Defenses and Their Workings

Alcohol RecoveryDefenses help us immensely throughout life. They protect us and help us cope with anxiety and adversity. However, our defense mechanisms can also sabotage us if we cling to them at our own expense. Below are some common defenses and a description of how each can sabotage our best efforts.


Repression occurs when unpleasant thoughts, feelings or memories are pushed out of our conscious awareness. It is helpful on a daily basis because we simply could not function if we thought of every bad feeling or memory all the time. We would be flooded with distressful information. However, repression also has negative effects in some situations. We may repress information that could be useful, for example. To better understand, let’s consider these situations:

  • A woman who was assaulted sexually as a youth represses the memory, but has panic attacks whenever she is intimate with her spouse.
  • A man who is angry with a colleague ‘forgets’ the anger, but consistently throws the colleague ‘under the bus’.

Identification with the Aggressor

Identification with the aggressor is common in situations of abuse. For instance, a child who lives with an abusive parent may emulate that parent, bullying siblings and peers. This behavior helps the child feel powerful and in control rather than fearful and at the mercy of an abuser. This is a common dynamic for children who witness parental domestic violence. A child may identify with the batterer and treat the victim the same way the batterer does.


Displacement occurs when we divert an impulse from where it originated onto something or someone else that feels safer. For example, let’s say that you have a terrible day at work and your boss has angered you. It isn’t safe to be openly angry with your boss, so you go home and take it out on a family member. Another example is that you are angry with your spouse, but engage in road rage when he/she is in the car.


Denial is the inability to see and accept a reality. It helps us avoid thinking and feeling about unpleasant things. For example, a person may have negative consequences from drinking too much, but insists that drinking is not a problem. Another example is that someone may be in a chronically abusive relationship, but insists that things aren’t so bad, or will get better.