Defense Mechanisms

Robert F. Mullen, PhD

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The distinction between social anxiety disorder and social anxiety is a matter of severity; reference to one includes the other. The recovery tools and techniques provided are applicable to most emotional malfunctions including depression, substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and issues of self-esteem and motivation. These malfunctions originate homogeneously, their trajectories differentiated by environment, experience, and the diversity of human thought and behavior. 

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Defense Mechanisms

“Unable to cope with fear and uncertainty,
a person resorts to denial, repression, compromise,
and hides behind the mask of a false self.”
― Kilroy J. Oldster, Dead Toad Scrolls

Defense mechanisms are temporary safeguards against situations challenging our conscious minds. They are mostly unconscious and automatic psychological responses designed to protect us from our fears/anxieties. Notwithstanding their label, many defense mechanisms support recovery when utilized appropriately.

Any mental or emotional process that protects us from our fears, anxieties, and threats to our psychological well-being is a defense mechanism. Some, like avoidance, humor, and isolation, need no explanation. Others such as compensation and dissociation have both positive and negative values .in recovery.

Without coping mechanisms, defensive or otherwise, we can experience decompensation – the inability or unwillingness to generate effective psychological coping mechanisms in response to stress – resulting in personality disturbance or disintegration.

The following coping mechanisms are commonly exploited by persons living with social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities.


Cognitive distortions are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that perpetuate our anxiety and depression. In essence, we twist reality to reinforce or justify our toxic behaviors and validate our irrational attitudes, rules, and assumptions. We have willowed down the expansive (and redundant) number of cognitive distortions to thirteen that are most associated with social anxiety disorder. 

Space is Limited

Always Being Right. To someone who engages in this cognitive distortion, being ‘right’ is more important than the truth or the feelings of others. The core beliefs of a person with social anxiety are rigid; we dismiss new ideas and concepts. If the facts don’t comport with our beliefs, we dispute or disregard them, ignoring evidence that contradicts them – even if we doubt the veracity of our claims. Our insecurity is so severe, our maladjusted attitudes, rules, and assumptions run roughshod over the truth and the feelings of others.

Blaming is wrongly assigning responsibility for a situation. External blaming iswhen we hold others accountable for things that are our responsibility. Conversely, Internal blaming is assuming responsibility for things for which we bear no accountability. Trapped within social anxiety’s cycle of negative self-beliefs and social avoidance, we see ourselves as victims. A victim needs someone or something to blame. The logical approach to our automatic negative thoughts is to examine and analyze our motivations and devise rational responses. SAD, however, subsists on irrationality. Until we master recovery, it is reasonable to search for avenues to unburden ourselves of responsibility. 

Catastrophizing. Chicken Little was plucking worms in the henyard when an acorn dropped from a tree onto her head. She had no idea what hit her and assumed the worst. The sky is falling, the sky is falling, she clucked hysterically. Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that compels us to conclude the worst-case scenario when things happen to us, rather than consider plausible explanations. It is the irrational assumption that something is or will be far worse than reasonably probable. We prophesize the worst and twist reality to support our projection. If our significant other complains of a headache, we assume the relationship is doomed. When this happens again, our belief is confirmed. Moreover, not only did we project the outcome, but it is likely we were a party to it.

Control Fallacies. A fallacy is a questionable assumption. It is a belief based on unreliable evidence and unsound arguments. A Control Fallacy is the conviction that (1) something or someone has power and control over things that happen to us (external control fallacy), or (2) we hold that type of power over others (internal control fallacy). We either believe events in our lives are beyond our control, or we assume responsibility for everything.

Emotional Reasoning is making judgments and decisions based only on our feelings – relying on our emotions over objective evidence. It is best expressed by the colloquialism, ‘my gut tells me.’ This emotional dependency dictates how we relate to the world. At the root of emotional reasoning is the belief that what we feel must be true. If we feel like a loser, then we must be a loser. If we feel incompetent, then we must be incapable. If we make a mistake, we must be stupid. All the negative things we feel about ourselves, others, and the world must be valid because they feel true. Emotional reasoning is an oxymoron. Resolving this opposition is a crucial element of recovery.  

Fallacy Of Fairness is the unrealistic assumption that life should be fair. It is human nature to equate fairness with how well our personal preferences are met. Wanting things to work in our favor is normal; expecting them to do so is irrational. When real life goes against our perceptions of fairness, as it often does, it generates negative emotions. Fairness is subjective, however, based on personal beliefs and experiences. Two people seldom agree on what is fair.

Filtering. When we engage in Filtering, we selectively choose our perspective. Our tunnel vision gravitates toward the negative aspects of a situation and excludes the positive. This applies to our memories as well. We dwell on the unfortunate aspects of what happened rather than the whole picture. We filter out the positive aspects of our life, choosing to dwell on situations and memories that support our negative self-image. This creates an emotional imbalance due to the exclusion of healthy thoughts and behaviors.

Heaven’s Reward Fallacy is when we put other people’s needs ahead of our own with an expectation of reciprocation. Contrary to others who share this cognitive distortion, SAD persons are not seeking heavenly reward, but acknowledgment in this one. We continually say yes to others while denying ourselves, We tell ourselves our motives are selfless, but we accommodate out of neediness and loneliness. Consummate enablers, we ingratiate ourselves and allow others to take advantage to compensate for our feelings of undesirability and worthlessness. 

Jumping To Conclusions is making assumptions about something or someone without factual substantiation. There are basically two forms of this cognitive distortion: Mind-reading is when we assume to know what another person is feeling or why they act the way they do.Fortune-telling is predicting an outcome without considering the evidence or reasonable alternatives.

Those of us experiencing social anxiety often jump to conclusions with our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) because the evidence we rely on is our fears/anxieties. ANTs are the unpleasant, self-defeating things we tell ourselves that perceptually define who we are, who we think we are, and who we think others think we are. Due to our SAD-induced negative self-appraisal, we can be reasonably sure our assumptions are self-defeating and predict adverse outcomes.

Deciding or assuming to know what another person is feeling, thinking, or behaving without having any logical reasons or facts to substantiate our conclusion. It is also called fortune telling and mind reading. (It is easy to confuse it with Overgeneralization.) When we form our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) we usually jump to conclusions because the only evidence we rely on is our fears and anxieties which are abstractions based on our perceptions rather than reality. When we filter our information to conclude “no one will like me” or “they will make fun of me, we are Jumping to Conclusions. It is irrational to decide, without a crystal ball, how others will react to us or feel about us.

Labeling. When we label an individual or group, we reduce them to a single, usually negative, characteristic or descriptor based on a single incident or behavior. As a result, we view them as their label and filter out information that contradicts our stereotypes. Labeling others leads to false assumptions, prejudice, and ostracizing. “Because he slurred his words, he’s an alcoholic.” “Because she watches Fox News, she’s a conspiracist.”

Self-labeling is even more emotionally destructive. It sustains our negative self-beliefs and image. “I didn’t meet anyone at the party; I am undesirable.” “I gave the wrong answer in class; I am stupid.” Self-labeling supports our sense of inferiority and incompetence, and we often find our subsequent behaviors support our self-labels. 

Overgeneralization. When we overgeneralize, we draw broad conclusions or make statements about something or someone that are unsupported by evidence – arbitrary claims that can’t be proven or disproven. We can also overgeneralize if our conclusion is based on one or two pieces of evidence but ignore evidence to the contrary. We often base our conclusions on past events that are irrelevant to present situations. Overgeneralization is especially prevalent in persons experiencing depression or anxiety. Similar to Filtering, where we ignore the positive and dwell on the negative, and Polarized Thinking, where we see things in black or white, Overgeneralization is based on our tendency to assume the worst in a situation.

Personalization. When someone says to you, “Don’t take it personally,“ you are likely engaging in personalization. When we engage in this type of thinking, we assume that unrelated situations are directly linked to us, and random remarks are personally relevant. For those of us experiencing social anxiety, personalization is often a consequence of our fears of criticism and ridicule or our false assumption we are the glaring center of attention in any environment. Most important, personalization leads to negative self-criticism and low self-esteem. “If it hadn’t been for me things would have worked out better.” 

Polarized Thinking. In Polarized Thinking, we see things as absolute – black or white. There is no middle ground, no compromise. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are for us or against us. We do not allow room for balanced perspectives or outcomes. We refuse to give people the benefit of the doubt. Worse than our anxiety about criticism and ridicule is our negative self-judgment. If we are not flawless and masterful then we must be broken and useless. There is no room in our self-evaluation for mistakes or mediocrity.


Compensation is a way we hide or avoid something we cannot do adequately, by doing something else really well. In other words, we overachieve in one area of our life to make up or failures or deficits in another. Example: A teenager compensates for learning difficulties by excelling in sports. In recovery, compensating for our negative thoughts and behaviors by replacing them with healthy and productive ones is an appropriate use of the mechanism. Additionally, we compensate for our low self-esteem by recognizing and emphasizing our character strengths, virtues, attributes, and achievements. 

Like any approach, moderation is the key. It is easy, especially for those of us living with SAD, to overcompensate by setting unreasonable expectations or undercompensate by minimizing or dismissing our character flaws. This leads to perfectionism, whose symptoms are almost identical to our social anxiety.


Denial protects us from thoughts and behaviors we cannot emotionally manage. Our inability or unwillingness to recognize trauma or SAD symptoms is detrimental to recovery. People experiencing drug or alcohol addiction often deny that they have a problem, while victims of traumatic events may deny that the event ever occurred. SAD persons are disproportionately resistant to recovery because they deny its destructive capabilities as if, by ignoring them, they don’t exist or will somehow disappear. Our core sense of hopelessness and worthlessness does not encourage a willingness to accept our condition, which is a primary criterion for recovery. Denial allows us to lie to ourselves; it does not eliminate the situation.


Taking out our fears and frustrations on people or objects that are less threatening than a current situation. An example would be the worker, reprimanded by his superiors, who goes home and kicks the dog. This defense mechanism is prevalent in SAD persons when we take out our situational frustrations and self-loathing on persons or things that pose a limited threat such as a roommate, sibling, or significant other.


Dissociation is a disconnect from reality to shield us from distress and traumatic experiences. In theory, our mind unconsciously shuts down or compartmentalizes distressful thoughts, memories, or experiences. Daydreaming or streaming television to avoid conflict is a harmless form of dissociation. Morphing into multiple personalities, on the other hand, is a psychosis called DID (dissociative identity disorder).

In recovery, we deliberately dissociate ourselves from SAD as a mental exercise that helps us regenerate our self-esteem. We redefine ourselves by our character assets rather than our social anxiety disorder. When we break our leg, we do not become the injured limb. We are someone experiencing a broken leg. 


Projection is subconsciously denying our character defects but recognizing them in someone else. We project our negative thought and behaviors onto another. For example, we might project our own fears of criticism and ridicule by ridiculing someone else’s inept attempt at socializing. Often, when we instinctively dislike, criticize, or avoid someone, it is because we have projected our own inadequacies onto them.


Rationalization is justifying our irrational thoughts and behaviors by inventing a variety of explanations for them. Rationalizations are used to defend against anything that threatens our emotional well-being. For example, we might rationalize not getting a raise to our manager’s personal feelings, rather than our own ineptitude.


We often conflate regression with repression. Regression is when we revert to an earlier or less mature stage of psychological development where we feel safe from emotional conflict. Repression is a psychological attempt to unconsciously forget or block distressing memories, thoughts, or desires. In recovery, our objective is to expose and deal with them as part of the self-discovery process. 


Ritual and undoing is the process of trying to undo negative predilections by performing rituals or actions designed to offset them, e.g., confession and penitence to offset sin. Many turn to the ritual of substance abuse to atone for self-destructive thoughts and behaviors rather than resolve them.

Undoing is essentially compensating for a negative activity by performing a behavior contrary to it. An example of this is donating to a homeless shelter to make up for evicting tenants to build a condominium. Ritual and Undoing for positive gain can be a valuable coping mechanism. DRNI can be defined as a ritual to facilitate neural restructuring, while the replacement of our negative thoughts and behaviors with positive ones is an act of undoing.

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