The Practical Guide to Defense Mechanisms

confront demons, know maidens

confront demons, know maidens

The concrete signs we’re fleeing instead of fighting.


Defense mechanisms are psychological phenomena created by the unconscious to block us from emotional pain. Except pain is the foundation of growth, so by numbing the pain, defense mechanisms ensure arrested development. Therefore, it’s vital to recognize our defenses before we can look at and accept the pain they’re defending us against. No one wants to be the tragedy of a man who’s so out of touch that he doesn’t even get that he doesn’t get it.

But when we look up defense mechanisms we get a slew of highfalutin terms like regression, reaction formation, and displacement. It would be helpful, therefore, to identify how defenses appear in the real world. Let’s leave the fancy terminology for the academes who try to make psychology sound more complicated than it is.

Here are concrete signs we’re fleeing instead of fighting.

Apathy: Behind the affect of not caring lies avoided anxiety. We only construct a dispassionate persona to distance ourselves from threats we perceive in the environment.

Fatigue: No man younger than 46 ever has a physical reason for fatigue. Rather, it’s a defense against the dread of not doing what we know we need to do. We’re on the wrong path, a Formula One car on a dirt track, so we may as well feel tired if we’re only going to work against ourselves.

Back pain: Unless there’s a physical reason for the pain—and there almost never is—it’s the body’s passive aggressive way of telling us to avoid anxiety by getting hooked on opioids.

Boozing: One of the most difficult parts of my job is getting guys to see their partying and fun are ways of acting out. No problem in ripping through a booze cruise every so often, but if the bar is part of the routine, then it’s the adult version of thumb sucking.

Porn: Similar to booze, but most guys intuitively get it’s a distraction from loneliness.

Identity politics: Latching our identity onto the tribe is a shortcut to developing a sense of self by forgoing all that pesky suffering and failure.

Life hacking: This goes for all magic bullet solutions. Navigating the messiness of life requires us to dig deep and get honest, not simply arrange power cords with paper clips.

Religion and atheism: Developing a belief structure, or lack thereof, is an important part of our personal development. But we can become too committed to a worldview—even in the face of contradictory evidence—which is a sure sign we’re distracting ourselves.

Dressing down: If we don’t feel like an adult by not wearing adult clothes, then we won’t look at our situation as if we were an adult. Besides, an inherent distrust accumulates in society when a man is seen wearing a hoodie on a Wednesday afternoon.

Fidget spinners: Stillness is often our guide to the pain.

Crossfit: Crying takes on many forms, one of them is doing 35 clean and jerks in a row.

Charity: The subtext of fundraisers is, “I must not be a bad person if I’m donating this money.” Harvey Weinstein is the harbinger. When the Hollywood pedophile rings are exposed (*dons tinfoil hat*), take note that the most aggressive diddlers are the most aggressive do-gooders.

Fixing society: When we forget that reality is the ultimate arbiter, not our arguments, we risk using the problems of society as a distraction from our own problems.

Blaming women: Men are the conduit through which women contact reality. If we’re a hot mess of deflection, then women have no protection except that of feminism.

Graduate school: It’s a scary world out there, but instead of facing it by developing a craft we hide away in fancy buildings to put letters next to our name. This is especially true for business school.

Drug abuse: This includes social media abuse, which is defined as checking Twitter more than three times per week, Instagram more than once per week, and being on Facebook.

Watching Seinfeld reruns: Laughing at the misfortunes of others feels good so we conclude we’re making a bigger deal out of our issues than we are. This way, we’re justified in not facing them all while feeling quite satisfied with ourselves.

Apologizing: We treat apologies like handshakes—something we do to socialize with our fellow men. Give yourself three apologies a year for when you really screw up and leave it at that. Otherwise, the only thing we’re truly sorry about is our inability to confront reality.

Choosing sides: To be part of something larger than ourselves is to be less a part of ourselves.

Stoicism: Disconnecting from emotions and so reality never sounded so smart.

Boredom: The human experience is the greatest experience in the history of the universe as far as we know. Maybe it’s not good enough, or maybe getting involved is too painful.

Of course, this is only how we cut ourselves off from emotions. It’s important to manage emotions as well. Good thing there’s a way to do this without making us feel like a girl, and there’s even a way to do it that makes us strong. Psychological health may not guarantee fame and fortune, but it at least puts us in the top 20 percent of males, which tends to stave off the tragedy.