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.
–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
Bestselling author Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell examine how a Nobel Prize-winning theory of the mind altered our perception of reality in Lewis’ new book The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds.
If you are worried that ISIS might strike the United States and want to prevent the loss of American lives, consider urging Congress to invest in diabetes and Alzheimer’s research.
Terrorism is effective in doing what its name says: inspiring profound fear. But despite unremitting coverage of the Paris attacks, an objective examination of the facts shows that terrorism is an insignificant danger to the vast majority of people in the West.
You, your family members, your friends, and your community are all significantly more at risk from a host of threats that we usually ignore than from terrorism. For instance, while the Paris attacks left some 130 people dead, roughly three times that number of French citizens died on that same day from cancer.
In the United States, an individual’s likelihood of being hurt or killed by a terrorist (whether an Islamist radical or some other variety) is negligible.
Consider, for instance, that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans have been no more likely to die at the hands of terrorists than being crushed to death by unstable televisions and furniture. Meanwhile, in the time it has taken you to read until this point, at least one American has died from a heart attack. Within the hour, a fellow citizen will have died from skin cancer. Roughly five minutes after that, a military veteran will commit suicide. And by the time you turn the lights off to sleep this evening, somewhere around 100 Americans will have died throughout the day in vehicular accidents – the equivalent of “a plane full of people crashing, killing everyone on board, every single day.” Daniel Kahneman, professor emeritus at Princeton University, has observed that “[e]ven in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never [comes] close to the number of traffic deaths.”
No one in the United States will die from ISIS’s —or anyone’s — terrorism today.
What accounts for the fear that terrorism inspires, considering that its actual risk in the United States and other Western countries is so low? The answer lies in basic human psychology. Scholars have repeatedly found that individuals have strong tendencies to miscalculate risk likelihood in predictable ways.
For instance, individuals’ sense of control directly influences their feeling about whether they are susceptible to a given risk. Thus, for instance, although driving is more likely to result in deadly accidents than flying, individuals tend to feel that the latter is riskier than the former. Flying involves giving up control to the pilot. The resulting sense of vulnerability increases the feeling of risk, inflating it far beyond the actual underlying risks.
When people dread a particular hazard, and when it can harm large numbers at once, it’s far more likely that someone will see it as riskier than it is–and riskier than more serious hazards without those characteristics. For instance, people have been found to estimate that the number killed each year by tornadoes and floods are about the same as those killed by asthma and diabetes. But the latter (diabetes, in particular) account for far more deaths each year than the former. In fact, in the year that study was conducted, actual annual diabetes deaths were estimated in the tens of thousands while fewer than 1,000 people died in tornadoes.
Islamist terrorism has all three of these characteristics, inspiring excessive fear — surely by design. For instance, the Paris attacks harmed large numbers; its victims could have done very little to escape it, since the timing and location of such attacks are unpredictable; and the idea of being shot or blown up by a mysterious set of masked extremists is incredibly dreadful.
When we miscalculate risks, we sometimes behave in ways that are riskier than those we are trying to avoid. For instance, in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, millions of Americans elected not to fly. A significant proportion decided to drive to their destinations instead. Driving is more dangerous than flying. And so one scholar of risk, Gerd Gigerenzer, calculated that more people died from the resulting automobile accidents than the total number of individuals who were killed aboard the four hijacked planes Sept. 11.
Kahneman believes that the news media’s disproportionate focus on cases of Western terrorism reinforces such mistaken perceptions. As he explains in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” “extremely vivid image[s] of death and damage” resulting from terrorist attacks are “reinforced by media attention and frequent conversation,” leaving us with highly accessible memories of such events. When people who have been exposed to such coverage later assess how likely more terrorism is, such events come readily to mind — and so they are likely to assign probabilities biased upward.
America’s panicked obsession with Islamist terrorism is understandable but may skew public policies in costly ways. In particular, a serious public policy problem emerges when unsubstantiated fear fuels excessive public spending. More than a decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has committed trillions of dollars to fighting the war on terror. Certainly, some – perhaps even most – of this funding is warranted.
Consider, however, that federal spending on improving vehicular safety and research for Alzheimer’s and diabetes pales in comparison. Yet traffic deaths, Alzheimer’s and diabetes account for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year in the United States.
Whether diverting counterterrorism funding to research in Alzheimer’s and diabetes research would save more American lives depends on the respective marginal benefits. But our government is unlikely to objectively evaluate its investments as long as most Americans have outsized fears of the threat of Islamist terrorist attacks.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the United States and other Western countries are facing no risk of more terror. Quite the contrary: We will almost certainly be attacked by terrorists again during the coming years and decades.
But people will also die from other unlikely events during this same period: a number of unlucky individuals will die after falling out of bed. Others will die of head injuries from coconuts falling from trees. The likelihood that you or those you love will be directly affected by any of this in your lifetime is exceedingly small.
And so perhaps the best way to counter terrorists is to do just as the French pianist who played “Imagine” in public outside the Bataclan did after the attack, or as did the widower whose wife died in the attack, and whose open letter to the terrorists included this: “I will insult you with my happiness.” We can refuse to give them the fear they so desperately want from us.