Teens and Common Defenses

To protect ourselves against uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and experiences, we develop a set of automatic mental reactions called defenses (or defense mechanisms). These mechanisms begin in childhood and are a normal part of development. Defenses protect us (our conscious mind) against painful feelings, thoughts, and situations in our families and lives.

Defenses Protect Against Pain

Defenses protect us from painful realities. They filter out things we may not want to recognize, and they change our perceptions so things feel more comfortable. In a sense, defenses distort reality, and to the extent that they distort reality, they cause problems in everyday functioning, especially in interpersonal relationships. Defenses cause problems because they keep people from coming to a consensus about what is true, or real, or fair. It’s as if we’re speaking different languages.

Defenses and Addiction

Defenses are normal. Everyone has them and uses them, but addicts use them to maintain addictive behaviors and thoughts. As addiction progresses, defenses become more and more powerful and rigid, hiding the worsening consequences of addictive behavior. Part of recovery is looking at reality and taking responsibility for the uncomfortable consequences of our addiction. This often means developing more mature defenses that allow more flexible thinking and more honest and wholesome ways of being in the world.

Defenses come in many different forms. We may close our eyes to the destructive consequences of using, or we may explain our addiction away in an intellectual fashion that saves us from having to feel. Another common defense is blaming, during which we find fault with someone else to avoid looking at our own responsibilities.

The following are common defenses:

  • Denial: Refusing to admit or acknowledge that our drinking or using has become a problem. (I can quit any time I want to. My using isn’t that bad.)
  • Isolation: Removing ourselves from the company of family and friends for the purpose of maintaining a chemical habit.
  • Rationalization: Giving reasons to explain why we drink or use. (I drink because I hate my job.)
  • Blaming: Transferring responsibility for our behavior to other people. (I wouldn’t drink if my spouse treated me right.)
  • Projection: Rejecting our own feelings by ascribing them to someone else. (Why is that stupid idiot being so hostile?)
  • Minimizing: Refusing to admit the magnitude of the amount used. (I only have a couple of drinks. It’s not a problem.)