This article was developed via a partnership with BetterHelp.


We all have our own ways of dealing with stressful situations. Depending on our upbringing and past experiences, we may have healthy and effective mechanisms or use strategies that cause more harm than good. However, it’s not always easy to identify these unhealthy defense mechanisms, as they are often unconscious behaviors. 


The problem is that unhealthy defense mechanisms can cause unnecessary tension and rifts within the family. If either a parent or child consistently uses them, the family will struggle to work through conflict or overcome challenges together. This is why it is so important to identify unhealthy defense mechanisms early and treat them. In this article, you will learn about some of the most common harmful defense mechanisms and learn how to create better strategies for coping with stress. 

Common Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are behaviors or ways of thinking that are used to handle or distance oneself from uncomfortable or stressful situations. Unhealthy defense mechanisms are often used to rewrite reality in one’s mind or find other ways to avoid or skirt around the issue. These mechanisms often create more harm than good, damaging relationships, worsening one’s mental health, or even making the issue much worse than it initially was. Below are a few harmful defense mechanisms that you may encounter often. 


Denial is probably the most well-known defense mechanism. It is a pathological defense mechanism used when someone refuses to accept reality as it is. They will block the uncomfortable or inconvenient facts as a way to protect themselves from the resulting stress or other negative emotions. 


Though everyone experiences denial at some point in their lives, denial is only harmful when it is a persistent defense mechanism. For example, someone in grief may experience denial when they first hear news of losing their loved one but will transition into other emotions and acceptance. This is a normal part of grief and does not necessarily indicate that someone uses denial as a consistent defense mechanism. 


As with denial, projection is a defense mechanism used to rewrite reality to avoid distressful facts or emotions. People who use this defense mechanism will misattribute their actions or uncomfortable thoughts and emotions to someone else. They do this because they struggle to own up to their own behaviors and feelings and therefore need to put them onto someone else to make themselves feel and look better. 


Someone who uses repression will hide painful memories or thoughts, hoping to forget them altogether. This is commonly experienced amongst survivors of abuse. They will try to hide the traumatic events in hopes that they can cope better if they “forget” about those memories. Repression often occurs subconsciously as a way to protect the mind from further pain or distress.


However, repression rarely works. Even if someone does not consciously remember the traumatic event, their subconscious will have memories of it. As a result, they will do things or have certain thoughts that self-sabotage their goals, cause them great distress, or repeat the trauma in some way. 

Acting Out

Have you ever experienced someone reacting completely out of proportion to a particular situation? For example, maybe they were angry at someone, and instead of communicating, they threw an object against the room. Instances like these are called “acting out.” 


Acting out is very commonly attributed to children but often occurs in adults too. It is an extreme reaction to emotion or situation. The person feels intense emotions but doesn’t know how to process them, so they do something drastic to release the pain. However, people who use this defense mechanism rarely think before acting and may harm themselves or their loved ones as a result. 


Displacement is the act of taking out distressing emotions on someone or something that is not seen as threatening. The person rarely has anything to do with the situation causing the distress but is seen as “an easy target” for someone to take their emotions out on. 


For example, a person who is frustrated at work may be silent and bottle up their emotions at the workplace but take out their anger at home. This can include snapping at their partner for tiny inconveniences or even becoming violent or abusive. 


If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for help, guidance, and support. 

How To Treat Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms

Don’t worry if you identified any of these defense mechanisms in yourself or your family. We learn these mechanisms based on our upbringing and experiences but aren’t glued to them for eternity. Furthermore, children commonly express unhealthy defense mechanisms but grow out of them with proper education, stress management techniques, and discipline. But if you are witnessing these defense mechanisms in your family, there are a few things you can do to start working on them right away. 


First of all, it is essential to teach your family about mindfulness. Mindfulness encourages one to be aware of their emotions and be present with their coping strategies. Furthermore, this practice promotes feeling your feelings rather than running from them. In turn, this encourages you to make better decisions when looking to heal or release painful emotions rather than just react to them. 


Second, discussing your situation and defense mechanisms with a therapist can be quite beneficial. Your therapist can teach you and your family healthier ways to handle your obstacles and show you how your actions affect each other.  


Finally, you can also educate yourself on healthy defense mechanisms so that you can work towards healthier behaviors. You can start learning about these healthy mechanisms by clicking on the link below:


Final Thoughts

We all have our own ways of adapting and reacting to stressful events. However, we should always aim to develop strategies that will not cause further harm. By identifying the unhealthy defense mechanisms in you or your family, you are already taking an essential step towards choosing healthy behaviors that will help you manage stress effectively.