Defence mechanisms are ways in which we protect ourselves from things that cause us unconscious anxiety. Some of these mechanisms might be really helpful; however there are others that may cause us problems.
In this article we look at the different types of defence mechanisms and how an understanding of them is of value in Executive Coaching.
The Concept of Defence Mechanisms
The concept was developed by Freud who saw them as unconscious processes which protected the ego, or self, from pain and feelings of anxiety. The idea of defence mechanisms is fairly widespread across a range of different schools of therapy and psychology. Although the schools agree on the concept they often have different terminologies and types of defence mechanism.
An example of one defence mechanism that seems to have entered our everyday language is ‘denial’. We might hear people say ‘he is in denial over what has happened. Denial is a psychological process where people seem to be unable to face the reality that others can see. A good example of this could be where an employee is under threat of dismissal unless an improvement takes place. Yet the employee cannot see that there is a threat to their long term employment despite being told otherwise by the boss.
Main Defence Mechanisms
Here I list and explain common defence mechanisms that have been identified. These may be from Freud or other schools of psychology. I have tried to focus on those likely to be most relevant to what happens at work. And remember some of these mechanisms are really helpful to our psychological well being and some are not.
- Denial; this is where an individual behaves as if something is not happening, or has not happened. It is a denial of reality. This can also happen at the organisational level where for example a company that was the brand leader starts to be caught up and overtaken by a smaller competitor.
- Sublimation; where an individual is able to act out an unacceptable impulse by converting those behaviours into a more socially acceptable form. For example someone with feelings of strong aggression might take up boxing as a means of venting their frustration. Rather than letting the unacceptable behaviours act in a destructive manner an individual can use the ‘energy in a more positive way.
- Intellectualization; this is where an individual ignores emotions and feelings and can only discuss an event in terms of its intellectual component. This might be more obvious in relation to a very stressful event, for example where there has been a bereavement. The individual will try to remain emotionally distant from the event.
- Rationalisation; where an individual comes up with a more acceptable way of explaining events or circumstances. So for example someone who did not get a job may say I didn’t really want it anyway, it would have meant relocating the whole family.
- Projection; this is where an individual projects an unacceptable desire on to someone else as a means of putting it out of their own mind. For example if you have a strong dislike for someone you project that feeling and take the view that the person does not like you.
- Displacement; Displacement involves an individual taking out their frustrations, feelings, and impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. Displaced aggression is a common example of this defence mechanism. Rather than express anger in ways that could lead to negative consequences (like arguing with our boss), we instead express our anger towards a person or object that poses no threat (such as our spouse, children, or pets).
When you read the descriptions of the defence mechanisms do you recognise any of them? Have you seen any in action with work colleagues? Or when you think about it can you recognise any that you use? Remember the majority of people use defence mechanisms at some point as a means of maintaining their psychological health.
Defence Mechanisms in Executive Coaching
Executive Coaching is not therapy, so the aim of understanding defence mechanisms is not to enable the Coach to explore them in depth with a Client. It would be hard to do this anyway as they are unconscious processes. For the Coach the benefit of understanding defence mechanisms is improved self-awareness. It also helps create a better understanding of Clients and their behaviours. They can act as a cue to ask a client what it is that causes them to act in a certain way. It can also be helpful to consider them when reviewing things like 360 degree feedback.
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