Defenses and the Anxieties They Protect

by Sean Blackburn

I look at the clock. Ten minutes left in session. “Oh my gosh”, I think to myself, “how am I going to get through these next ten minutes”?


The man sitting across from me is in the middle of telling me how awesome he is. He wants me to know the square footage of his house, the kind of cars that he and his family drive, how much money he makes, and how much he thrives at work. Any comment from my side is instantly countered with another story meant to communicate to me how great he is.


I can’t get through to this guy. “Why is he so fixated on me knowing these things about him”, I ask myself.

At this moment I think back to my training as a clinician. “Don’t try to get to know the defense.” I remind myself. “Try to understand the anxiety that the defense is guarding”.




We do funny things when we feel psychological pain. In order to avoid acknowledging the reality of our hurt, the unconscious part of the mind comes up with a myriad of ways to feel safe during that pain. Psychologists refer to these attempts as mechanisms of defense.


The man sitting across from me, whether he is aware of it or not, is enacting the defense mechanism known as grandiosity. He needs me to think of him in a larger-than-life way in order to feel safe in the room.


Like the magician who uses distraction to get the audience to look at something flashy in his left hand so that they don’t notice what his right hand is doing to set up his trick, we all  are capable of using the same levels of misdirection in relationships to keep people from seeing what we don’t want them to see: our pain, fear, anxiety. The problem with this use of misdirection is that it prevents authentic connection with others; the authentic self is being hidden rather than being seen, loved, and accepted. 


In this moment I have a choice: join with him in how he wants me to see him—at which point I risk strengthening the defenses he has in place that helps him avoid his anxiety—or stay mindful of the possibility that he’s actually feeling the opposite of what he’s showing me: scared, insecure, small.


I choose the latter. Reminding myself of the fear he might be feeling in the room helps me to stay grounded during his need to be admired. It allows me to stay curious about his authentic self and to find levels of compassion and love for what might have created that anxiety in the first place.


In the end, my goal is to find a way to communicate to his anxiety that it’s safe to be known, that I don’t judge it or the defenses that he uses to keep them safe. If I’m able to do this change becomes possible for him. Challenge accepted!