When we get hit with a piece of bad news, it can stress us out and make us feel anxious, sad, angry, or ashamed, sometimes in ways that we’re not even aware of. Some of these feelings can be outright overwhelming or unacceptable. Whoa! Imagine you’re a wealthy woman who discovers her husband married her for her money or a high school football star slowly realizing he may be gay. Yikes, that’s why we use defenses. Defense is another name for coping strategy, especially one that we use automatically, without thinking about it at all.
Immature (or childlike) defenses numb the pain by keeping us oblivious to our uncomfortable feelings and often involve denial, rewriting, and acting out. People can deny facts and what flows from them, often unwittingly. People can come up with and swear by their own versions of events, unconsciously engineered to soothe the pain. All the while, others can directly act out their feelings in ways that are violent, inappropriate, or self-destructive.
Intermediate defenses often involve getting away from that looming job hunt, or whatever it is that is stressing you out. At their best, they include exercise and other things I mention in Ten Great Coping Strategies, which can keep you healthy and in a good mood while dealing with your resume and networking. An afternoon of shopping and other things like Drinks, Drugs, and Complicated Coping Strategies can be appealing get-aways, but be careful that you don’t pursue them to the point of causing new problems and avoiding your job hunt altogether. It’s also less than ideal to ignore the particulars of a problem and depend too much on things that come easy to you, like being amazingly helpful, incredibly prepared, helpless and adorable, or delightfully charming.
Mature defenses help us work with our emotions and find a solution to the specific situation at hand. Mature coping strategies include sharing with a friend, putting things in perspective, seeking help, learning from mistakes, speaking up for yourself, finding alternatives, and taking meaningful action.
Just like we all have an Inner Child of feelings, we all have an outer shell of defenses that is just as distinctive and important in making us the Mike or Cathy that our friends, family, and coworkers know. Unlike our inner feelings, our defenses, or coping strategies, are things that we learn as we grow up and things that we can change—with conscious effort—as we develop further as adults.
That’s why I encourage people to pursue all kinds of growth experiences, and, as a psychotherapist, I’ll help you attain more mature coping skills so that you will respond to stress better and be able to make life choices that are guided and sustained by your most powerful inner feelings.