Defence Mechanisms: In my Defence

As I read and as I sit here in preparation for writing my heart begins to race, my stomach fills with a tizzy of tension, my eyes open wide, I do not blink, and as I begin to hold my breath I grit my jaw and clench my body knowing full well what these sensations are telling me; and I know full well why they have risen in this specific moment.  These sensations are those that accompany my stress response: this is the fluttering anxiety that pre-empts the seemingly endless well of indefinable sadness that resides within me.  Yet, while I know this is the stress response, over time I have come to fathom that this specific sensory cascade is not fear based nor anger based, the fear and anger cascades are sensorially similar yet they each have an implicit texture to them that separates them from this cascade.  No, I can safely say that this specific sensory cascade is fluttering off the hopelessness that comes from the want to articulate something that cannot be articulated – the deep separation distress that still resides in my heart from a lifetime of unmet needs and from a lifetime of propensities that perpetuate the continuation of these unmet needs.

This particular lifetime of propensities begins with a little girl who learned early on in life that she was “too sensitive” and that her sensitivities were punishable by disconnection – fears, tears, and tantrums resulted in anger and the fear based sending away of the seeking Self; “one must be minimally seen, and certainly not heard”.  This same little girl began to learn how to suppress that seeking Self, finding assured comfort under the wing of obedience whilst simultaneously learning to find self-value in the appreciation that came from taking accountability for other’s misgivings.  As this little girl grew, and as her situation changed throughout her early childhood she not only became adept at suppressing her sensitivities, obeying in silence, and taking other’s accountability, so too she learned that within this suppressing silence she could safely observe others movements, motivations, rhythms, and reactions – she began to learn to read people.  This ability to read others served her well, and when she moved to a non-English speaking country at the age of six, she quickly adapted by reading body language to protect herself from the fears that come from incomprehension; and though these fears left implicit wounds, her obedient silence gave her permission to sit upon the lap of her mother as she watched and understood the intentions of all those around her – it was in those moments where she felt safe.

As the years went by this little girls array of coping strategies served her well – in all familiar and social circles she was loved and cared for when she was able to predict what others needed and wanted of her, when she obeyed the spoken and unspoken demands in silence, and when she was able to suppress the sensitives that arose from her seeking Self.  That is, until the assurance of comfort and safety was malignantly taken.  No more was there a lap upon which comfort could be found, no longer was there a care response to greet the distress response.  And, though as hard as she tried to continue utilising her coping strategies, the needs of this little girl became stronger that what the seeking Self could suppress in her safe silence; the sensitives engulfed her, submerging her in a flood of physical and mental pain.  This sad little girl sought out support yet found only a mixed response of overwhelming hurt, anger, criticism, and blame – she got the sense she was asking for too much.  Riddled with an endless sense of fearful discombobulation she did not know where to turn: those that used to care were there, yet they were not “there” and seemingly did not care; those that used to be calm and composed no longer portrayed the sense of strength and security they used to; and those that used to share in childhood joy and volition slowly disappeared, unsure of how to behave around such a lost and confused seeking Self.  And so, this lost, confused and now scared little girl retreated back into her obedient suppressing silence, yet this time the silence was driven by resignation – this time the little girl was truly alone.

In her resigned aloneness, this little girl grew into a teenager and young adult, finding comfort in separateness, seclusion, and solitude.  In her separateness she did not have to be vigilant in reading others and predicting their needs; in her seclusion she could avoid the seemingly relentless hurt, anger, criticism, and blame coming at her from every angle – both explicitly and implicitly; in her solitude she did not have to continually make sense of the world around her, she could simply make sense of herself; in her aloneness she was safe.  And yet, as much as this aloneness brought comfort and a sense of safety, it negated to satisfy the Self’s emerging need for identity, intimacy, and indeed for belonging.  This little girl, now externally presenting as a young woman recognised a deep desire to be desired, and no matter how much she wanted to suppress this need alongside all her other needs, she realised that she no longer could – the pull to feel love was far too strong. 

As this young woman ventured out into the adult world, she soon found that, as had worked before in childhood, she could find care and “love” by suppressing her sensitivities, obeying in silence, and taking others accountability.  Only this time it was scary and did not always bring the comfort and appreciation she sought.  Still, desperate for affection she persevered – it had worked before, if she “just tried harder” it would work again.  As time ticked by and as the moving toward coping strategies of her youth took dominance, they became enmeshed in this woman’s identity – a pervasive driving force that panicked in prolonged disconnection and that which subconsciously began suppressing maliciousness, obeying from fear of rejection, and appeasing if only for an instant of ostentatiously given care.  Soon the words and actions from those who “loved her” embroiled into the perception of her identity, perpetuating a level of self-doubt and a cynicism that believed her worthiness to be no more than this life she had now grown accustomed to – no matter the cost to her sense of Self.  And, though this young woman attempted to appease and remain connected, the inevitable would occasionally happen – intense disconnection would activate her sense of Self in fear, which in turn would activate an internally penetrating level of rage that sought to escape the seemingly unescapable.  Unsuccessful and further belittled time again, the seeking Self of this young woman retreated into her obedient silence once again taking accountability and foregoing her needs.  Cycle after cycle of seeking, grief, fear, rage, and retreat with needs unmet, this woman learned to fall back into the moving away coping strategy that had worked so well those many years ago; and over more time, she learned that she could simultaneously look after herself and merge into faux belonging by being self-sufficient and portraying herself as a socially acceptable “successful woman”.

Of course, until that too came cascading down in a sudden tip of the feelings-needs balance.  And, as this woman sought support somehow the patterns of the little girl who sought out support all those years ago repeated themselves: she yet again was meet with a mixed response of overwhelming hurt, anger, criticism, and blame.  Albeit this time she was significantly older, and the situation was significantly different, and although she once again got the sense she was asking for too much, this time the level of distress outweighed any conceivable ability to cope.  This woman now a mother herself, needed protection, she needed support, she herself needed nourishment in order to give nourishment.  And so, at the point where her desire to care for her own child took over the safety found in self-sufficiency this new mother sought assistance from a wiser, qualified Other.  As a mother, this woman who had well and truly lost any sense of Self, finally found reprieve in compassion.

That was nearly eight years ago now.  Since then while I have repeated the moving-toward, moving-away patterns many times over, and although there are many other defences I could highlight, I believe it is suffice to say that I am learning with each new day which coping strategies are conducive to my well-being, and which contribute to a disconnected sense of Self.  More so, now that my daughter is the age I was when my mother began getting sick before she passed away, I am slowly coming to terms with the truth of what happened and the reality that there is much grief to be felt; and that it is ok to actually feel it.

Visual Depiction / Personal Interpretation of my defences and their progression over my life

Personal Adaptation of Tayber & Tayber, 2017 Interpersonal Model of the Change Process (p. 226)


Badenoch, B. (2018). The heart of trauma: Healing the embodied brain in the context of relationships. W. W. Norton & Company.

Frederickson, J. (2012). The triangle of conflict. ISTDP Institute.

Frederickson, J. (2012). “That’s the way I am!”-the concept of Syntonicity. ISTDP Institute.

Siegel, D. J. (2010). The mindful therapist: A clinician’s guide to Mindsight and neural integration. W. W. Norton & Company.

Teyber, E., & Teyber, F. (2017). Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative model (7th ed.). Cengage Learning.

TU116: Fight Flight Freeze … and “Fawn”?? Can People-Pleasing Be a Sign of Trauma?. (2020). Therapist Uncensored [Audio podcast].

Walker, P. (n.d.). The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD. Pete Walker, M.A. Psychotherapy.