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I use the word defenses to define the myriad of ways we all avoid painful, uncomfortable, or conflicting emotions. Defenses are there for a reason. They act as emotional protection. At the time they were created, something happened that made us feel too overwhelmed and too alone to manage and process our experience.


Childhood traumas like abuse and neglect; and difficult events like divorce, feeling different, or too much change, lead us to need defenses. Even seemingly little things can cause us to feel so bad that we need defenses to cope. We all have defenses and they are normal, although very often as adults they become problematic. Using defenses all the time makes most people feel cut off from their authentic self and others. Below is a list of common defenses:

  • Joking

  • Sarcasm

  • Smiling

  • Laughing

  • Vagueness

  • Changing the Subject

  • No eye contact

  • Eye Rolling

  • Mumbling

  • Constant apologizing

  • Not talking

  • Not Listening

  • Spacing Out

  • Tiredness

  • Criticizing

  • Perfectionism

  • Procrastination

  • Preoccupation

  • Irritability

  • Negative thinking

  • Judging others

  • Judging ourselves

  • Prejudice

  • Racism

  • Grandiosity

  • Misogyny

  • Misguided aggression i.e. getting angry at your partner when you're really angry at your boss

  • Working too much

  • Numbness

  • Helplessness

  • Over-exercising

  • Over-eating

  • Under-eating

  • Being secretive

  • Cutting

  • Obsessions

  • Addictions

  • Suicidal ideas


Can you add some of your own defenses to the list?


✓         __________________________

✓         __________________________

✓         __________________________


Can you add some defenses to the list that you've noticed in others? (It is typically easier to notice defenses in others.)


✓         __________________________

✓         __________________________

✓         __________________________


Defenses are brilliant and creative maneuvers the mind makes to spare us the pain and overwhelm that emotions cause. Defenses are anything we do to avoid feeling core or inhibitory emotions. In other words, defenses are emotional protection. Not every defense is bad. In fact, we need defenses sometimes when emotions aren't practical. Defenses help us put our emotions aside so we can act "professional" at our jobs, for example.

There are an infinite number of ways to guard against our feelings. Defenses range from healthy to quite destructive. Some defenses are useful and adaptive like choosing to watch a funny movie when we need a break from something stressful or thinking of something positive to stop anger or sadness when we are trying to think or concentrate. Defenses, however, are destructive when we are so out of touch with our feelings that our bodies and minds become adversely affected.

Are you aware of the ways you defend against emotions, confrontations and conflicts? Again, by definition, a defense is any thought, action, or other maneuver we do that takes us away from being in touch with emotional discomfort. Even an emotion can be used to defend against another emotion, like when we get angry while underneath we are really scared or anxious. For example, when your child runs across the street scaring you, but you show him anger instead of fear.

When energy from emotions is diverted to defenses, there are many costs to our wellbeing.  Defenses require energy to be maintained. So, defenses deaden us by using up vital energy that could be used for relationships, work and outside interests. Defenses prevent us from knowing and expressing what we want and truly feel; and keep our true authentic selves hidden and tempered. Most people don't feel good in the long run when they stay hidden.


Defenses also make us more rigid, causing us to lose flexibility in thoughts and actions. For example, Kathy gets uptight and controlling when her stepson visits because it upsets her "routine." Her inflexibility hurts her because it strains the relationship with her husband and makes her body tense. Kathy's need to control the home protects her from the underlying emotions evoked by her stepson's presence. If she could face the emotions her visiting stepson brings up, anger, fear, and sadness, she would become more flexible and more generous. Her relationships would benefit, as would she.


Defenses can cause us to feel trapped, inhibited, limited, or not able to reach our potential.  Too many defenses make it hard to wholeheartedly engage in life.

Alternatively, defenses can swing us to the other extreme of acting out in self-destructive ways. Since defenses block access to important emotions like fear which inform us to be cautious, over reliance on defenses causes some of us to engage in dangerous behaviors like illicit drug use, thrill-seeking, unprotected sex and other risky social behaviors. An "I don't care" defense prevents us from knowing who and what we value. When we are not aware of what we care about and why, we lose the ability to create the life we want or need. For example, Joe believed he didn't care about women other than for sex. Yet, when he was alone, he drank excessively until he fell asleep at night. Joe wasn't happy and he convinced himself he didn't care.


Humans do better when they are emotionally connected to others with very few exceptions. Joe's "I don't care" defense protected him from his underlying emotions and needs for intimacy, but at great cost to his satisfaction and joy.

Learning about emotions using the Change Triangle tool provides a map and path to move beyond our defenses. Then we can safely reconnect with our core emotions to feel more vital, alive, connected, and confident.

Defenses & The Change Triangle Tool

    Listen To the Body.

Discover Core Emotions.

Connect to Your Authentic Self.

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