3 Defense Mechanisms That Could Hurt Your Relationships at Work

When you’re under pressure, stressed out, overworked, under-appreciated, scapegoated, or generally disrespected at work, internal defense mechanisms will often kick in. Psychologists say these behaviors and mental processes are serving as a stability factor but could be making things worse.

Psychologist George Vaillant took the initial work of Freud, who defined defense mechanisms, and categorized internal mechanisms as to how people deal with stress, the main ones being “immature,” such as blaming others and denial, and “mature” defenses such as humor and sublimation (which turns your unconscious motives into proactive and productive acts).

People will use defense mechanisms as a self-preservation strategy to stabilize one’s psyche and reduce emotional reactions, make themselves feel better and avoid changing perception of self. These mechanisms are typically used in an unconscious manner in a response to stressful situations.

Research by Wei Zhang and Ben-yu Guo (2017) of Nanjing China’s Normal University, created a “dissipative structure theory,” model that identifies how people use defense mechanisms to preserve self-worth and maintain emotional stability to get through their stressful situation. Through the overuse of these mechanisms and the lack of coping strategies, it can negatively impact relationships at work.


When things are going bad, it’s easy to duck into your cubicle, work remotely or find a way to avoid your team, boss or investor. And while this may work in the short-term and protect your self-worth, avoiding people just means you’re delaying solving a problem or dealing with whatever it is head-on, thus causing increased anxiety.

“[Isolation] allows you to protect your own self-representation by keeping yourself clueless about…missteps,” Dr. Susan Kraus Whitbourne said in Psychology Today.

It’s better to talk with your colleagues and find the root of the problem and try to find productive solutions and compensations to move the company forward. In turn, having a plan or resolution can help relieve bottled up anxiety that’s causing the lack of sleep or other health problems.

This is your brain on sleep deprivation


Every doctor will tell you to find healthy ways to relieve stress, but not everyone has a great outlet or method for exhaling the stress they incur on a daily basis. Most of the time people just bottle it up and/or use unhealthy methods such as alcohol or junk food to try and make it all go away. Over time, these unhealthy outlets will catch up with you and effect productivity, happiness and relationships with others.

“Compensation refers to your attempt to find an external outlet to feel better, [and] turn to ways of alleviating negative emotions. For example, abusing substances rather than confronting your negative self-views,” Whitbourne said.

Read more about developing health habits to deal with stress


Instead of looking inward and figuring out if they are adding to any of the issues, conflict or culture disconnect, people would instead reframe the situation and put themselves into a better light.

“[This is where] you turn all of your anxieties onto some idealized version of yourself in what can become a form of grandiosity,” Whitbourne said.

While you might be the glue that keeps everything running smoothly, everyone has a bit of stress they are trying to relieve to get the job done. Take a moment and evaluate at how you are connecting with people, and see if you can help improve the culture.

In the long run, using defense mechanisms as the go to response can only strain the relationships with others and will increase individual anxiety to a destructive level.

Read more about being a healthy entrepreneur at TechCo

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Written by:
Tishin is a technology journalist and correspondent. She has written for TechCrunch, Demand Studios and Fitness, and has regular network segments on local Phoenix affiliate stations. She holds a Master's degree in Clinical and Sport psychology, and has covered many areas of technology ranging from 3D printing and game development to neurotech and funding for over 15 years.
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