative impact on you. Ask yourself questions to start the practice of reflection. Why do you react this way? Why do you feel threatened by conflict? What is it that causes you to feel threatened and why? How are your defense mechanisms blocking your ability to grow as a human being and learn self-acceptance?
Without knowing what you are thinking, it is impossible to change your thoughts, so spend time evaluating what causes you to react defensively and why. Be gentle with yourself, and also be patient, as this is a process and requires time and focus.
Keeping a journal is a wonderful way to document your thoughts and feelings, and be able to refer back to them easily. Writing about why you have used disguises to conceal and withhold your true emotions is a productive practice as it takes your thoughts literally and figuratively out of your brain and concretizes them. When you see what you are experiencing in print, it makes them real. This practice of writing also provides you distance from your thoughts and gives you perspective, which serves as a valuable way to look at something from a new angle.
Write as often as you can. Pay close attention to the triggers that evoke emotions with you that send you immediately into defensive mode. When you return to your journal, you will have fresh eyes and tremendous wisdom about yourself.
I am not afraid or ashamed of what I am feeling any longer. I will accept my thoughts and learn how to face them when they occur. I will observe and acknowledge my thoughts without judgment and remind myself that I what I am doing has purpose and meaning. I do not want to use defense mechanisms to conceal my genuine emotions. I will be passionate about my goals to change.
As I discuss in my book, positive self-talk is a powerful way to manage your thoughts. Think about how top athletes motivate themselves by envisioning their goals. A monumental component of their success stems from their mindset orientation. Self-motivation is the greatest source of transformation. Think big, act bigger!
It is not silly to talk to yourself and psych yourself up when you are facing a challenge. In fact, it is of great value to inspire yourself and believe in your abilities. I also write inspirational messages and tape them to my bathroom mirror or my desk to remind myself of my purpose.
Be Aware and Awake to Your Mindset
Societal norms have created a cultural predilection towards the need to multitask. Of course, our busy lives necessitate having numerous, coinciding activities. When it comes to you, your self-concept and self-worth, ignoring how you feel and repressing your burdens are not healthy. It can lead to numerous mental and physical health issues. When you commit time to yourself, pledge that you will be wholly focused. Believe that you can achieve any form of behavioral change, because you can. Your brain thrives on learning new ways of thinking and acting.
You deserve to live free of those disguises and permit your authentic being to blossom.
Note to Reader:
In my book, I discuss numerous strategies, including Deep Breathing Exercises, Meditation, Exercise, Yoga, Nature Breaks, and many more. You have an extraordinary brain that will enable you to retrain your patterns of thought as soon as you are ready. You possess the capacity to eliminate these defense mechanisms and live with inner peace. Start today!