Common Defense Mechanisms Used with Substance Abuse

Common Defense Mechanisms

Everyone uses defensive mechanisms to cope with trauma and uncomfortable feelings.

However, individuals abusing substances will use defense mechanisms to avoid the reality of their addiction and its consequences.

Some of the more common mechanisms are:

  • denial
  • blaming
  • regression
  • projection

Most of these are used on a short-term basis to distance ourselves from uncomfortable or unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Defensive mechanisms help us keep sane and stay functional in the face of the trauma and stress that we experience.

We develop these mechanisms growing up. While defense mechanisms are designed to provide psychological protection for us against:

  • trauma
  • great stress
  • painful emotions
  • uncomfortable thoughts

Individuals with an addiction can use them as an insulating layer of lies and a distorted reality to hide behind.

Exploring Common Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms change our sense of reality and continue to do so for the rest of our lives.

For example: blocking painful emotions while we deal with funeral arrangements for a loved one. This is understandable because while grief is normal, tasks still need to get done.

On the other hand, someone with an addiction relies on these defense mechanisms to justify their substance abuse, thereby distorting their perception of reality.

This distorted reality shields them from perceiving their destructive behavior and its effects on themselves and the people around them.

Defense Mechanisms and Substance Abuse

Some of the defense mechanisms that people dealing with substance abuse use are called “primitive defense mechanisms” and include:

  • Denial is the first line of defense for people abusing substances. 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 someone to shift focus away from themselves and make others responsible for their addiction. This way, their addiction is justified.

  • Regression is reverting to earlier childhood behavior. In the addicted individuals, it emerges as a refusal to leave the bed or house to engage in a typical day-to-day activity.

    The substance abuser isolates themselves from their friends in order to pursue their addiction without judgment.

  • Acting Out is performing extreme behavior to express thoughts or feelings. Substance abusers will have temper tantrums or feel overly emotional instead of saying, “I am angry” or “I love you.”

    They do not know how to express themselves generally because of their distorted interchange with the real world. Self-Injury is another way to act out, usually because individuals can’t stand to feel their 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 generates behavior that contradicts a person’s core beliefs and values.

    People abusing substances can no longer cope with reality and detach themselves from the real world in order to cope with their life of addiction.

    This can cause them to fragment their personality into several aspects or lose time while stuck in their distorted world.

  • Compartmentalization is a lesser form of dissociation. The individual separates a part of themselves from awareness of other factors (the addiction) and behaves as if they had separate values while being unaware of the cognitive dissonance that caused it in the first place.

    This is the person who can seem like they have their life together in one area, but a complete disaster in another.

  • Projection is the assignment of one’s negative impulses and feelings to others while denying them in oneself. This also includes blame-shifting.

    Substance abusers will project their own addiction onto others, i.e. a parent or sibling, mostly if they do the same thing in the past, like drinking, or smoking pot in their youth.

Defense Mechanisms Learned During Childhood

The less primitive defense mechanisms are usually learned as we mature to adulthood to cope with stress or traumatic events.

The addicted individuals will incorporate some or all of these into their repertoire as they get older. The primitive defenses no longer work as well for them to manage their perception of the world. These defenses include:

  • Repression – goes hand in hand with substance abuse. The individuals’ inability to deal with reality first causes them to seek substances and later spiral further into addiction.

    The more the substance use, the worse the interchange with reality is, the worse the need to repress the truth.

    Addiction is repression on steroids—when a behavior or substance helps a person forget about life’s problems too virtually and becomes something that the person is unable to note.

  • Rationalization – is another weapon 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 person’s world and hopefully, they can convince their family and friends of it.

  • Manipulation – comes from rationalization. The individual uses their convoluted logic to manipulate those trying to help them.

    Using sarcasm, playing the victim, or even distracting the hapless friend or parent with runaround answers or changing the subject, the individual has once again taken the focus away from his 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 people who have mild dissociation or compartmentalization as a defense mechanism.

    They feel guilty 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 individual avoids dealing with anything and thus continues to maintain their world and their addiction.

  • Procrastination – is the unwillingness of someone abusing substances to leave his wonderful cocoon of addiction.

    It goes with rationalization and manipulation as they assert, “now is not the right time to quit” or “I can quit anytime, just don’t want to do it now.”

It is essential to recognize the different types of defense mechanisms in a loved one who is struggling with substance abuse.

As addiction takes on a life of its own and constructs the self and the false world in which the individual now lives, it seeks its own preservation and progress.

All the defense mechanisms are only there to achieve addiction’s goals. As the addiction and rationalization grow, with each additional defense mechanism, it’s almost as if the addiction is making sure that the person is well-versed in the use of each one.

As a result, individuals struggling with substance keep spiraling downward into the false world they have created.

As this continues, it becomes more critical for the person to get help for their addiction.

As the defense mechanisms slowly become their only way to perceive reality and an ordinary life seems further out of reach.

This page does not provide medical advice

Written by Elevate Addiction Services | ©2020 Elevate Addiction Services | All Rights Reserved

Medically Reviewed by

Tim Sinnott, LMFT LAADC

December 14, 2020

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