Psychological Defensiveness and Self-Deception


Almost everyone understands the basic concept of psychological defense mechanisms.  At one time or another, we’ve all said (or been told), “Stop being so defensive!” We understand that the defensive person is protesting a little too strongly against something he or she doesn’t want to admit is true. Take that dynamic inside the mind and you have an internal defense.

One of my favorite theorists, Roger Money-Kyrle, looked back over his long career as a therapist and the different ways he had conceived of defenses; in the end, he came to think of them as lies we tell ourselves to ward off truths too painful to accept or unbearable emotions and feelings.  What makes them so difficult for us to recognize ourselves is that we’ve spent a lifetime believing those lies and we want to go right on believing them because the alternative is to feel pain.  It’s much easier to identify someone else’s defenses than our own.

If you think about your friends and family, I’ll bet you can identify someone with a defense that you and others around him can easily see but he can’t.  For example, I have an acquaintance who regularly falls out with her other friends and becomes indignant about the insensitive ways they treat her.  The other person is always to blame for the disagreement.  She isn’t my client, and I’ve never talked to her about this pattern, but I’m fairly confident she suffers from deep-seated feelings of shame and unworthiness.  She can’t face those emotions and wards them off with an indignant sense that others have treated her badly.

In another post, I discuss the relationship between shame and indignation, where the later  acts as a defense against the former.  Here’s one way that I see it in myself:  If I’ve had a fight with a loved one, I’ll catch myself mentally rehearsing its details again and again, reliving it line by line for hours.  In my thoughts, I’ll forcefully argue my side of the story, proclaiming my own innocence and insisting on the other person’s faults (much like the acquaintance I described above).  Eventually I may recognize that I “protest too much” and realize that I need to re-evaluate what happened with a more critical eye to my own insensitivity.  More often than not, I’ll realize that I wasn’t so perfect after all, and that at least half of the “blame” is mine.

Finding Your Own Way:

Many of my clients have described this exact same internal process, and I’ve come to think of it as “the rant.”  More on that score another day, but for now, I suggest you start listening to yourself more closely.  Are you carrying on imaginary conversations with people in which you try to convince them that they are at fault?  Do you want to enlist other friends to support your “side”?  Do you repetitively re-live spats or disagreements with a growing surge of indignation?  If so, it’s a good sign that you’re lying to yourself because you don’t want to accept that your behavior might also have been hurtful.

Use that recognition as a starting point for a deeper examination of your character:  what does your behavior reveal about your problem areas?  Can you find any threads that might connect the various disagreements you’ve had?  Any common criticisms that friends have leveled at your over time?  Our defenses are very difficult to penetrate on our own, but these are some useful ways you can start.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Great post! Very enlightening and thought provoking. Do you ever watch the HBO show In Treatment? Thanks for this post – a good start to my weekend.

  2. This is very interesting. Would you agree that the lies we tell ourselves to cover feelings of shame and worthlessness, can link into coping mechanisms. Perhaps coping mechanisms learnt very young as a way of dealing with trauma?

    1. Yes, I would agree. I also think that lies are essential coping mechanisms for ALL of us to some degree. You can’t face everything or you’d be overwhelmed. What comes to mind is that line of Jeff Goldblum’s from “The Big Chill”. He says: “Don’t knock rationalization. Where would we be without it? I don’t know anyone who’d get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex. Have you ever gone a week without a rationalization?” By rationalizations, I think he means the lies we have to tell ourselves to get by.

  3. Great Post … and humbling. “Rehearsing … line by line … ” “protest too much”. Thanks for holding up the mirror for me.

  4. OMG….I was just telling a friend about my outrageous mother in law. She uses all kinds of defene mechanisms so she does not want to deal with the personal issues. She will try to bully you to agree with her point, she will go off on emotional outburst (yelling, pointing her fingers, standing over you or in your face) just to make herself to appear right. She had an episode with me a couple of weeks ago in front of the family. We were looking at a movie that dealt with a woman cheating on her husband. Everyone was having fun looking at the movie when she started talking about Jesus. This time I had withnesses that I did not start it. I kept the focus on the movies, and i was giving true factual statements (Over 40% of marriages end in divorce). Oh yes, did I mention over 30 years ago, she was the other woman in the relationship with a guy that she had 4 boys by. Drama! She is in her 60s, and I refuse to look over her behavior. I refuse to deal with her anymore. My husband understands. She project many of her shame, anger & other emotionals on to others. She keep friends who use her around her. It is a shame that she has built these walls of lies to help her be normal. I just wanted to say I love your blog & your explanations to different disorders.

    1. I’m glad you enjoy the blog, and I admire the way you’ve come to cope with your mother. It’s very difficult NOT to engage with such projectile people but it’s the only way to get along with them without losing your mind!

  5. When doing something wrong makes you feel like you’re complately worthless as a human being, then it is quite natural to be defensive. No one wants to feel worthless. It is not logical to think the doing mistakes makes anyone worthless, but it is an automatic thought that comes up in my brain whenever I do something wrong or even when people just simply misunderstand me.

    1. I don’t think therapy has to become a shame-ridden ordeal, and I don’t think shame about specific things is really the issue. The focus should be on shame re: who one is, a sense of internal defect, damage, or ugliness.

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