We use defensive mechanisms in our day to day life in order to cope with trauma and uncomfortable feelings, however, they are a substance abuser’s arsenal to avoid the reality of their addiction and its consequences. Some of the more common mechanisms are denial, blaming, regression, and projection.
We all use defense mechanisms in our everyday lives. Most are used short-term to distance ourselves from uncomfortable or unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They help us keep sane and stay functional in the face of the trauma and stress that we experience. We develop them as a natural part of growing up. While defense mechanisms are designed to provide psychological protection for us against trauma, great stress, painful emotions or uncomfortable thoughts, for the addict they become an insulating layer of lies and distorted reality to hide behind.
Common Defense Mechanisms
Defense mechanisms change our sense of reality while we deal with the rest of our lives, for example, blocking painful emotions while we deal with funeral arrangements for a loved one. The substance abuser, on the other hand, relies on these defense mechanisms to justify his or her addiction, thereby distorting their own perception of reality. This distorted reality shields the addict from perceiving their own destructive behavior and its effects on themselves as well as the people around them.
Primitive Defense Mechanisms
Some of the defense mechanisms that addicts use are called primitive defense mechanisms and include the following: denial, blaming, regression, acting out, dissociation, compartmentalization, and projection.
- Denial is the first line of defense for the addict. It is the act of denying that the problem even exists because they feel they are doing so well in other parts of their lives.
- Blaming Others is the best way for the addict to shift focus away from themselves and make others responsible for their addiction. This way, their addiction is justified.
- Regression is reverting to an earlier, childhood behavior. In the addict, it emerges as a refusal to leave the bed or house to engage in normal day to day activities. The substance abuser isolates themselves from their friends in order to pursue their addiction without judgment.
- Acting Out is performing an extreme behavior in order to express thoughts or feelings. Substance abusers will have temper tantrums or feel maudlin instead of saying “I am angry” or “I love you”. They do not know how to express themselves normally because of their distorted interchange with the real world. Self-Injury is another way to act out, usually because the addict can’t stand to feel their own feelings. They will cut themselves or otherwise hurt themselves in order not to feel the psychological pain of their addiction.
- Dissociation is a detachment from reality when faced with stressful situations or ideas. Active addiction causes an impaired sense of self which in turn generates behavior that is baldly contradictory to the addict’s core beliefs and values. Addicts can no longer cope with reality and detach themselves from the real world in order to cope with their addiction. This can cause them to fragment their personality into several aspects or to lose time while in their own distorted world.
- Compartmentalization is a lesser form of dissociation, in which the addict separates a part of themselves from awareness of other parts (the addiction) and behaves as if they had separate values while being unaware of the cognitive dissonance that caused it in the first place.
- Projection is the misattribution of one’s own negative impulses and feelings to others while denying them in oneself. Substance abusers will project their own addiction onto others, i.e. a parent or sibling, especially if that person does or had done the same thing in the past, like drinking, or smoking pot in their youth. This also includes blame-shifting.
Middle (or less) Primitive Mechanisms
The less primitive defense mechanisms are usually learned as we mature in order to cope with stress or traumatic events. The addict will incorporate some or all of these into their repertoire as they get older and the primitive defenses no longer work as well for them to manage their perception of the world. These defenses include repression, rationalization, manipulation, undoing, avoidance, and procrastination.
- Repression – goes hand in hand with the substance abuse for the addict. The substance abuser’s inability to deal with reality, first causes them to seek the substance, and then later spirals them further down into addiction. The more the substance use, the worse the interchange with reality is, the worse the need to repress reality. Addiction is repression run amok— when a behavior or substance helps a person forget about life’s problems too effectively, and becomes something that the person is unable to not
- Rationalization – is another weapon in the addict’s arsenal against the real world. By rationalizing the addiction and evading any attempts of logic by others to help, the substance abuser quite confidently skirts around any issues their addiction might cause. This way, the addiction is positive in the addict’s world and hopefully, they can convince their family and friends of it.
- Manipulation – comes from rationalization. The addict uses their own convoluted logic to manipulate those trying to help them. By using sarcasm, or playing the victim, or even distracting the hapless friend or intervenor with runaround answers or changing the subject, the addict has once again taken the focus away from his own addiction.
- Undoing – is trying to take back bad behavior by making up for it in other ways. The substance abuser will apologize, make promises and try to act “normally” in an attempt to “undo” the previous bad behavior. This is usual in addicts who have mild dissociation or compartmentalization as a defense mechanism. They feel guilt about how their “momentary lapse in judgment” has affected those around them and will try to “behave” for a while, however, short that may be.
- Avoidance – is just coping by not coping. The addict just avoids dealing with anything and thus continues to maintain their world and their addiction.
- Procrastination – is the unwillingness of the addict to leave his wonderful cocoon of addiction. It goes with rationalization and manipulation as the addict asserts “now is not the right time to quit” or “I can quit anytime, just don’t want to do it now”.
It is important to be able to recognize the different types of defense mechanisms in a loved one who is addicted. The addiction is insidious and does not easily release the substance abuser, for they have now become as much a victim of the substance as anyone around them. As the addiction takes on a life of its own and constructs the self and the false world in which the hapless addict now lives, it seeks its own preservation and progress.
All the defense mechanisms are, although used by the addict, only there for the achievement of the addiction’s goals. As the addict’s arsenal burgeons with each additional defense mechanism, and the addiction making sure that they are well-versed in the use of each one they need, the addict just keeps spiraling ever downward into the false world the addiction has created. It becomes more and more important that the addict gets help for the addiction and the defense mechanisms which have become their only way to perceive reality.