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Can You Prevent Self-Defense Mechanisms?

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I have a long history of alcohol abuse and during my treatment for this, I became aware through therapy how I was using self-defense mechanisms to deny my alcohol problem. My therapist was good, however, I couldn’t get an answer about how I can prevent this level of self-deception happening again. I live in fear of being able to talk myself back into alcohol abuse. Is it possible to identify self-defense mechanisms before it escalates into negative behavior? Thank you in advance. (From Ireland)

Can You Prevent Self-Defense Mechanisms?

Answered by on -


There are a variety of psychological self-defense mechanisms that are used to help keep us from being overwhelmed by anxiety. They are not bad in and of themselves, but they can be overused, misused, or over-relied upon. There are over a dozen primary ones as are listed here.

With alcoholism often the main defenses are denial and distortion (often happening as a minimization or blame of others) In most forms of psychotherapy the awareness of the defense mechanism that is being used is often enough to help reduce its effectiveness. As an example, if someone were drinking to the point of blacking out and being fined for drunk driving most would consider the person as having a problem with drinking.

But in talking to the individual they might say: “I don’t have a problem. It was my birthday celebration. Everybody was drinking.” This would be a form of denial.

If they said: “Everyone kept filling my glass, and buying me shots. I didn’t want to get drunk, but they made me.” This would be a form of distortion.

If the person said: “I had a few too many — so what? I still got up and went to work the next day.” This would be minimization.

The key to having your defense mechanisms pointed out is to learn what they are and stay vigilant against using them to mask the problem. Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous in your country are the best way to keep your sobriety a priority and use this dynamic fellowship to help keep your defense mechanisms in check.

AA’s 12-Step approach follows a set of guidelines designed as ‘steps’ toward recovery, and members can revisit these steps at any time. The 12 Steps are identified here.

While this is often thought of a spiritually-based program there is some good research evidence that this fellowship is quite effective for helping to maintain sobriety — and may do this better than some mental health approaches.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral

Can You Prevent Self-Defense Mechanisms?

Therapists live, online right now, from BetterHelp:

Daniel J. Tomasulo, PhD, TEP, MFA, MAPP

Dan Tomasulo Ph.D., TEP, MFA, MAPP teaches Positive Psychology in the graduate program of Counseling and Clinical Psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College and works with Martin Seligman, the Father of Positive Psychology in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is Director of the New York Certification in Positive Psychology for the Open Center in New York City and on faculty at New Jersey City University. Sharecare has honored him as one of the top 10 online influencers on the topic of depression. For more information go to: He also writes for Psych Central's Ask the Therapist column and the Proof Positive blog.

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2020). Can You Prevent Self-Defense Mechanisms?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Mar 2020 (Originally: 17 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 15 Mar 2020
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