Work On Your Defences!

Part of the human condition is to have thoughts, feelings, urges and memories that we would rather not have to experience or deal with. The human mind is an amazing creation SubhanAllah, and it is forever finding creative ways to survive and adapt in difficult situations.

The psychologist Sigmund Freud first coined the term ‘defence mechanism’ which he used to describe an unconscious (out of conscious awareness) psychological strategy that people use to protect themselves from unwanted feelings of anxiety, threat and thoughts regarding matters that the individual does not want to confront.

If a person does something wrong or unacceptable, it should elicit feelings of guilt, anxiety or shame. If a person is unable to face what they have done and cope with the 


associated feelings, then a defence mechanism may be activated so that the conscious mind does not have to deal with the feelings of anxiety etc caused by the unwanted thought/behaviour.

In a similar way if a person has experienced a traumatic event or is facing an extremely stressful situation, defence mechanisms would help shield the person from having to deal with the anxiety that would be caused. The emotions do not disappear and can still cause problems but in the moment they help the person avoid the reality of what they are facing or going to have to deal with.

This process is mostly unconscious and the person is unaware that it is happening, although it is best seen as a continuum that ranges from some conscious awareness (e.g. when we makes excuses) to a complete lack of awareness (internal blocking of overwhelming emotions such as when severe trauma occurs).

For example, a common defence mechanism is denial – whereby the person in question denies that a thought, feeling or behaviour has occurred e.g. when someone denies they have an addiction problem or when someone refuses to acknowledge that a loved one has passed away.

As defence mechanisms tend to operate at an unconscious level it means the individual lacks the insight or self-awareness as to what they are doing and why. In some circumstances the defences can be helpful in the short term if it helps a person cope e.g to go to work. However, they become problematic in the long term if the underlying problem is not addressed e.g. if an addiction isn’t acknowledge and treated, and when they are used to avoid dealing with everyday issues e.g sorting out financial debts.

As Muslims we can also see how the whisperings of Shaytan can fuel our defence mechanisms, such as by making us avoid our responsibilities in the case of ‘denial’ e.g refusing to acknowledge when we are in the wrong, or by justifying our bad behaviours as in the case of ‘rationalisation’ e.g. I worship Allah in my own way so I don’t need to perform the five daily prayers.

Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, developed her father’s psychoanalytic work and study of psychic defences and went on to identify 10 primary defence mechanisms.

These will be discussed in the articles below so that you can reflect upon them and begin to try and notice them in yourselves. However, they are largely unconscious processes so if you are experiencing difficulties or have a history of trauma then please seek the help of a trained mental health professional.

If you notice defence mechanisms in your children (or others) remember that they are protective mechanisms and serve a purpose. A confrontational approach “You’re in denial!”, will only serve to increase the person’s anxiety and shore up their defences, “No I’m not!”. A gentler more indirect and compassionate approach will achieve a better outcome InShaAllah. But as already mentioned, it is better to work on ourselves first!