by Margaret L. Stoll, Ph.D.
We all have the need to be psychologically protected from some emotions, conflicts and stressors that feel like more than we can manage. The processes within each individual that accomplish this are called defense mechanisms or coping styles. These processes operate without our awareness much of the time.
Defense mechanisms are organized into different levels based on their effectiveness and on the degree to which they distort one's perception of reality. At the highest level of adaptive functioning one can tolerate awareness of conflicting emotions because they are balanced. Examples of these defense mechanisms are humor, anticipation, altruism and affiliation.
A level of defense mechanism that is slightly less adaptive, the Mental inhibitions level, protects a person by making him unaware of his conflicted emotions or ideas. Examples of these are intellectualization, isolation of affect and repression.
Lower levels of coping or defense, with greater distortion and poorer success at protecting one from anxiety and stressful reactions include such mechanisms as omnipotence, idealization, denial, rationalization, passive aggression and psychotic distortion.
It is part of the process and goal of psychotherapy to assess the client's defense mechanisms and to assist him in developing more adaptive and gratifying levels of coping.
Dr. Stoll is a Clinical Psychologist in practice in Glendale and Redondo Beach.
She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.