Emotional Defenses
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Defense mechanisms are ways a healthy mind keeps from being overwhelmed by painful or threatening experiences. An example is the temporary numbness that blocks out feelings after the unexpected death of a close loved one. Under normal conditions the defense mechanism will withdraw in time, allowing the grieving person to experience his or her feeling accurately. But when the defense mechanisms work to permanently distort or hide feelings, it is difficult for a person to see and experience the reality of his or her life history.

We who were raised in dysfunctional families, in order to survive and grow to adulthood, had to use such defenses to block out abusive experiences that were too painful. The defenses may have worked very well when we were children and probably saved our sanity, our emotional stability, or our very lives as we were growing up. Without them we might have committed suicide, become mentally ill, or possibly not survived our childhoods in some other way. But as we grew up, these helpful and lifesaving defenses often moved beyond the necessary function of protection and turned into unyielding barricades that keep us from seeing the ego-threatening adult symptoms of the disease of codependence in ourselves.

Having a clear knowledge of what happens in our lives and being able to talk about it is a crucial part of facing codependence and moving on into recovery. Therefore, we need to know about these defense mechanisms and how they sabotage our clear knowledge of our lives today.

I will deal with six psychological defense mechanisms in this book. The first three, repression, suppression, and the more profound defense of dissociation, are first used primarily during childhood when we have overwhelming experiences. However, when these still operate in adulthood, they remove much of our history from our conscious minds. The defenses of minimization, denial, and delusion are those that apparently dirty the water most when we adult codependents try to evaluate ourselves for codependence and go back over past memories to reconstruct our history.


When our defense mechanisms block out memories of our abusive family of origin, we may grow up and marry someone just like the opposite-sex parent who abused us -- without being able to see that this is true. If we have distorted or blocked some or all of our memories of growing up, we are blind to any resemblance between a prospective spouse and the abusive parent. Because of defense mechanisms we aren't aware that we have married someone who can help us reproduce all or parts of the familiar abusive system in which we were raised. Also, since we can't see the reality of our own thinking, feeling, and behaving as adults in an abusive relationship when our defense mechanisms are at work, we cannot really understand and act on the fact that it is possible for us to develop different responses to seemingly "no win" situations. Instead we believe we're crazy, the primary complaint that most codependents offer when they first come for help. "I feel nuts. Something's disconnected." Defense mechanisms disconnect us from the reality of our lives.

Not having access to our history or having a distorted version of it contributes to the sense of craziness. Having a clear picture of our history can be the doorway to freedom from these crazy feelings and from being controlled by our past. Learning about these defense mechanisms can help us begin to recognize them and how they may be blocking us from seeing not only our history but our current symptoms and unmanageability.


Repression, suppression, and dissociation are used by children to cope with traumatic experiences of abuse. These mechanisms remove from conscious memory an experience that otherwise would overwhelm a child. Such traumatic experiences would otherwise keep abused children in so much pain and fear they couldn't stand it. If you have such blank places in your history, you may have needed to use one of these three processes to protect yourself.

Repression is the automatic and unconscious forgetting of things that are too painful to remember. Suppression is consciously choosing to forget things that are too painful to remember. Dissociation involves a child's psychologically separating "who he or she is" from his or her body during the abusive act and taking that inner "self" away somewhere where the abuse cannot be seen, heard, felt, or experienced in any way. Children usually reserve dissociation to survive abuse they feel is life-threatening. The fear is that either "who they are" is going to be destroyed, or that they'll be physically destroyed in situations such as incest, molestation, or being severely beaten.

In repression painful and frightening memories are automatically shifted into the unconscious mind where they are for all intents and purposes lost. As an adult the person who has repressed an incident cannot get to this material by a conscious act of will; it's simply not available. On the other hand, suppressed material can often be recalled, since the act of suppression is more the result of conscious intention.

For example, as a child, Brad watched his father beat up his mother. He saw her lying on the floor with blood on her face. If he used repression he wouldn't be able to remember later that the beating happened. On the other hand, if he were to suppress the same scene, he'd have said to himself consciously as he watched, "This scene is too terrible to remember and I'm going to forget it." And he would. Whether Brad used repression or suppression, he remained cognitively aware during the abuse and experienced all of it: he saw it, he felt his feelings about it, and he had some thoughts about it.

In both cases the information about the scene is stuffed into the unconscious mind, but if Brad used repression, the disappearance happened without his awareness and the repressed material is not available to him to recall even if he (in childhood or later as an adult) wants to. Suppressed material, however, can often be remembered with conscious effort, or when reading about abuse, realizing that adult symptoms indicate that something abusive happened in childhood, and thinking hard about it.

When Brad, as an "adult child," comes to therapy, he presents himself in a way that shows he is still using these defenses of repression and suppression. The clue I pick up is that when I ask him to tell me about his childhood, he doesn't have any childhood history or it is very fragmented. He doesn't remember certain years, certain periods, things about a certain person, or he says something like, "I don't remember anything, Pia. How can I tell you my history if I don't have a history?"

But as I talk about the different kinds of abuse, Brad may suddenly experience the return of a suppressed memory, and say, "Well, my gosh, that same thing happened to me! I'd totally forgotten it!" So with some outside help, such as listening to a lecture, reading a book about child abuse, or being in a group with someone who had experiences like his, Brad's unconscious mind can begin to release his own suppressed history to him.

Dissociation removes an event as completely from the child's conscious mind as repression does and occurs when the child's body stays in the room and continues to receive the abuse, but emotionally and mentally the child "goes away." Although the physical pain is felt, and the body of the child is still being abused, emotionally and mentally, the child is absent and doesn't "feel" the abuse after dissociation. With repression and suppression, however, the child continues to experience the full force of the abuse as it is happening in all three areas: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

During a dissociative experience, the child's conscious mind usually goes to one of at least three "places" (there may be more). Each place is successively more guarded and harder to get to later than the previous one. The first place is to move horizontally, and be lying, sitting, or standing next to one's body, observing what's happening a little bit but not feeling anything. The second place is to move vertically, floating up above what's happening (or down below), sometimes looking down on it (or up at it), but not feeling what is happening. The third place is to disappear down inside the self, not seeing, feeling, or hearing anything. The sensation is often described as being inside a black hole. If the child has gone in this third place, the memory of what happened is very hard to retrieve later in therapy. This third place, I believe, is reserved for the most extreme forms of abuse.

As an adult who comes for therapy, the person with a dissociative experience presents himself or herself much like a person who has used repression. There are memory gaps in his or her history. But the memory of an abusive experience during which a child dissociated can be retrieved by the adult child in the form of a spontaneous regression.

It would be very unusual for a spontaneous regression to happen to you while reading about any issues of abuse in this book, but I will describe it here so you will know what one is. A spontaneous regression is a process by which memories lost through dissociation can be retrieved. It almost always happens in a therapeutic situation, guided by a counselor. It may happen spontaneously in a group therapy setting when the content of the group's work triggers a dissociated memory in someone, as the term "spontaneous" implies. But more often it is an experience that a counselor guides a person into using therapeutic techniques.

During a spontaneous regression, people are somehow transported back in their history into dramatically re-experiencing a traumatic childhood event. In the normal conversation of therapy retrieval of repressed or suppressed memories may take place as a more detached mental experience, but people experiencing a spontaneous regression, sitting with eyes closed, have the sense of reliving the event, including the same intense feelings they had when the event was taking place, and their bodies are often contorted in almost the same movements they made when they were children trying to escape the pain. Because the unconscious mind has no sense of chronological time, when the memory of this abuse returns, the patient is transported in his or her mind back to the time it happened. In this way the healing of the pain of that past event can take place in the context in which it occurred. The patient re-experiences the abusive event as if he or she were at the same age when it happened. Afterward, the abused child returns to his or her adult age in the therapy room.

Sometimes individuals dissociate again during the regression, but the difference between the original dissociation and the one during a therapeutic regression is that in the latter they are being supported and helped by the therapist and will be able to remember what happened during the spontaneous regression after it is over, even if some of the facts of the abuse event are lost to them.

Of course, since patients were perceiving the abuse through their child-aged senses, (sight, hearing, smell, and so on) the specific details may have gotten confused or distorted. But the important issue for therapy is that some kind of abuse did take place that gave them as children an extra burden of induced feelings still crippling them as adults.

Attempting to retrieve dissociative memories with your sponsor or other untrained friend is dangerous and should be avoided. Although a therapeutically induced regression is a frightening experience, it is also a wonderful process in therapy for retrieving taboo memories loaded with crippling fear, pain, anger, and shame.


Often in therapy we encounter ego-threatening material or material that might threaten the continuation of an addiction, this material just "disappears" and we cannot remember it, even during a specific confrontation. The defenses of minimization, denial, and delusion can also cause us to skew our opinion of our present behavior as well as our history.

Minimization means I reduce the significance of what I do, think, or feel and make it seem less serious or important than if someone else did, thought, or felt the same thing. For example, I tell myself that my being overwhelmed with responsibilities, always tired and irritable because I have become over committed isn't really so bad. I tell myself that as soon as I get organized I can handle it. But when I hear my friend Wanda complain about the same thing, having no time for herself and being exhausted and cross with her children, coworkers, husband, and friends because she has over committed herself, I think, Well, can't she see that she's over committed? Why doesn't she let go of some of her responsibilities? She's headed for a nervous breakdown!" I recognize my own state of over-commitment, but I talk myself out of accepting the level of havoc it wreaks and how unmanageable my life has actually become. I "minimize" it. (this is still healable through Jesus speaking into that trauma)

In childhood, minimization works like this. Terry watches her father beat up her mother. She is shocked and horrified, but she minimizes the event by saying to herself when it happens, "Well, this happened, and I really hurt, but it's not as bad as all that." The memory of the event remains in her conscious mind. Terry can talk about it, and describe it, and she knows it happened. But as a child, she talks herself out of experiencing the full impact of her feelings, even though she vaguely knows "something's wrong" with her feelings about the beating.

Later, when Terry as an adult comes to therapy and hears my lecture about child abuse, she is still likely to use minimization and discount the seriousness of the effect of seeing her father beat up her mother. I pick this up when she says to me, "I hear it's abusive for a child to watch Dad beat up Mom, and I know it happened to me, yet in my case it wasn't that bad."

Another common example of minimization is when someone accuses an alcoholic of being drunk. The accused person may claim and actually believe that the amount of liquor consumed was only "a couple of drinks" (when in fact he or she drank a quart of Scotch). That person is using minimization.

But with denial, I tell myself there is nothing wrong at all with my state of over-commitment, although it may be too much for someone else. Life is just this way and I must make the best of it. My schedule isn't too full - everyone else has a lot to do. I have complete awareness of how much I must accomplish each day, but I'm unaware of the sense of being overwhelmed and the anger, fear, and pain that accompanies the immense workload. I deny my own bizarre, over committed state. And yet I can clearly see that Wanda's life is out of control because of her over-commitment.

In childhood, Terry's denial works like this. She watches the beating of her mother by her father, experiences the abuse, and says to herself, "There's really nothing wrong with this argument between my parents." She has cognitive awareness of the beating but experiences no feelings because she "denies" the seriousness of the event.

And when she becomes an adult, her use of denial as a defense against the pain of that abuse continues to operate. She listens to me talk about child abuse. I might give an example in my lecture about a girl I call Cindy who as a child watched her father beat her mother. When Terry hears me say to her that it's very abusive for a child to be allowed to watch a parent beat up another parent, she would say something like, "Pia, I agree that watching the beating was abusive for Cindy, but it wasn't abusive at all in my case".

If an alcoholic in denial is accused of being drunk, he or she may claim that while drinking a quart of Scotch might make someone else drunk, it's not enough Scotch to make him or her drunk. "I hold my liquor better than that, and I am not drunk!" Denial operates when we can see and grasp certain realities in other peoples' lives, but can't see the same realities in our own lives.

The process of delusion is more profound and serious. Delusion means we believe something in spite of clear facts to the contrary, which means we can hear the facts, but we don't assign the proper meaning to them. For example, I have a friend who was blatantly sexually abused by his mother when he was a child. But he refused to believe that what she did was sexually abusive because she just "wasn't that kind of woman." His delusion about his mother's character was stronger for him than the facts of her actually sexually abusing him.

In adulthood, when I am in delusion, I believe that my chronic state of over-commitment and the constant high-speed schedule I keep up with is normal and healthy. When I hear someone talk about how unhealthy it is to keep ourselves under so much stress and hear them say that we need to have quiet time, leisure time, fun time, I say to myself - that just isn't true. A real person leading a real life just can't do all that. It might be nice, but it isn't realistic. And in my delusion I may tell my friend Wanda the same thing: "Shape up, girl! Having all these things to do is just the way life is. There's nothing wrong. Maybe you're tired and irritable because you're coming down with the flu. You just need a better attitude." My delusion that my constant working is normal and healthy is so strong, it even spills over to include others.

As a therapist, I would know that delusion was in operation for Terry if she heard my lecture about Cindy watching her father beat her mother and said to me, "Pia, I hear you tell me that what Cindy saw is abusive to her, but it just isn't. The parents were just having a normal fight. Nobody was hurting Cindy. If two people want to fight that way, it's okay with me." Her delusion is that it is not harmful to a child for parents to physically attack each other in front of that child.

But the facts are that a child is abused by watching one of the two most important and necessary care givers in his or her life beat another one up. A person in delusion can "hear the facts" but can't accept them as being true, so he or she acts as if the awful reality isn't awful.

Delusion runs rampant in codependence, so recognizing it in ourselves is important. We experience the symptoms of codependence in our adult lives leading to painful emotional consequences for ourselves and those we love, yet our delusion is that, with enough time, "things will just work out". And although we have often seen things in our lives and relationships that are very painful and scary, we codependents in delusion live as if these things were not painful or scary. And we sometimes stay in very abusive situations and relationships without facing the reality that we are being seriously abused.

Like all the other defense mechanisms, delusion is invisible to us, making it a serious problem: we don't know we are deluded. We live in an unreal world based on our delusions, but we see that unreal world as reality. Because we can't afford to hear the facts about our lives as they really are, we often get very angry with people who try to point out any fallacies in our delusions. This position leaves us very vulnerable, since both reality itself and anyone with a strong sense of reality tend to threaten the view we have of our world. People in delusion tend to isolate themselves from those who might reveal the truth about their lives.

Often the resistance to my confrontation of delusion in people in therapy stems from the fact that these persons are repeating the same dysfunctional behavior they received as children with their own children and don't want to recognize it as dysfunctional. People in this situation can't see their own resistance to a change of perception. They just stick to the distorted "facts" of their own deluded view.

Critical to recovery from codependence is knowing both what defense mechanisms are and how they work in our lives. Accepting the following facts can aid recovery greatly:

* Defense mechanisms still operate in adult codependents.

* Our own defenses are usually invisible to us.

* To recover, we must allow other trusted people to confront those defenses by telling us when they think we are using them.

* Although it will be hard and we may feel fear or anger at the time, we must listen to these confrontations to break through the defenses into recovery.

* Let Jesus decide the magnitude of the situation by asking Jesus come into this memory.

You may encounter some of these resistances to facing your own reality as you read about the symptoms of codependence and the descriptions of abuse in this book.


Two helpful indicators that, if followed, often lead to a recovery of lost history are body memories and feeling memories. These are like security passwords to a carefully guarded computer program. Once the computer operator enters the password into the computer, the operator has access to the program. In a similar way, once a person recognizes a frightening or painful feeling or body memory, he or she may be able to follow that memory and gain access to data in the unconscious mind about frightening or painful abuse that was repressed or dissociated from when it originally happened. This valuable data can then be brought to the conscious mind of the patient with the help of a skillful therapist, so that the person can work through the feelings around the memory and begin to heal from it.

A body memory is a sudden physical symptom that doesn't appear to be related to any physical cause at the moment. For example, you may be sitting comfortably, reading this book, but all of a sudden you get a piercing pain in your head, you feel dizzy, or you feel a wave of nausea. It may be that suddenly your arm feels like it's been kicked or that someone has put a hand on your throat and is choking you. Or suddenly you feel like there's a hand on the back of your neck and it's pinching you. Or you may feel a pain in the area of your groin. Such sensations are body memories.

a feeling memory is a sudden overwhelming emotional experience that also cannot be explained by anything that you are aware of at the moment. Feeling memories surface mostly in the form of four primary emotions: anger, fear, pain, and shame. I also call feeling memories "feeling attacks" since they seem to come suddenly and uninvited out of nowhere. I call a feeling attack in the form of anger a "rage attack," and one in the form of fear a "panic attack" or "paranoia attack." A feeling memory of pain is a sudden overwhelming sense of hopelessness often followed by a thought of suicide or believing one will die from the intense pain. A "shame attack" is a sudden, profound, almost overwhelming sense of being "less than," worth less, inadequate, bad, stupid, or ugly (derogatory words about ourselves often come to us in the process of a shame attack).

Body and feeling memories indicate to me that although our minds are powerful enough to bury memories in our unconscious mind and "know but not know," the body never forgets the painful experience of abuse and will keep trying to let us see the truth about ourselves.

For example, when I give a lecture about this subject, often someone in the audience says, "Pia, I'm having one of those memories. It feels like there is a hand on the back of my neck and I'm so scared." The hand on the neck experience is a body memory and the fear about the hand is a feeling memory.

A feeling memory is always experienced as an overwhelming feeling. Let's say a woman in a therapy group who is hearing my lecture suddenly has a feeling memory of fear. She goes into a condition that is close to panic and says something like, "I don't know what's going on, "Pia, but I'm so scared I want to run out of this room!"

Then I ask her, "Would you tell me what was going on when you started to feel the panic? What was I talking about?"

And she might say, "When you started talking about a little girl being sexually penetrated by her father, I went into such a panic that I practically left."

Then I ask, "Is it possible that someone sexually abused you?" because such a question at that point could very well trigger the return of a lost memory.

Many times these feeling and body memories can be used as doorways to take yourself back into remembering what really did happen in your childhood and retrieving long repressed events. So in a few pages, when you start to read about the different kinds of abuse, start paying attention to any body and feeling memories you may have.


If you are a codependent, you may have found it necessary during childhood to protect yourself with one of the six defense mechanisms I have described. Minimization, denial, delusion, repression, suppression, and dissociation are almost always operating in codependents, for they allowed you to survive encounters that would have driven you mad or overwhelmed you in some other way.

most of the above came from Facing Codependence by Pia Mellody

We can be healed of the root traumas and fears through Jesus Christ of Nazareth who speaks His love into these memories -- if we let down our shields and ask Him.  If you need assistance in doing this for yourself, contact one of the resources on This Page.  Only then can you forgive from the heart and get on with your life.

edited: 04/09/2015           http://orderofsaintpatrick.org/relations/defenses.htm