People come into therapy for many reasons but the therapist cannot assume clients will actually willingly work on issues.  Of course this may be especially true when the client is court ordered into therapy. However, even those who come to therapy seemingly willingly may resist working through the very issues that brought them into the therapist’s office.

Sometimes those in therapy offices (as well as those who don't seek help) use defense mechanisms subconsciously to keep their painful reality from the surface.  Other times it is a conscious effort to avoid facing their problems and making the necessary changes to lead a more mentally healthy life.  Status quo may be unhealthy, but for many it is familiar and change is unpredictable and scary.

Here are ten common defense mechanisms used to protect the status quo and hinder progress in therapy:

1. Minimization.  The client who uses this acknowledges there is a problem but claims the problem is “really not that bad.”  Refusal to admit the impact of the problem on their lives inhibits them  from truly working through the problem to any solution.

2. Rationalization. The client using rationalization acknowledges the problem but reports a very good reason for it.  No matter what change is suggested, this person will continue to use the reason for continuing with the current behavior, thoughts or feelingsDefense Mechanism- Denial; Source: Microsoft OfficeCredit: Source: Microsoft Office.

3. Avoidance. This person will talk about anything except the problem. While the therapist may get a lot of information; the client’s problem will not be addressed as long as the he or she continues to avoid talking about it.

Defense Mechanism-Blame; Source: Microsoft OfficeCredit: Source: Microsoft Office4. Blame. The client who uses blaming as a defense refuses to take responsibility for his or her own actions, thoughts and feelings.  This client claims “it is not my fault.”

5. Denial. The client who uses this defense flat out refuses to acknowledge there is a problem. Most often therapists see this mechanism used by clients who are court ordered or family members or spouses who reluctantly join the initial client. Clients who seek therapy generally acknowledge there is a problem and that is why therapy is sought.

6. Comparing others.  Some clients compare their problems to others citing others are worse.  This can be a way of minimizing, but clients can also acknowledge their own problems as being “bad” just not as bad Defense Mechanism-Comparing; Source: Microsoft OfficeCredit: Source: Microsoft Officeas others.

7. Manipulating. The client who manipulates as a defense mechanism tries to bargain; I’ll do this only if you do what I want.”

8. Compliance. The client using compliance will say or do anything just to stop what he or she perceives as nagging.

9. Democratic State.  This mechanism allows clients to claim they have a right to behave in any manner they choose.  In using this defense, clients prevent any progress to finding solutions to their problems.

10. Strategic Hopelessness, Flight into Health, and Scaring Myself Straight.  Clients who use these defense mechanisms hinder therapy because they claim they can’t be helped, are already miraculously “cured”, or will be okay because they are afraid of the consequences.

All of these defense mechanisms are displayed in addiction recovery therapies as well as in the therapies of mental disorders.  They are patterns of behavior which carry their own self-talk.

Even in everyday life people use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from anticipated pain. Defense mechanisms may protect people from inner pain, but they can also hinder any healing that may occur when people are able to face their problems and find solutions.


The copyright of the article 10 Common Defense Mechanisms That Hinder Therapy is owned by Cheryl Weldon, MA and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

Protecting the Self: Defense Mechanisms in Action
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