To start my series on psychology for writers, I thought I’d take a meaty topic that will have practical uses for all your characters, irrespective of genre or medium.

What are defence mechanisms?
You’re wandering along in your own little world. Life is good. You’re happy, content, satisfied.

WHAM! Suddenly, everything gets turned on its head – you have been hit by An Inciting Incident.

How do you react? Something has threatened your state of wellbeing, provoking something inside you, and you need to get rid of this ugly feeling. So, our unconscious mind defends you – and not always in healthy ways.

Psychoanalysts (the school of psychology founded by Freud) have formed a list of common defence mechanisms and divided them up. The most common divisions are mature, immature, neurotic and pathological.

(NOTE: while this topic is based in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychological principles, I’m going to skip over the theories behind the development of these reactions and concentrate on their possible manifestations and how we can use these as writers).

I will focus today on mature defence mechanisms. As the name suggests, these are considered the healthiest defences for adults. However, most people use a variety of defence mechanisms and it’s only considered a problem if they use an excess of immature or neurotic defences or a limited repertoire.

In fiction, your character may utilise these before you turn their life upside down, or could be used to show how a character has matured over the course of a narrative. They can also be used in supporting characters to contrast how your protagonist is Falling Apart.

Here are some important examples of mature defence mechanisms – as illustrated by one of my favourite TV shows:

1) Sublimation
“I am stressed at work – so I will dance in my office and drink cocktails.”

When your boss shouts at you or your brother steals your car, you decide to work off your frustration and anger by taking up Thai boxing or baking cupcakes. This turns the unacceptable impulse of wanting to smash someone’s face in or curl up in a ball and cry, and turns it into something productive.

2) Altruism
“I am frustrated at my lack of achievement, so I will direct my underlings to listen to marginalised groups”

You have failed to achieve your goal. Everyone in the world hates you. You did not save the cat. How will you cope with your inadequacy? By doing something nice for other people! You will teach Thai boxing! You will give away your cupcakes! Your failure is turned into warm fuzzies.

“I am going to put off dealing with this until it’s no longer Thursday

Not to be confused with repression, this defence mechanism involves putting off an emotional problem until it’s a more appropriate time to deal with it. Your boyfriend just dumped you, but it’s the Thai boxing world championship or you’re judging an international cupcake competition. You will deal with that loser another time – right now, let’s get to work!

4) Humour
“I just got shot, so I’m gonna wisecrack my way through this.”

Emotions are running high. Everyone is exhausted, tense and thirty seconds away from a breakdown. You crack a joke. It’s not particularly funny, but the simmering tension is relieved – for a little while, at least. Humour is a favoured defence mechanism for fictional characters, because it also serves to diffuse audience tension and remind us that watching this is meant to be entertainment and not give us all heart attacks.

5) Anticipation
“I’m in an awful place right now but, with a little help from my friends, I’m gonna get out the other side.”

My life is shit. I hate everything and everyone. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m gonna plan for the future and get out the hole.

(though I should note that Josh is mostly a mess of very unhealthy defence mechanisms in that episode – but that’s what makes an Emmy-winning performance)

So, there’s your rundown of a few healthy defence mechanisms. Use the clip below to identify the ideas explored above and consider how you might show your characters dealing effectively and maturely with a crisis:

NEXT TIME: Defence Mechanisms 2: The Defence Strikes Back (or, When Immature Defence Mechanisms Go Wrong)

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