Even though you are probably not consciously aware of them, psychological defense mechanisms are a natural part of the human existence. We use them to navigate potentially painful experiences or feelings, instinctive behavior for the purpose of self-protection.
The problem is, many defensive strategies actually do the complete opposite of what we intend them to do – leading us to inadvertently sabotage our lives. We want to heal from the past, but we bury our feelings rather than process them. We want to have a positive mindset, but we can’t stop worrying about what may or may not happen. We want to connect with others, but instead, we keep emotionally distant out of fear.
Here are 5 of the most common defense mechanisms that are likely sabotaging your life:
Pushing your feelings down to the dark depths of your unconscious might make you feel better in the moment, but have you ever thought about how that action could impact your future self?
The truth is, you are not protecting yourself from those painful feelings, you’re actually causing self-sabotage by allowing them to stick around longer than necessary. So truly moving forward with your life will be almost impossible, with the weight of those repressed emotions constantly pulling you back to past traumas. If you never give yourself the time and space to truly feel your feelings, then you are preventing the understanding, healing, and growth that comes from emotional processing.
By blocking external realities from your mind, you think you are avoiding the uncomfortable feelings that will come with the truth. But here’s the reality: In my early twenties, I regrettably stayed in a toxic relationship for so much longer than I should have, purely because I refused to acknowledge or accept the truth of the situation. It wasn’t until months after the relationship had ended (and left me with a fairly broken soul) that I finally admitted to myself how awful it was.
Sure, I could have blamed my ex for the destruction this relationship caused, for ruining years of my life. But by being absolutely honest with myself, I realized that I also had to share the responsibility. For allowing myself to be treated that way. Inadvertently sabotaging my life by engaging my denial for so long. When deep down, I think I was aware all along of the truth that I so desperately denied – a misguided way of protecting my heart.
Have you ever thought that a close friend or an ex-partner was more worthy than you and had absolutely zero flaws, only to realize later that the reality of that person did not match your perception of them whatsoever? The truth is, idealizing them made you blind to their faults because you placed them on an extremely high (and unrealistic) pedestal. Ultimately, this led you to accept any negative treatment from them, as you convinced yourself that they were ‘perfect’ and could do no wrong. Or perhaps you idealized every aspect of the relationship as a way to rationalize your decision to keep them in your life.
Perhaps you believe that focusing on what could go wrong in your life will help you to prepare for that potential outcome. Or, to prevent it from happening altogether. But here is the reality: you will only sabotage yourself by giving power to your fears.
During my years as a university student, I lived in a constant state of worry, by convincing myself that failure was my most likely outcome. What started as a small worry eventually spiraled into this internal dialogue: “If I fail my exam, then I will fail the whole year. If I fail the year, I will fail the entire degree. If I fail the degree, my life will be ruined and I’ll never be successful”. I truly thought that by focusing on these potential failures, I was protecting myself from the disappointment I would feel if I actually did fail. But the truth is, we cannot change the outcome of things by worrying about them. All worry does is sabotage our happiness and ability to live in the present moment.
Putting up walls
Have you ever kept those you care for at arms-length, probably without even realizing the distance you were creating? Our past experiences shape our current behaviors, they inform us (often unconsciously) of how we should react and what to expect from certain situations. So of course, if you have only ever experienced painful relationships, your mind will be programmed to expect the worst from all future human connections.
Since early childhood, the majority of my close relationships were complicated, strenuous and often painful. So, when I met my husband, I felt that it was impossible to let him get close to me. Terrifying, even. After two whole years had passed, I was still only giving a maximum of 90% of my heart, no matter how much he tried to earn my trust to gain the whole. Some days I could actually feel the emotional barrier as if I had held onto it for so long that it now had a physical presence. An impenetrable emotional prison.
I had completely convinced my mind that if I committed everything to the relationship then I would be giving him the power to sabotage me. When in reality, I was only sabotaging myself, my relationship, and my happiness by being so reluctant to let my defensiveness go. If you always keep your loved ones at a safe distance, then you deny them the opportunity the see the real you. To really feel the love and deep emotions from them. And to build a true and lasting connection. Understand that there is beauty, courage, and joy in vulnerability.