The Tenacity of Defenses

Despite the fact that clients in psychotherapy long for transformation, very few change anywhere near as much as they’d like (I discussed this in an early post), often remaining trapped in destructive patterns of behavior such as the cycle of crime and punishment; even when they understand that the repeated behaviors they engage in are harmful, even when they wish to do something different, they can’t seem to alter those behaviors enough.  To understand why this is so, it helps to know something about the nature of defenses as well as our neuro-anatomy.

Psychological defenses are lies we tell ourselves when we can’t bear the emotional truth.  Deeply entrenched defenses — the kind that form a part of our character, our personally distinct way of navigating emotions and relationships — originally came about because we had no other way to cope with pain as we were growing up.  If we’d had other psychological resources during childhood, we wouldn’t have needed to develop these strong defenses in the first place.  Once they’ve been active for years, they’re extremely difficult to change because they’re neurologically habitual.  Let me explain.

Every emotion or thought you have is a chemical/neurological event; each defense has a set of neural pathways associated with it in your brain and the more powerfully entrenched the defense, the more deeply “etched” those neural pathways.  I like to think of defenses as deep ruts in a well-traveled road.  Whenever you travel familiar upsetting terrain, you’ll tend to fall into those ruts — that is, you’ll use the same old defenses — just as a wheel will slip into an actual rut.  You might be able to lift the wheel out of that rut for a time, but unless you exercise constant vigilance, it will always fall back in.  Always.  It’s like the force of gravity, virtually inevitable.  In order to stay out of that rut, you either have to change the emotional terrain or figure out some other way to navigate it.  Even when you develop other techniques — laying down new “ruts”, so to speak — the old ones will always be a problem because they’ve been around much longer, with years of heavy traffic to dig them deeper.

So let’s take an example.  Say you’re extremely overweight, to such a degree that it threatens your health.  You’ve gone on diets, you’ve tried to change your eating habits but nothing much has changed.  You can’t seem to shed the weight though you know it will shorten your life and drastically lower its quality as you age.  One would think that this would be motivation for change, but given the obesity epidemic in America, it’s obviously not enough.  Yes, the American diet relies too heavily on processed and fast foods, with too much fat and sugar; yes, most of us don’t get enough exercise.  The average overweight person knows this and still can’t change the way he or she eats.

The obese person has likely spent a lifetime using food in a defensive way, as a kind of comfort or anesthetic, because he doesn’t know how else to deal with his pain or satisfy his emotional needs.  With no other psychological resources to cope with those difficult experiences, going on a diet or avoiding the usual sources of comfort merely throws her back on unbearable pain.  Under emotional pressure, such a person will automatically tell him- or herself the usual lie:  “You’re not lonely or sad or depressed, you’re hungry.”  The lie is what comes naturally, like a wagon wheel falling into a well-traveled rut.

The person might go to therapy and, over time, develop some new tolerance for pain and a greater capacity to deal with it.  Whenever that pain comes up, the old defense will always feel like the easier and more natural response because it has been around longer and that neural pathway is just as deeply etched as ever.  To avoid falling into that rut means working hard to do something different.  It takes self-awareness and continual effort; at the same time, that “something different” generally means bearing with your pain, which  in the short-term feels much worse than downing a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.  When you think about it, it’s no wonder so few people really alter their self-destructive behaviors, even when they want desperately to change and recognize the cost of not doing so.

Finding Your Own Way:

Food cravings are a great way to approach this issue.  Next time you feel the urge to gorge yourself or eat something you’ve promised yourself not to eat, try to hold off as long as you can.  Don’t decide in advance that you are or are not going to give into the craving; simply choose to wait.  Try to remain as self-aware as possible; don’t distract yourself with something else, don’t turn on the TV or run to the gym.  Just wait and try to bear with the feelings that come up, as long as possible.  My guess is that you’ll soon begin to feel extremely uncomfortable.

I come from a family of substance abusers and I constantly struggle with a tendency to drink too much alcohol.  As a stressful day is winding down toward 5:00, I invariably feel the longing for a glass of wine, even though I may have promised myself not to drink that day.  It feels mindless, automatic.  It’s my default position; unless I’m very self-aware and willing to bear with the discomfort of stress, I’ll be pouring myself a drink before I’m quite aware that I’m doing it.  I know I will always have this problem.  (It’s one of the strengths of the 12-step programs, the insistence that you will never be finished with your addiction, never fully “recovered”).

While stress is unpleasant, I can always resort to alternative ways of coping with it — taking a bath or doing some cardiovascular exercise.  It’s much more difficult to bear with depression or loneliness because meaningful relief takes hard work over a long period of time to achieve.  What are your short-term defensive strategies?  What do you do to make yourself feel better right now, even when you know you’ll feel bad about it later?  Any ideas about what you’re trying to avoid?  As with the food example above, try holding off long enough for the “bad” feelings to emerge.  Maybe over time, you can hold off a bit longer, do something a little bit different.  That’s the kind of change that is actually possible.

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. Hi Joe,

    I enjoy your articles and perspectives. I like how you explain the dynamics of what is actually going on, yet it is a bit of a bummer to realize the effort involved to sustain real change.

    On this topic of change, I have a question – what thoughts do you have on “The Sedona Method” and EFT (assuming you have heard of them)?

    I’ve received a series of emails about a “tapping” summit starting next week and I have no real data on the effectiveness of the methods of “change.” Do you?


    1. Brenda, I have no direct experience with EFT although I’ve looked into it a bit and a friend of my gave it a try. It sounds too good to be true, despite the pseudo-scientific underpinnings, and you probably know how I feel about affirmations. I’d never heard of the Sedona Method so I did a quick Google search. From what I can see on their website, I’m opposed to just about everything it stands for. It’s geared toward feeling happiness and success, having more loving feelings, achieving a sense of peace and well-being, etc. Now there’s nothing wrong with those feelings, of course not, but the goal should be to find out what you actually do feel, to develop a greater capacity to tolerate it, not to try to achieve a limited set of the feelings you’d like to have. It just doesn’t work that way.

      1. I wanted to share some revelations I had this weekend on all these “techniques” that I’ve come across recently. They each were presented at business meetings!

        So with my marketing hat on I now see what it is…people selling the new trend – ‘human development’ products and services. Slick marketing, major platforms with big names, joint ventures and affiliates…and rolling in the cash.

        The Sedona Method was mentioned to a group of business people by a famous author (soup for soul) now big into what has been defined as ‘human development.’ He was in the movie The Secret (haven’t watched it nor read the book – but I found it interesting that he felt the need to explain why so many people didn’t get results…they weren’t ready to practice the ‘law of attraction’ – they needed to learn a few other laws first like forgiveness, etc). Interesting….

        But he did take us through some great activities….not life changing on the spot but certainly were well thought out.

        While I don’t know whether this is part of the actual sedona method, we were asked to recall a time from childhood that still lingers. As any anxiety / pain appeared, we were asked to identify a place in our body where we actual felt it….then focus there., letting it magnify (Great fun unannounced in the middle of 100 people).

        Next we we asked to envision going right to the core or center of the pain. This went on for quite a while. Most reported the feelings dissipated. I could sense I had more work to do on what I focused on but got the idea and have practiced it a few times since then.

        It was through this author that I received the email invite to the EFT summit – and the videos indicate that it is ‘even faster’ than ‘other’ techniques. That’s when I actually went to the Sedona site and have been asking around what others think.

        A third technique was presented at a networking meeting last week where I was laser coached by the presenter. It was an interesting process. She cited the series of questions she asked me were from a women called Byron Katie known for, ‘The Work.” So naturally I took the first opp to check that out – seems even more into keeping people dissociated than the above techniques. At least they want you to know what your dealing with before waving the magic wand (or fingers?)

        I have also gotten into the habit of google “review” and “scam” when investigating anything….seems each has some vocal opponents.

        With all this being said, I took the opportunity to simply sit for 40 minutes this weekend rather turn to my regular comfort activities….and I lived.

        Each moment seems like an all important decision in those times of stress. I fall back on the AAA of AA – awareness, acceptance, action. Some days are longer than others. Taking to to get aware takes some focus.

        And that is why I like your articles…they add to the awareness.

        1. Thanks for adding that, Brenda. Some people must find these kinds of techniques useful; especially if they aren’t interested in psychotherapy, or can’t afford it, anything that heightens their self-awareness is good.

  2. Thank you for this post. I always suspected that childhood experiences were at play in this context, but your post finally explains it.

    I have used this holding off strategy before, too. It does work, but it really takes a lot of effort and self-control. I found it important to not think at all about the “why?” of remaining strong and not giving in to my bad urges. I was thinking “My life sucks so much, I hate the world, and now I should skip this ice cream and eat broccoli? What for?”. The moment I started looking for answers to that question, I lost. It just seemed pointless and I gave up. So don’t even start pondering. Just hold off.

    1. I’m with you on that one — the wondering and thinking is counter-productive at those moments. I also identify with your aggrieved feelings: I can so easily let myself feel deprived and resentful, especially when the mental words get going.

  3. I found this post both encouraging and a little perplexing. It encouraged me in the fact that I’ve been able to recognize that some of my ways of suppressing the emotional pain of loss, loneliness and disappointment have changed: I try to exercise now rather than comfort eat as was my previous response and as a result my diet is much healthier and the weight loss and improved feelings of knowing I’m doing something kinder and friendlier for myself certainly has helped. I also name and accept my feelings and acknowledge them as a part of me. At the same time you mentioned meaningful relief taking hard work over a long period of time and I wondered if you could provide some further thoughts on the process of the “bad” feelings emerging and moving through this?

    I’m referring to those bad feelings being felt, as fully as they are able to be and what one does with them once they emerge (as opposed to alternative ways of dealing with them), as they are often extremely painful feelings to sit with and for me, sometimes stay being ‘felt’ for some time, and can dominate my days. I’m hopeful this process eventually has an end, just wondering what your thoughts are on how one knows when the pain has run it’s course so to speak, specifically that deep pain, which I think may well be akin to existential aloneness that you have referred to in other posts. Hope that makes sense…not sure it does =)

    1. From my experience, the painful feelings become less potent over time (years), especially to the extent we can create a life for ourselves where we feel connected to and loved by other people. I don’t know if this describes your own experience, but I had a tendency to dwell on the pain and my regrets in a way that made them more intense and longer-lasting. Now when those issues come up, I don’t try to avoid them but I don’t indulge them either. I just try to breathe and go on.

      1. Hi Joseph, thanks for your reply. I definitely identify with your comment regarding creating a life for ourselves where we feel connected. That has been a big part of my growth and change over time. I think my comments were related to my experience of years of not acknowledging and accepting/or understanding my feelings and now learning how to do that how you find the balance of not dwelling on them once you start identifying them. Not avoid but not indulge – it was that bit I was most curious about…how one does that in a practical way.

        You mentioned just breathing and going on, is it as simple as that. I have done a bit of DBT training so understand the concepts of mindfulness and radical acceptance just wondered if there was something I was missing in your comments around not avoid/not indulge.

        1. It may be “as simple as that” but it’s sure not easy! Just going on often means sitting with a lot of uncomfortable or painful feelings, as I’m sure you’ve found. But no feeling lasts forever. It’s hard to remember that sometimes.

  4. Thank you Joseph for a superb article. Every word ‘speaks’ to me ‘loud and clear’ – this is what I have experienced in my life, period of time in therapy, and since ending therapy.

    My struggle, is with food. I have never been obese but I have been 20kg overweight, currently I am at the top end of my healthy weight range – and those words “I am at the top end of my healthy weight range” are what I ‘use’ as an excuse to stay where I am, rather than losing that last 5-6 kg that will put me in a place of feeling very comfortable with my body and size.

    I have done all of what you say – and the only thing that ‘moves’ the urge to want to eat when I know I am not hungry, is facing and feeling through to the other side, whatever the feeling is that is associated with my ‘hunger’. It works.

    Having said that, I too ‘fall’ into my old pattern very easily and have to continually watch myself. Sometimes it is easier than others to remain vigilent around my behaviour – when I am tired or stressed it is harder; I just don’t have the energy sometimes.

    But, I am doing okay – and, I have come a long, long way. I do accept now that food will always be an issue for me. Not blaming my parents for a minute but, food was an issue in our family – we had to eat everything on our plate whether or not we were hungry (there were starving children elsewhere), and I had 6 siblings so any baking Mum did was gone in a flash so it felt like I had to get in if I was going to get any.

    Thank you again – brilliant!

    1. You’re welcome! In my family, we weren’t forced to clear our plates but food was the one truly “good” thing in our emotional environment. My mother was terrible at nurturing but wonderful at cooking and feeding us; as a result, my siblings and I all value food highly and spend a lot of time cooking (and of course, eating). I find food a huge source of comfort and it’s only my vanity that saves me!

  5. You mentioned psychological defenses are lies…etc. Would you write a post about people who are pathological liars – what disorder does this fall under? Do they lie about nearly everything? If so, why? What’s the pay off or what’s the fear? How do non-liars deal with them, especially if you can’t catch them in a lie or can’t prove it even if you know they are lying? Tks.

    Also, a dear friend of mine is a Master EFT practitioner and has seen remarkable results with hundreds of patients. My knowledge is limited in that I don’t know it will cure everything, but I do know it reduces fear, anxiety, depression and many more.

    1. I’ll write a post about pathological liars. They’re fascinating but impossible to work with as clients, of course. In the meantime, I will just say that the only way to deal with them is to stay as far away as possible. Their defensive structure makes change extremely difficult and they’re not interested in what you say or think about them — i.e., there’s nothing you can do to make/help them change.

  6. Interesting article – I agree with just about all that is said, however I feel it is delivered a little pessimistic ally with regard to achieving lasting change. I totally agree with what is said about deep ingrained trenches regarding habitual behavior patterns, I do feel we are equally capable of (eventually) laying down positive trenches through which to travel just as easily. I believe the problem lies more with the generally unsettled/unsatisfied lives most of us lead which we make more bearable with indulges such as food, alcohol, drugs- whatever your particular fix is. Doing something about the bigger picture (I believe) would give us a chance to change ingrained habits (however deep) with much more success. I don’t know if this makes sense but I feel change is not so impossible for all who genuinely want it – the person just needs to be in the right environment when they make the attempt (most are not). On a parting note did you know sugar was as addictive as heroin and just as difficult to kick. I made the change from this one by slow gradual reduction and constant vigilance – but I believe the winning factor was the right environment. I still need to keep constant vigilance – if I fall its hard to get back on track – but certainly not impossible

    1. In my zeal to counter-act what I see as the lies pedaled in the self-help field, I can come across as pessimistic. I, too, believe that change is possible, just not of the “conquer” depression or “overcome” anger type. We can learn much more constructive ways to deal with our emotions and those ways become habitual over time. I strongly believe in (to use your words) “slow gradual” change that comes about through “constant vigilance.”

  7. hey j , I’ve read only this post so far — clearly u love to write , & u write clearly. Much of what u wrote has the Ring of truth . I do find that “trying ” is very different than “doing ; doing my best ; working at or toward ; trying-on for size ; making my best effort ; moving toward ”
    In my experience more than a very few folks change thru psychotherapy enough / as much as they want to . Redefining / reframing goals as “……enough” , & colaborating over-time to create / clarify Realistically! what someone wants insteada’ their current internal or external experience seems to help a lot toward satisfying- enough changes– as i change , my expectations / goals usually change too.
    I also kno that w/o significant immersion in Interpersonal group therapy , treatment outcomes wouldn’t be near as positive.
    i intend to read more of yr thotful posts–thanks !

  8. I agree fully with what you say regarding pathological liars (people with narcissistic personality disorder are such liars).

    You say:
    “I will just say that the only way to deal with them is to stay as far away as possible”


  9. After reading your previous post on “The Cycle of Crime and Punishment in Psychotherapy”, the following quote came back into mind:
    “You can believe in something but still fail to live up to it.”
    This quote comes from an episode of “House” I watched a few years and has remained with me ever since … it clearly resonated with me – likely because I saw the disappointing truth in it but I’ve always question “Why is that?” Why is it that we can believe in something and yet still fail to live up to it … what is (are) the barrier(s) and how do we get past them?

    And thanks to this post, I now have some insight into what the possible barrier(s) could be!! 🙂

    I have struggled with my weight in recent years but never had a weight problem prior to that and one of the tools I’ve learned is to stop myself whenever I’m feeling hungry and ask when did I last eat and if it’s a true hunger or an emotional hunger … so far that seems to be working on holding off any additional weight gain. I have yet to figure out the defense mechanism or lie that is keeping me from taking more positive action/steps to actually lose some wieght.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts … thank youf or sharing!!

    1. I’m not discouraging you from exploring the emotional component of your hunger, but I read a book this summer that more or less changed my life. WHY WE GET FAT by Gary Taubes. In a nutshell, I’ve cut most carbs out of my diet and now, I don’t feel hungry between meals. The higher protein and fat content in my diet makes me feel full AND I got my weight down to where I wanted. You might want to give it a look.

  10. As we come to the end of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign, I wonder if some women do not stay in abusive relationships because such abuse helps them to avoid facing other more painful truths about themselves. As someone who walked away from an emotionally abusive husband within only a couple of months of such abuse; and whom I later came to see as having treated me in the exact same way that my mother did…and remembering how painful that realisation was, I wonder if campaign as this one can be effective in bringing about change in the lives of people who would rather see their husbands as perpetrators of abuse while protecting their own parents.

    Do you think that abuse can be used as a defence? I have come to this thought from having engaged in discussions with women who are trying to be the voice of these abused women, who themselves somehow resist acknowledging that it is the responsibility of any abused adult to stop the abuse that is happening to them.

    1. Or maybe they would rather not even see their husbands as perpertrators because once they see it, they might see the similatiries their husbands share with their parents.

    2. It’s an interesting point of view, and I think there’s quite a lot of merit to it, but I expect it’s not a popular one. The idea that being a victim reinforces a defense stance might provoke a lot of anger.

  11. I’m not sure I agree that this kind of change must always necessarily be this difficult or hard-won. In my experience, breaking out of a defense is a learned skill like any learned skill, and my sense of how quickly and effectively I’m able to affect these sorts of changes at any point in my life seems to correspond closely to how quickly I can pick up other skills during those times. In other words, there definitely seem to be periods of my life when my brain is more open to change than others.

    I think some brains are more plastic and changeable than others, and in my experience, it can have a lot to do with the neurochemical environment we create by what we put in our bodies. This is why I’ve taken an approach to my mental health that remembers the chemical, even though I’ve also always been drawn to the psychoanalytical (in spite of the advice of doctors). I’m not on meds anymore, but when I was taking a stimulant for ADHD and an SSRI, I noticed a lot of positive changes in my ability to learn and master some artistic skills I’d always struggled with. Improvement that had always been slow and difficult in piano and drawing were suddenly easier, and I felt tremendous “flow” in working on these things. (There’s probably a lot to be said for how the study of music and drawing are, in themselves, great facilitators of neuroplasticity, but that’s another comment.)

    Nothing, though, has made a bigger difference in how efficiently I can learn and change than taking omega 3 supplements. I’ve seen it posited that humans evolved eating a lot more of this than we tend to now, so our brains are actually pretty reliant on it for some important growth and change processes. I can easily believe this when I reflect on how very *different* it feels to be inhabiting my brain when I remember to take this supplement.

  12. Dr. Burgos, I really enjoyed this article. I am currently researching for my senior this (BA in Clinical Psychology) and I am comparing genders under three key components, defenses being one of them. Can you tell me anything you might know or undrstand bewtween the genders that relate or dont relate when it comes to defenses? Thank you

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