In Defense of our Defense Mechanisms

In defense of defensiveness

Defensiveness – Our Knight in Protective Armor
When we indicate that someone is being defensive, it is often with the implicit judgment that it’s a position of weakness and imparted with a negative connotation.  Part of the journey to self-compassion, a vital component to healing, lies in developing greater awareness and tolerance of the body’s defense mechanisms.    

Reframing Defensiveness
Neuroception is a helpful process by which we can reframe defensive behaviors as protective and adaptive:

Neuroception describes how our body scans our environment for signs of safety or danger.

 Our defenses, which may present as disruptive behaviors, are the result of cues that signal “danger.”  

Letting Go Opens the Door to Self-Compassion
Our ability to recognize the intelligence behind our actions or reactions is a wonderful pathway by which we can unleash ourselves from ongoing self-critique and obsessive thinking that we will be “good enough” once we “get rid of ” symptoms.  Being driven to banish subconscious and automated behavior tends to encourage negating parts of ourselves. 

Disowning who we are hinders self-compassion.

Slowing Down Creates Opportunity for Change
Does this mean that defenses such as rage, denial, anger, shame or anxiety should be embraced?  Shining a light on the function of our defensive behaviors does not mean that we have to accept them to the point of never changing them.  Exploring the purpose of such behaviors and reframing them from a protective point of view allows us to develop the self-compassion to tolerate intense emotions and liberate us in a way to see our potential.  How else to recognize our underlying needs and develop motivation to fulfill them in ways that serve us in the long run? This is personal growth.

When we negate our defensive behaviors, there’s a tendency to throw the entire mechanism for change out the window. 

The Body’s Wisdom
How might our symptoms represent protective behaviors?  Our limbic system has evolved over thousands of years to conserve our energy  so that we continue to live for another day.  Part of the process of conserving our energy is to protect us from overwhelm.  Fatigue and overwhelm consume vast amounts of energy.  We could otherwise use that energy as a reserve for actual threats or to maintain basic daily activities. 

When you rob Peter, Paul may have to pay.

The Impact of Secure Attachment

Attuned Caregiving

Many questions seem in order at this point. If our limbic system is so evolved, then why do some of our automated defenses seem so skewered?  If the purpose is survival, why do we end up in counterproductive situations?  Why do we threaten our ability to maintain relationships?  Why risk connection in general? 

The Adult Brain
The reasoning lies in the fact that many of our defense mechanisms have been hardwired from childhood.  As children, we lack much of the capacity of our adult executive functions.  Our adult executive functions enable us to respond to perceived or actual threats in a more “rational” or acceptable manner.   Mature adult brains have the potential to problem solve, maintain perspective or reality check, among other things. 

At a young age, traumatic or unpleasant experiences are processed differently by the brain in the absence of consistent and responsive caregiving.  This kind of presence can dramatically attenuate the reactivity of our fear center (Amygdala).  Secure attachment helps produce more adaptive responses that serve us through adulthood.

Taking a Time-Out From Survival Mode
When you think about it, the world is not a safe place.  Certainly, a few minutes on social media can sometimes make us feel hopeless or insignificant.  Having a buffer that stops us contemplating all possible dangers, however remote, can allow us to go about our business and pursue our goals.  This buffer can be as simple as taking some minutes out of your day to refrain from regular “busy” activities and do—nothing.

The Benefits of Slowing Down and Noticing

When we can accept that our defenses serve a purpose, we can develop the tolerance to sit with the emotions they foster to the point of implementing different behavioral outcomes.   This is what we refer to as emotional regulation.

You can find other soundbites related to well-being, self-compassion and healing here .  Miss your last group session? Check the blog for the latest subjects covered right here.

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