Are These Defense Mechanisms Preventing You From Being Productive?

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 feelingssuch 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.

1. Avoidance

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).

2. Denial

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.”

 

3. Rationalization

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.

4. Displacement

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.

Richard Rohr Meditation: Midrash

Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver. [1] This statement from Aquinas was drilled into me during seminary. People at different levels of maturity will interpret the same text in different ways. There is no one right way to interpret sacred texts. How you see is what you see; the who that you bring to your reading of the Scriptures matters. Who are you when you read the Bible? Defensive, offensive, power-hungry, righteous? Or humble, receptive, and honest? Surely, this is why we need to pray before reading a sacred text!

Jesus consistently ignored or even denied

  • exclusionary,
  • punitive, and
  • triumphalist texts

in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty. For example, referencing two passages from Exodus (21:24) and Leviticus (24:20), Jesus suggested the opposite: “You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you . . . turn the other cheek” (see Matthew 5:38-39). He read the Scriptures in a spiritual, selective, and questioning way. Jesus had a deeper and wider eye that knew which passages were creating a path for God and which passages were merely cultural, self-serving, and legalistic additions.

Isaiah 61: The Good News of Deliverance

The Good News of Deliverance

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
    foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
    you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
    and in their riches you shall glory.
Because their[a] shame was double,
    and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
    everlasting joy shall be theirs.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;[b]
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

 

Psalm 109: Prayer for Vindication and Vengeance

Do not be silent, O God of my praise.
For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me,
    speaking against me with lying tongues.
They beset me with words of hate,
    and attack me without cause.
In return for my love they accuse me,
    even while I make prayer for them.[a]
So they reward me evil for good,
    and hatred for my love.

They say,[b] “Appoint a wicked man against him;
    let an accuser stand on his right.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty;
    let his prayer be counted as sin.
May his days be few;
    may another seize his position.
May his children be orphans,
    and his wife a widow.
10 May his children wander about and beg;
    may they be driven out of[c] the ruins they inhabit.
11 May the creditor seize all that he has;
    may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.
12 May there be no one to do him a kindness,
    nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.
13 May his posterity be cut off;
    may his name be blotted out in the second generation.

14 May the iniquity of his father[d] be remembered before the Lord,
    and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out.
15 Let them be before the Lord continually,
    and may his[e] memory be cut off from the earth.
16 For he did not remember to show kindness,
    but pursued the poor and needy
    and the brokenhearted to their death.
17 He loved to curse; let curses come on him.
    He did not like blessing; may it be far from him.
18 He clothed himself with cursing as his coat,
    may it soak into his body like water,
    like oil into his bones.
19 May it be like a garment that he wraps around himself,
    like a belt that he wears every day.”

20 May that be the reward of my accusers from the Lord,
    of those who speak evil against my life.
21 But you, O Lord my Lord,
    act on my behalf for your name’s sake;
    because your steadfast love is good, deliver me.
22 For I am poor and needy,
    and my heart is pierced within me.
23 I am gone like a shadow at evening;
    I am shaken off like a locust.
24 My knees are weak through fasting;
    my body has become gaunt.
25 I am an object of scorn to my accusers;
    when they see me, they shake their heads.

26 Help me, O Lord my God!
Save me according to your steadfast love.
27 Let them know that this is your hand;
you, O Lord, have done it.
28 Let them curse, but you will bless.
Let my assailants be put to shame;[f] may your servant be glad.
29 May my accusers be clothed with dishonor;
may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle.
30 With my mouth I will give great thanks to the Lord;
I will praise him in the midst of the throng.
31 For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
to save them from those who would condemn them to death.

Related:

David Perdue’s Prayer for President Obama