By Joan Monchak Lorenz, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC
Using Freudian concepts to understand human behavior, one could say that the ego often has a hard time pleasing the id and keeping the superego in check. So, it has developed a way to reduce anxiety through the use of ego defense mechanisms, those things that unconsciously block or distort our thoughts and beliefs into more acceptable, less-threatening ones.
Defense mechanisms (sometimes called coping or protective mechanisms) are, in short, used to protect the ego from full awareness of the situation. Their purpose is to help the person cope with a situation that he or she might not be able to handle.
Using defense mechanisms is a common human trait. We all use them. Some defense mechanisms are considered to be more helpful than others. Others may cause more problems for the person using them, in terms of creating unhealthy or unfulfilled relationships or losing touch with reality.
Most nurses are very familiar with defense mechanisms, having learned them early in their nursing school careers. Let’s review a few of the most common ego defense mechanisms and see how they apply to patient situations.
- Denial: Protecting self from reality. Example: Thinking the high cholesterol level was a lab error.
- Repression: Preventing painful memories/thoughts from entering consciousness. Example: Forgetting what he or she was told about a chronic illness.
- Rationalization: Justifying inappropriate behavior. Example: “I don’t come to every appointment late, traffic was just bad this time.”
- Projection: Pointing the finger at others instead of ourselves. Example: “It’s your fault I didn’t take my medicine.”
- Displacement: Taking things out on others. Example: Yelling at a nurse after being given a bad diagnosis.
Rational problem-solving is not a defense mechanism. Oftentimes, rational problem-solving is enough to resolve an issue. Then, the use of defense mechanisms is not needed.
Tip: A well-rounded person, a mature individual, usually has little need to use ineffective or maladaptive ego defense mechanisms. However, when people are sick, have just been given bad news, have a loved one injured, or are uncomfortable for whatever reason, even the most well-adjusted resort to the use of defense mechanisms to help them get through.
Find some common ground
How do you relate to a person who is using a defense mechanism?
- Recognize that the use of defense mechanisms is to protect the mind from total awareness of the gravity of the situation.
- Avoid hurrying someone along, as this only creates more frustration and confusion. Sometimes the person is able to develop awareness little by little.
- Provide a safe environment for the patient so that he or she might feel more comfortable doing the emotional work that is needed given the situation.
- Be aware of how you are reacting and try to maintain a professional stance. Don’t get hooked into the patient’s mini-drama.
- Provide information that might help clarify the situation.
- Stop giving information when you see that it frustrates or overwhelms the patient.
- Maintain a quiet voice and comforting physical appearance.
- Give the person some emotional space as well as the physical space needed to soothe him or her.
- Provide for the patient’s basic needs.
- Say things like “I am available if you want to talk about this more later.”
- Work around the use of the defense mechanism if possible.
- Avoid the tendency to take the use of defense mechanisms by others personally.
- Be patient and wait to see whether the person is able to address the issue in a more mature fashion later.
Joan Monchak Lorenz, MSN, RN, PMHCNS-BC is an HCPro author and contributed to the book Stressed Out About Difficult Patients.