Every single one of us from time to time uses defence mechanisms to protect ourselves. Normally this is done through verbal language as humans are masters of using language to protect, confirm, destroy and express our emotions. However, defence mechanisms can have a darker side too as sometimes they can interfere with psychotherapy and stop clients from getting the psychological support they critical need, and it can stop the therapist from being able to do their job. That’s why it’s critical to focus on this great clinical psychology topic.
Today’s psychology podcast episode has been sponsored by Clinical Psychology Collection. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it.
What Are Defence Mechanisms?
Our defence mechanisms can activate at any moment when we feel challenged or maybe when someone has hit a nerve by speaking a truth that we aren’t comfortable hearing or dealing with in our lives. As well as another definition is that defence mechanisms are unconscious thoughts that trigger certain reactions and behaviours so we can avoid uncomfortable situations, emotions and feelings.
In terms of psychotherapy, both the therapist or client could be triggered by a nonverbal cue that could seem misleading or by something that is said in the session. And it’s important to note that within psychotherapy all emotions are valid, and of course, it is just critical that we never judge others for having a reaction because that is human. I’m sure certain therapeutic models would disagree but the truth is it is human to react. An example of this is how therapists wish to simply forget about something that was said in the therapy room because this might have struck too close to home or hit a nerve.
In addition, it is absolutely not the job of our clients to make sure we aren’t triggered because they are there for psychotherapy, and they need to reveal things to us regardless of its nature. But we are all bound to have experiences at times that make us react, because we’re human.
Additionally, one of the most important factors when it comes to defence mechanisms is that there is an intimacy that exists between us as future or current psychologists, and our clients. Since we are just two people in a room trying to make the best use of our language skills to deepen an interpersonal relationship in an effort for the psychologist to help the client. As well as it is a great reminder that this is very awkward at first and rather intimidating.
Resulting in an increase in vulnerability from the client because they are having to share deeply personal things with us, so this is a perfect catalyst for a defence mechanism to activate because the client doesn’t feel safe and secure.
Thankfully this is typically overcome after a while because the therapist manages to build a rapport with the client and the therapeutic relationship increases. Making the client feel safe and secure in the therapeutic environment that is client-centred.
However, there tends to be three defence mechanisms that pop up a lot of the time and these can be important to discuss and explore with clients. As well as not only will knowing about these mechanisms help your own learning, but it will also help enhance your own self-awareness of the unconscious biases, feelings and triggers that might arise in our lives outside of the therapy room.
Defence Mechanism Of Dissociation
Our first defence mechanism is dissociation that is when people become mentally and emotionally disconnected from their life events, trauma and stressful situations, with the degree of their dissociation is different for everyone. Depending on if the person has healthy coping mechanisms that allows them to come back to the present to see their current reality from a positive perspective.
This is a defence mechanism because it can allow clients to not remember certain events that cause them distress.
Defence Mechanism of Denial
People aren’t strangers to denial because it can be helpful in situations where people feel like things are outside of our control or as a response to when we feel that the truth we are trying to tell others isn’t being heard or supported.
Although, denial can be a positive mechanism too. For instance, if a client who is optimistic about their loved one recovering from a car accident or surgery, then this denial can be helpful in finding hope in certain situations.
On the other hand, denial can cause people to not pay attention to any warning signs that something in their lives needs addressing for the sake of their mental health. For example, if they’re started to develop an addiction but has ignored the warning signs. Such as if they have an addiction but is able to go about their daily life without any disruptions, then it could be hard for them to face that there’s a problem, and they will be unlikely to accept how it affects their lives as well as how it affects those care and love them.
Defence Mechanism Of Intellectualisation
Finally, intellectualisation is a defence mechanism that involves a person using reasoning, analytical thinking and logic to avoid anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable emotions.
Intellectualisation can actually be very useful in helping a person rationalise behaviour and analyse events. For example, if a co-worker had been acting strange after a conversation you overheard, then intellectualisation could allow you to deduce that they’re annoyed and you could deduce that the conversation caused them to be annoyed.
Nevertheless, the problem with intellectualisation is that it could lead to you downplaying the importance of the person’s underlying reason or feelings of being upset.
Due to in our society, we often tend to label behaviour as acceptable or not, and if we take an example, then our childhood experiences can determine our opinions on the acceptable reaction to anger. For example, people from minority groups have reported that they don’t like talking about their feelings to people with privilege in society so they downplay their feelings in order to be heard.
Linking this all to therapy now, it doesn’t actually matter what the trigger is, be it verbal or non-verbal, in our own lives or the therapy session itself. We owe it to all of us to create a therapy space where everyone can communicate to the best of their abilities. And of course defence mechanism for the client and the therapist will be activated at times, and this is normal. But the first step to normalising these mechanisms is to accept that they are there in the first place and we should be aware of hierarchical systems of power, like I’ve spoken and written about before. These hierarchical systems could cause us all to be biased about a person’s lived experience.
And as current or future therapists that is something we must absolutely avoid at all costs.
As well as this is why communication is so critical in psychotherapy, it allows us to support our clients and make them so sure that we are on their side without judgement and we will always support them with acceptance and compassion.
Because that is what we look for as amazing therapists and we always act in the best interest of our clients.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s clinical psychology podcast episode.
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