Allow me to kick things off with a (perhaps embarrassing?) confession: The very thought of writing this piece seemed really intimidating to me.
I was concerned about creating something that was thorough and accurate, yet still made sense and was easy to read. Plus, I knew doing so meant that I’d be elbows-deep in a lot of heavy psychological research.
So, do you know what I did? Like the responsible adult that I am, I avoided this assignment for as long as I possibly could. I tackled a lot of other smaller (and easier) projects first: I cleaned out my inbox, I called my mom, and I even brushed my dog.
Needless to say, it doesn’t require much psychoanalysis to figure out my default defense mechanism: avoidance.
We all have this “anti-superpower” which does more harm than good at times. Finding out what yours is isn’t some sadistic exercise—pinpointing it can help you move past it. So, what’s yours? What behavior do you rely on to fend off feelings of anxiety and preserve your own ego? Not so sure? Well, let’s dig a bit deeper and find out.
But First…Why Do We Use Defense Mechanisms?
Defense mechanisms were first noted by Sigmund Freud, the famed founder of psychoanalysis. However, they were further developed and expanded on by his daughter, Anna Freud, via her notable research.
At their core, defense mechanisms are really self-serving. We all use them subconsciously in order to ward off and protect ourselves from negative thoughts or feelings—such as anxiety or guilt.
Our defense mechanisms really kick into high gear during situations where we feel threatened. That doesn’t necessarily mean physically threatened—rather, these psychological strategies are prevalent in high-stress environments where we doubt our abilities and suddenly become hyper-aware of our own shortcomings. We go on the defensive in order to preserve our own egos.
Of course, defense mechanisms can crop up in all areas of your life. But they’re visibly prevalent in the workplace, where stress often runs rampant and there’s an overwhelming desire to put your best foot forward.
Here’s the thing: Defense mechanisms are normal, and we all use them to a certain degree. But, as the research explains, it’s when these behaviors are used to the extreme that things take a turn for the worse: toward obsessive and even neurotic tendencies.
How do you stop your own defense mechanism from becoming a bigger problem, especially in the workplace? The first step is to recognize which one you’re relying on. A quick search reveals that there are tons of different ones out there, so we’re breaking down just a few that are likely lurking right in your own office.
Mechanism Motto: I’m going to stay as far away from that stressful thing as possible.
Let’s start with my personal favorite. Whenever there’s something that you don’t want to deal with, it often seems easiest to just avoid it entirely.
Procrastination is the most common form of avoidance in the workplace (ahem, guilty as charged)—you keep yourself away from a potentially negative scenario by continuing to push it further down the line. However, avoidance in the workplace extends beyond your tasks and into your relationships as well.
For example, maybe you’ve been strategically planning your coffee refills so you don’t have to run into that colleague you had a disagreement with in the break room.
Here’s the major problem with avoidance: things don’t go away just because you ignore them. That assignment will still need to get done. That conflict with that co-worker will need to be resolved eventually.
And the real kicker? Things often get worse the longer that you avoid them. Not only does your deadline get closer or the tension with your colleague simmer, but the anticipation itself is torture and often makes you blow things out of proportion. The sheer dread leading up to the confrontation is a powerful (and stressful) emotion.
Science backs this up. In one study that involved 35 participants who received electric shocks, 70% of them opted to receive stronger shocks immediately, as opposed to less severe shocks later (simply because the anticipation would’ve been agonizing).
Mechanism Motto: There’s no way that’s going to happen.
Imagine that you and your team are working on a large project together. The deadline is closing in, and you still have a lot of work left to accomplish—so much, in fact, that several of your team members have expressed concerns about whether or not you’ll make it over the finish line.
Every time they show even a shred of doubt you quickly reply with a seemingly nonchalant, “Nah, I’m not worried. That’s not going to happen.” Sure, you could call that positive thinking. But really, it’s a defense mechanism we all know as denial.
Denial is more than just avoiding a potentially threatening thought or circumstance—it involves vehemently denying the fact that it even exists. There’s no way that your team could miss the deadline. It’s not even a possibility.
Of course, worst-case scenarios are possible (and that’s far easier to recognize when you aren’t in the thick of things). But this defense mechanism blinds you with optimism so that you can move forward without the burden of realistic expectations.
“There is an immutable fact about denial: it does not work long term,” writes Carl Alasko, Ph.D. in an article for Psychology Today. “Reality always wins. And when it does, the next step in the process is to blame, which shifts responsibility onto someone or something else.”
Mechanism Motto: That wasn’t my fault because…
Ah, the old blame game. That’s exactly where rationalization comes into play. With this defense mechanism, you come up with a bunch of “facts” that explain why a situation played out a certain way.
Let’s go back to our example of missing a deadline for your team project. Admitting that you didn’t get it done on time because you started too late can sting.
You know what’s way easier? To say that you missed that deadline because another team was late getting you what you needed. Or your computer crashed. Or someone drank all of the coffee again. Or all of the above. Taking an honest look at your own faults and acknowledging how you’ve contributed to your downfall is never easy.
“For many people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy that they never are truly aware of it,” explains Saul McLeod, a psychology researcher for the University of Manchester, in an article for Simply Psychology. “In other words, many of us are quite prepared to believe our lies.”
Research backs this up: In one study, 42 participants (half seniors and half millennials) were given a form with 102 questions asking them about what they did the previous day (i.e. “Did you press snooze on your alarm clock?”).
The researchers randomly chose half of the questions and told participants to lie in their answers to those questions. Forty-five minutes later, participants were instructed to answer all of the questions again—this time completely truthfully.
What they discovered was surprising: People (particularly those from the senior group) were more inclined to believe the false answer they had previously recorded. And what was even more shocking was that the electroencephalography (which monitored participants’ brain activity) data found that lying actually engaged the brain processes responsible for working memory.
Rationalization comes naturally to most of us, but it’s still not a healthy habit in the workplace—one study shows that it can even be contagious. And that’s bad news because research also shows that, on teams where blame becomes the norm, there’s less creativity and poorer performance.
Mechanism Motto: I need to find an unsuspecting target for my negative emotions.
Your boss strolled into the office an hour late. That’s a transgression you could’ve ignored…had they not had the audacity to then call you into their office and give you a lecture on the importance of showing up to work on time.
Smoke is coming out of your ears, but you know that you can’t yell at your boss. You keep your cool, apologize (…for nothing), and then exit their office.
What happens next?
If you rely on displacement as a defense mechanism, anyone who crosses your path is going to wish they hadn’t. You may become unjustifiably angry with your direct reports, or even snap at your innocent colleagues. Put simply, you’ll channel all of your frustration and negative emotions into the totally wrong target, all because directing those feelings at your boss would’ve meant consequences for you.
You’re human and bad days are inevitable. However, the fact remains that it’s not a reliable coping strategy and will only do damage to your working relationships long-term.
“Naturally, this is a pretty ineffective defense mechanism, because while the anger finds a route for expression, its misapplication to other harmless people or objects will cause additional problems for most people,” writes John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
Tear Down Your Walls: Can You Prevent Your Defense Mechanisms?
Remember, defense mechanisms are normal. And, when used occasionally, can actually help you. However, it’s when your defense mechanism becomes a repeated habit that you can sabotage yourself in the office.
I won’t sugarcoat it—stopping yourself from relying on these defense mechanisms is uncomfortable and challenging. It requires that you do the one thing you were hoping to avoid: allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
Like any other behavior, the first step in making a change is to recognize the problem. Analyze your thoughts, emotions, reactions, and exchanges at work to figure out which of the above defense mechanisms you’re using as a crutch.
Don’t see yourself in any of the above? There are plenty of other defense mechanisms out there, including:
- Regression: Reverting to childlike behaviors (i.e. Michael Scott mimicking people when he’s aggravated).
- Compartmentalization: Segregating different thoughts or portions of your life (i.e. shutting out any personal problems while you’re at work).
- Projection: Assigning your own thoughts and emotions to others (i.e. mentioning that your colleague looks really nervous for her performance review when it’s, in fact, you who is anxious).
- Undoing: Attempting to backpedal a negative behavior with a lot of positives (i.e. saying something rude to a co-worker and then showering him with compliments the rest of the afternoon).
Once you’ve identified what you’re using to preserve your own ego, it’s time to enlist some help so you don’t fall right back into old habits.
Find someone you trust on your team or in your office that can hold you accountable and identify when they see you putting your guard up. This should be someone who can, in the heat of the moment, direct your attention to the fact that you’re displacing your frustration or avoiding your to-do list.
It’s not a secret that accountability partners can work wonders. The American Society of Training and Development found that people are 65% more likely to complete a goal after committing it to another person. So, if your goal is to change your behavior, you can expect a pretty decent success rate.
The Best Offense Is a Good Defense…Right?
This sentiment holds true in sports, but not so much at work. Relying on any type of defense mechanism too much makes it all too easy to lose sight of the reality right in front of you.
Here’s the good news: You can do something about it.
After all, if I could finally force myself to sit down and write this article, I think you can overcome your own defense mechanism, too. That’s a fact that’s difficult to deny—even if denial happens to be your go-to choice of defense.
A LOOK AT TRUMP’S ‘CRISIS’ MANAGEMENT
By Alexandra D’Elia, @Alex_DElia11
Politics production assistant
President Donald Trump uses many negotiating strategies. But some of them follow a similar pattern:
- creating leverage with a threat;
- using the threat to escalate tension or create a crisis;
- backing down from the threat; and then
- claiming victory when the crisis is averted.
Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on Mexico unless the country reached a deal with the U.S on immigration is just the latest example. Let’s take a look at some other instances.
Mexico tariff threat: Trump announced May 30 that he would impose a 5 percent tariff on Mexican goods coming into the U.S., and increase the tariff percentage over the summer until the country took action to reduce the rise in migrants trying to enter the U.S. at the southern border. Economists, Democrats and some Republicans warned that the threats would cause economic harm to both nations. But Trump announced in a tweet Friday night that the U.S. reached a signed agreement with Mexico and the tariffs were “hereby indefinitely suspended.” The joint declaration says that Mexico agreed to deploy its National Guard to address the crisis, though officials say that agreement was already made in March.
U.S.-Mexico border shutdown: In another effort to curb illegal migration from Mexico, Trump announced on March 29 that he would shut down America’s southern border to Mexico the following week unless Mexican authorities took action. Trump then said in Florida that there was a “very good likelihood” that he would close the border, “and that is just fine with me.” Economists warnedthat a border shutdown would be economically crippling. Less than a week later, on April 4, the president said that he would give Mexico a “one-year warning” before closing the border. He then warned of imposing auto tariffs on Mexican goods instead, which he did two months later.
Negotiations with North Korea: Following North Korea’s weapons tests in 2017, Trump told the U.N. General Assembly the U.S. would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if the country attacked. He called Kim Jong Un “Little Rocket Man” and said that he was “on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” The rhetoric sparked fears of a possible armed conflict between the two countries. Kim responded that Trump would “pay dearly” for his threats. Trump and Kim met in Singapore in June of 2018, where Trump said he would halt “very provocative” U.S.-South Korea military exercises and touted his relationship with Kim. Trump claimed the summit as a major foreign policy victory. A year of verbal tiffs followed, along with a failed second summitin February in Hanoi, Vietnam. Trump said today that he had a very good relationship with North Korea, and pointed to a “very warm” letter he received yesterday from Kim.
Pulling out of NATO: The president said in July of 2018 at a NATO summit in Brussels that he would be “unhappy” if other countries did not “up their commitments” to the alliance, but that “everyone has agreed to”do so. Some foreign leaders disputed Trump’s claim. In January of this year, The New York Times reported that Trump suggested several times last year that the U.S. withdraw from the alliance, which America has been a member of for 70 years. Trump’s criticism of NATO as a candidate and president has worried allies who argue the U.S. should maintain its ties to NATO and other international alliances.
General Motors subsidies cut: In May of 2018, Trump threatened to cut all federal subsidies to General Motors after the organization announced that it would close its plants in Ohio, Michigan and Maryland. “Nothing being closed in Mexico & China. The U.S. saved General Motors, and this is the THANKS we get!” Trump tweeted at the time. General Motors shares fell 3.5 percent. Trump never cut subsidies to the auto giant. Last month, Trump claimed victory when General Motors announced that it would sell its Lordstown, Ohio, plant to an electric truck manufacturer. Trump tweeted: “With all the car companies coming back, and much more, THE USA IS BOOMING!”
The flawed assumption underlying both sides of the intra-conservative debate kicked off by Sohrab Ahmari
We get your holidays off. Most TV shows have a Christmas episode. I’ve heard about “the spirit of Christmas” more times than I can count. There are churches everywhere. The most-watched news network and some of the most popular websites denounce “happy holidays” while issuing fever dream warnings of Sharia law. Visit Israel or a Muslim country and you’ll see what it looks like when Christianity is culturally weak.
But that’s not the type of power culture warriors and defenders of conservative Christianity are talking about.
To get to the supposed crisis, we have to dismiss a lot of political and cultural power. Even then, examining specific instances of encroaching secular culture shows that “no longer dominant in every area, but still powerful overall” is more accurate than “under immense threat and headed for annihilation.”
The Actual Threat
There are, of course, incidents of religious Americans facing discrimination. There are also incidents of non-religious Americans facing discrimination. The question is not “do religious conservatives face any opposition?,” but whether that opposition is so powerful, and conservative Christians so weak, that the threat is existential.
Consider some of the most prominent cases:
Universities and Free Speech
David French cites a lawsuit in which he defended “a conservative Christian professor who was denied promotion because of his faith.” That’s wrong — it’s religious discrimination — and he won in court. There are many universities where no professors were denied promotion because of their religion, and others, such as Bob Jones in South Carolina, that are allowed to utilize religious criteria.
French also cites the work of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which he used to lead. I share some of their criticisms regarding campus censorship — see, for example, my article on free speech — but it hardly amounts to social conservatives’ impending annihilation.
As an example of threats to free speech on campus, FIRE maintains a database of disinvitations, in which activists tried to prevent someone they dislike from speaking. From 1998 through 2019, FIRE identifies 427 incidents. Of these, 257 cases involve protests coming from the speaker’s left (not all of which involve religion). That means an average of 11.68 cases per year over 22 years. With about 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, about 0.2 percent see a disinvitation attempt prompted by the left in a given year.
That’s not the only illiberal activity on campus — and I think many of them deserve criticism — but an existential threat it is not.
Obamacare required health insurance plans to cover contraception, and the owners of Hobby Lobby, a privately-held chain of stores, objected. They’re conservative Christians, and argued that being forced to pay for contraceptives violated their religious freedom.
But they weren’t forced to pay for contraceptives. They compensated their employees with health insurance, and then, if the employee chose to buy contraceptives, the insurance company paid for it. Millions of employees spend their paychecks on things their employers disapprove of, but the employers can’t stop it. There’s no reason non-cash compensation should be different.
What the owners of Hobby Lobby wanted is the type of power Ahmari craves — the ability to impose religious beliefs on others. No one forced them to use contraception. No one even forced them to buy someone else’s contraception. But the possibility that employees might choose to use their health insurance for something the employers didn’t like was too much.
In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. As a result, if you work for a private company, and the owners are religious, they can tell you what you can and cannot do with some of your compensation.
You may be more sympathetic to Hobby Lobby’s position than I am. Either way, no existential threat here.
Gay Wedding Cakes
The 2015, 5–4 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage in the United States. That’s probably the biggest example of social conservatives losing the power to impose their beliefs on others. However, while no church has to perform a gay wedding, and no one has to attend any wedding if they don’t want to, legalization created some situations that impose on religious Americans.
Should religious wedding vendors have to sell to gay couples? It’s a fascinating question, because two fundamental rights come into conflict: equal protection for the couple; freedom of religion for the vendor. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court ducked the larger question, deciding 7–2 that the Commission displayed religious animus in its treatment of Masterpiece.
For me, it comes down to what the vendor’s being asked to do. Refusing to sell a standard product — something off the shelf they’d sell to other couples — is blatant “we don’t serve your kind here” discrimination, like banning black people from the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. But if it’s a custom product — something not unreasonably called art — then the government making the vendor do it is coerced creative labor. (I tackled this in greater detail here).
The 2018 fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s conformation to the Supreme Court looms large in social conservative narratives of existential threat. For Ahmari, it’s proof they “face enemies who seek our personal destruction.” Dreher says it “radicalized” him. French agrees that it shows conservative Christians under threat, but argues that Kavanaugh’s confirmation demonstrates why the principles of classical liberalism, such as due process and presumption of innocence, are the best response. (As I said, their debate’s primarily over strategy, not the threat’s existence).
Underlying all of these claims is a staggering presumption of bad faith. Ahmari, Dreher, French and many other conservatives don’t consider the possibility that at least some of the opposition to Kavanaugh might’ve been opposition to Kavanaugh himself, not to American Christians in general.
To get there, you have to assume Christine Blasey Ford was lying, deluded, and/or put up to it, that people who say they believe her allegations of sexual assault are also lying, and that the women who poured their hearts out over their own sexual assaults were crisis actors out of Alex Jones’ imagination, or at least manipulators exaggerating how they feel because of their secret anti-Christian agenda. And you also must dismiss concerns from Americans who think Kavanaugh’s previous experience as a partisan operative isn’t a good fit for the nation’s highest supposed-to-be-impartial body.
Most importantly, you have to ignore the recent Supreme Court confirmations of Neil Gorsuch (conservative and Catholic, like Kavanaugh), Samuel Alito (conservative, Catholic), and John Roberts (conservative, Catholic), none of whom faced accusations of sexual assault. You have to concoct a story where the left wasn’t angry during Gorsuch’s nomination in 2017 — even though they were openly furious that the Senate blocked Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland — but developed such fury over the subsequent year that they decided to invent and then pretend to care about accusations of sexual assault.
A lot of people care passionately about the Supreme Court, with many on the left strongly opposed to right-wing positions on abortion, prayer in schools, and other issues involving religion. And there’s no doubt some political operatives oppose every Supreme Court nomination from the other party and will latch onto whatever they can to fight it. But this does not add up to Christians under existential threat.
The Kavanaugh case reveals the fuzziness of the distinction between cultural and political power. According to right-wing culture warriors, winning elections is not a sign of lasting power, because it’s political, not cultural. However, nearly losing — but still winning — a Supreme Court seat is a sign of cultural weakness so menacing that Christians must adapt a crisis mentality.
Social conservatives worrying about cultural annihilation may find all the above examples unconvincing. They all involve institutional power — court rulings, Senate votes — and one of the cultural warriors’ arguments is that conservatives must do anything to hold institutional power as a bulwark against the cultural threat.
Consider, then, the case of Chick-fil-A.
In 2012, the family-owned fast food chain came under fire when the chief operating officer publicly opposed same sex marriage, and it came out that the family’s foundation donated millions to organizations fighting against legalization. In response, LGBT rights activists called for protests and a boycott..
So it went out of business, right? Or if it didn’t, it’s because a court came to the rescue?
Nope. Conservatives rallied to the restaurant’s defense. Sales rose 12% in the aftermath of the controversy, and the chain has continued expanding, growing larger than Burger King or Wendy’s. Activists fought the expansion — here’s one warning of “Chick-fil-A’s creepy infiltration of New York City” — but failed.
It’s Not a Crisis
The Chick-fil-A case encapsulates my argument. Social conservatives face motivated opponents that have some cultural power. But religious conservatives have quite a bit of cultural power too. Plus a lot of judicial and political power. Ahmari’s frame of existential danger is divorced from reality. French’s “immense threat” is overstated.
There’s no question that Christianity is weaker in the United States in the 21st century than it was in the 20th or 19th. Mainstream movies, television, and pop music often portray social conservatives negatively (if at all), and portray things social conservatives disapprove of positively. But what this all adds up to is competing in American society as a large, powerful bloc — not impending annihilation.
The slope isn’t slippery.
Conservative Christians hold the keys to statehouses, House and Senate seats, electoral votes. There’s a friendly majority on the Supreme Court, and friendly judges throughout the system. Christianity has an enduring cultural power, because it’s deeply embedded in American life, and because millions of Americans practice various versions of it every day.
The narrative that religious conservatives face cultural apocalypse is one of the most toxic in American politics. It is one of the biggest causes — not the only cause, but a big one — of zero-sum, no-compromise, fight-over-everything hyper-partisanship. Because after all, if you’re facing extermination, you have no choice.
This logic bears enough resemblance to racist theories of “white genocide” that it should give social conservatives pause.
But it’s also good for political mobilization and media consumption. And a lot of people seem to like thinking of themselves as victims. So I wouldn’t expect it to stop.
–Bobby Azarian, cognitive neuroscientist and blogger for Psychology Today, joins David to discuss how Donald trump continues to hold on to his base’s support
reason that this is relates to theunwavering support so this effect is isamplified in conservatives becauseconservatives have this hypersensitivity
to threat generally speaking so by thatI mean they tend to focus on threat moreand they tend to have this exaggeratedfear response to threatening messages sowe know this from a number of differentstudies for example one study tooksir motives and liberals and had themsit in front of a computer screen wherethey showed a bunch of different imagessome of the images were threateningsomewhere neutrals some are positive andthey track their eye movements and whatthey found is that conservatives fixatedon the threatening images longer andthey oriented toward the threateningimages more quickly then liberals soyeah we call that being hyper-vigilantfor threat and a couple other studiesshowed that conservatives tend to have alarger amygdala and a more reactiveamygdala in response to threat yes ohthe amygdala is a brain structure thatis involved in processing threat andit’s also associated with the fearresponseso when Donald Trump is saying thesescary messages their brains are engagedeven more strongly his messages are moresalient because they’re in a way tunedinto threat and I’m not really trying topick on conservatives here that’s whatthe studies show also you know someonecould interpret that differently and youcould see it as Republicans orconservatives might also be betterequipped to respond to a threat in thecase that you know something does happenbecause they’re they’re hyper vigilantabsolutely fascinating stuff we’ve beenspeaking with cognitive neuroscientistBobby Azarian who also blogs forPsychology Today you can follow him ontwitter at bobby Azarian and check out