According to Sigmund Freud and many psychologists since Freud’s time, human beings use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from negative feelings such as anxiety and guilt when we feel threatened in some way. They’re not bad in and of themselves, but defense mechanisms can be destructive in life and sabotage your career if you use them at the wrong time or overuse them.
Over the years, the list of defense mechanisms has grown, but the 12 described below are most relevant in business. The key to career success is recognizing when you’re using these defense mechanisms and ensuring they’re not hurting you.
Conversion happens when you convert negative feelings into physical symptoms in order to avoid those negative feelings. For example, if you hate your boss, you might have stomach problems, headaches, or other ailments that cause you to call in sick frequently. Ask yourself the following questions to determine if you use conversion as a defense mechanism:
- Do any of your health issues stem from the emotions related to your job?
- When you’re under stress or in uncomfortable situations at work, do you feel physically ill?
- Do you often call in sick to work?
Denial occurs when you pretend that something doesn’t exist. It’s easier to deny that you’re the victim of unequal pay than it is to face the problem and do something about it. To determine if you use denial to avoid unpleasant situations or feelings, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you pretend that negative situations haven’t happened?
- Do you pretend that negative consequences to your actions or the actions of other people don’t affect you?
- Do you tell yourself that everything is fine even when things are going wrong around you?
Displacement happens when you take out your negative feelings or impulses on a less threatening target than the source of those feelings or impulses. For example, if your boss treats you unfairly, you then treat your subordinate poorly rather than discuss the problem with your boss. Ask yourself these questions to determine if you’re relying on displacement:
- Am I treating people fairly?
- Am I letting negative feelings affect unrelated aspects of my life?
- Am I acting irrationally?
Humor, when used as a defense mechanism, makes light of a negative situation so others are comfortable. Often, humor as a defense mechanism can be self-deprecating. For example, rather than taking ownership for a mistake in calculations made in your report and move on, you make a joke about it during your presentation to the team and say, “I can’t even add! How did I get this job?” Ask yourself these questions to determine if you use humor as a defense mechanism:
- Do you often make jokes to avoid uncomfortable situations?
- Do you avoid admitting you’re wrong by making light of the seriousness of the situation?
- Would you rather have people laugh at you than admit you made a mistake or admit that you’re wrong?
Intellectualization allows you to avoid unacceptable feelings because you subconsciously choose to focus on the intellectual aspects of a situation instead. A perfect example is when you’re in an uncomfortable meeting and choose to focus on the details of the meeting space rather than the heightened emotions around you. To determine if you’re intellectualizing instead of feeling, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I letting myself feel what’s happening in the moment?
- Am I focused on the matter at hand or on unnecessary details?
- Can I see the forest for the trees?
6. Passive Aggression
Passive aggression occurs when you indirectly show your hostility at a time when you’re not comfortable showing your negative feelings openly. Giving hints rather than complete and specific directions to your team members or setting people up to fail are both examples of passive aggressive behavior in the work place. To determine if you’re using passive aggressive behavior, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I follow up remarks with “just kidding” to make them acceptable?
- Do I use sarcasm to express my disappointment, anger, or other negative emotions?
- Am I honestly showing my emotions in an open manner even when those emotions are uncomfortable?
Projection occurs when you displace your unwanted feelings on another person. When you do this, those feelings act as a threat. For example, if you don’t like someone that you have to work with to complete a project, you believe that they dislike you rather than accepting your feelings and dealing with them. After all, it’s easier to accuse others of having a problem than it is to deal with your own. Are you projecting? Ask yourself these questions to find out:
- Do you accuse others of having flaws that you actually possess yourself?
- Do you blame others for your own flaws or unwanted feelings?
- Do you recognize your own unwanted feelings?
Rationalization is the process of giving a logical reason for something to avoid the real reason. This happens most often when the real reason is painful or uncomfortable. For example, if you don’t get the raise you expected, you might rationalize it by telling yourself your boss simply doesn’t like you when the real reason was because you didn’t reach your performance goals. You can determine if you use rationalization by asking yourself these questions:
- Am I being honest with myself about why this event happened?
- Am I choosing the easiest reason to believe?
- What would others tell me the reason for this event is?
9. Reaction Formation
Reaction formation is used when you believe the opposite of a true belief that causes you stress or other uncomfortable emotions. For example, if you want to work in a different department but don’t have the skills or experience to get a job in that department, you tell yourself and everyone else that you would never want to work there. The questions below will help you learn if you’re using reaction formation:
- Are you expressing your real feelings?
- Why is your opinion so extreme?
- Are you giving the same “reason” to everyone (including yourself)?
Regression happens when you avoid feelings by returning to a previous state. This can take many forms in the workplace. You might throw your papers on your desk after a difficult meeting or slam the phone when a sales call goes badly. Ask yourself these questions to identify when you’re using regression as a defense mechanism:
- Is my behavior appropriate for my age and the situation?
- Would others in my situation act similarly?
- Am I taking responsibility for my thoughts and actions like an adult?
Sublimation occurs when you carry out your unacceptable feelings and impulses in a socially acceptable way. For example, if you’re angry at your boss, you might go to the gym to work out your anger. To determine if your sublimating, ask yourself these questions:
- Am I channeling my negative emotions into other things such as exercise rather than dealing with them?
- Am I aware of my unhealthy responses and acting on them appropriately or simply directing them to other activities?
- Is there a better way to channel my aggression, hostility, anger, sadness, and so on than going to the gym, sleeping, etc.?
Suppression is the process of consciously ignoring something that causes you pain, anxiety, guilt, or other negative emotions. For example, if a project causes you stress, you might use the suppression defense mechanism to completely ignore it for as long as possible. The questions below can help you determine if you’re using suppression to protect yourself:
- Am I ignoring things I don’t like?
- What am I ignoring in my job and in my life?
- Why am I ignoring certain things?
Defense mechanisms aren’t bad. In fact, using them is very healthy, but difficulties occur when you don’t use them effectively. Overuse and misuse can cause big problems in your life and in your career. If you want your career to thrive, you should do some self-evaluation.
Ask yourself if you’re using defense mechanisms constructively or destructively in the workplace. Being aware of your conscious and subconscious responses to negative and uncomfortable situations and feelings can give an essential boost to your emotional intelligence that will make you a better person, employee, and leader.