Is Your Past Messing With Your Present?

    This week, we’re exploring how subconscious defense mechanisms subvert our best intentions and better possibilities. Yesterday, we talked about noticing times when we either overreact to small events or when our feelings change abruptly without sufficient present cause. These are both signs that old defense mechanisms have been triggered.

    So, what is a defense mechanism?

    In psychology, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a defense mechanism as “A mental process (e.g., repression or projection) initiated, typically unconsciously, to avoid conscious conflict or anxiety.

    A psychological defense mechanism is something that we do, without realizing it, to avoid conflict or anxiety. It is triggered automatically by association of some present event with an event in our past that was challenging or overwhelming for us. Something happened in the past that exceeded our ability to successfully handle and resolve it at that time, so we developed an avoidant strategy for similar things that come up in the future.

    Why is this important?

    It’s important for at least three reasons. First of all, when we are overwhelmed by an experience that we are not able to consciously process and we repress it, that experience becomes stored as tension in the mind and body. That tension creates discomfort at best and illness and other negative reactions at worst.

    Second, instead of repression, we may project that unresolved tension outward in anger, criticism, or blame onto others. This obviously creates pain and conflict in our relationships. It also keeps us from taking personal responsibility for our part in a conflict which prevents us from coming to resolution with the others involved.

    Third, our defenses become connected to avoidant behaviors that kick in when we are triggered. These include distractions, such as overworking or constant stimulation-seeking (being preoccupied with sex, violence, or entertainment), or more numbing strategies such as overeating or addictions to alcohol or drugs.

    Slipping into these subconsciously driven behaviors prevents us from being healthy, happy, and pursuing what we truly desire. So what can we do about this?

    The first thing we can do is notice when this happens—we bring our automatic reactions into our conscious awareness. Notice tension in your body. Notice times when you are projecting your feelings onto others in anger, criticism, and blame. Notice when you are avoiding feelings through distractions or stuffing your feelings with addictive behaviors.

    As suggested yesterday, just notice. We all do these things in different ways and to different degrees. It’s O.K., sometimes these are the best ways we can cope at the time.

    In tomorrow’s post, we’ll talk about what to do when as we begin to notice these behaviors so that we can move through them to more conscious and healthy choices.


    Kevin Schoeninger

    P.S. Meditation is a great way to begin to notice your inner state and shift into relaxed clarity so you can make healthier choices. Learn more here: Secrets of Meditation

      Leave a Reply