Every human personality comes with its own defense mechanisms, which we use to avoid painful or inappropriate feelings or delay facing up to an unpleasant truth.
Most people employ these defense mechanisms to tweak their everyday realities as a means of coping. For instance, a wife who has just lost her husband might block the painful emotions surrounding her loss in order to make it through the funeral without falling apart. That is a defense mechanism known among psychologists as repression.
When it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, a person’s defense mechanisms become twisted, creating a reality where his or her destructive behavior is never the fault of the substance. What is being defended is not the person but the addiction.
Defense Mechanisms and Addiction 101
Denial is often the addict’s first line of defense. The addicted personality will reason that because he or she hasn’t lost a job or been rushed to the ER, there must not be a problem.
Regression is the reverting to childish behavior. In the addict, this can manifest itself in refusing to get out of bed or refusing to talk with someone who’s tried pointing out their destructive behavior.
Shifting blame does a nifty job of pulling the focus away from the addiction while at the same time justifying the addiction’s reason for being. “I drink like this because I’d go crazy around here otherwise,” is an example of a shifting blame statement. A close cousin to shifting blame, projection is taking one’s own impulses and feelings and attributing them to others. Addicts have been known to project their own substance problems onto someone close to them if that person is engaged in similar behavior or was at one time.
Defense Mechanisms and Addiction: Advanced Studies
Addicts have been known to employ more advanced defense mechanisms as their addictions grow more destructive, calling for an increased altering of reality.
Compartmentalization occurs when the addict separates a part of themselves (usually the part that does not conform to their personal beliefs and values) from all the other parts. It’s how some addicts can spend a couple of pleasant hours with a loved one, and then turn around and take money from that loved one’s purse without being aware of the inconsistency.
Repression occurs when denial no longer gets the job done. It allows the addict to simply forget the effects of their behavior. In fact, addiction itself is a form of repression, since the addict’s inability to deal with reality leads him or her to abuse a substance, which leads to a greater need to alter or escape reality, which leads to more substance abuse, and on and on.
Rationalization is a particularly insidious defense mechanism because it masquerades as reason. Often, the addict thinks he or she can supply perfectly sound reasons for their behavior, so long as these reasons don’t involve the addiction. Rationalization can take the form of misrepresenting the effects of a behavior (“It was either crashing into that mailbox or running someone over”), recasting motivations (“I didn’t want that job anyway”), or falling back on clichés (“It is what it is”).
As it relates to addiction, undoing is a defense mechanism that tries to “take back” destructive behavior in ways that leave the addiction unaddressed. It can look like a husband buying flowers for his wife after going on a three-day bender. Undoing often comes with an apology and the promise to “change” or “do better.”
When all else fails, there’s procrastination, or the putting off of reality until a future date.
These and other defense mechanisms are necessary for the preservation and growth of an addiction. When left unchallenged, addictions can quickly go from defensive to offensive, changing the addict’s reality to the point where he or she is unable to imagine a world outside the addiction.
Treatment at JourneyPure at the River
If you or a loved one suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder or a chronic substance abuse problem, please contact us today. JourneyPure is a nature-inspired retreat for men and women to begin a holistic wellness recovery. We offer medically-assisted detox services, individual and group counseling, and experiential therapies. Our friendly and knowledgeable staff is ready for you to get healthy and stay healthy.
Chris Clancy is the in-house Content Manager for JourneyPure’s Digital Marketing team, where he gets to explore a wide variety of substance abuse- and mental health-related topics. He has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and researcher, with strong working knowledge of hospital systems, health insurance, content strategy, and public relations. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids.