People react to stressful and traumatic situations in different ways, and there’s also a noted difference between the defense mechanisms employed by men and women. These are generalizations, of course; behavior can be all over the spectrum and certainly isn’t confined to genders, but there are some mechanisms that are more commonly used by the females of the species.
The denial reaction results in a whole lot of “nope, this isn’t happening”. If a situation is too uncomfortable or painful to face head-on, then the person may simply pretend that no, it’s not happening at all. They’ll distract themselves with other things, keep a smile plastered on their face, insisting that everything is just FINE thank you very much. Nope nope nope, nothing to see here, move on.
In cases of childhood trauma, the denial may help the victim to cope by locking things away somewhere deep, as though they’d never occurred. In situations where a woman might be facing a terminal illness, on the other hand, denial can only last so long before the illness progresses and she’s forced to face reality… and that kind of reality after severe denial can be seriously devastating.
This is a trait that tends to develop in those who have experienced abuse in their youth; instead of expressing things like anger or frustration towards another person, they’ll become very sweet and gracious in an attempt to avoid conflict. It’s as though she’ll exhibit the polar opposite behavior of what she wants to do. Because she has been so programmed to quell her own so-called “negative” emotions, she’ll overcompensate with a complete 180-degree spin.
It’s very common in failing relationships, wherein a woman who’s conflict-avoidant will go out of her way to make her partner feel cared for and loved instead of expressing her own anger or frustration. She doesn’t want to make the partner mad or upset because she fears their reaction, and so, unable to express her own hurt and frustration, she channels it into “positive” emotional expression.
Basically, this just involves pretending that a situation didn’t happen, subconsciously banishing memories and emotions to some nether part of the psyche. It’s one of the more harmful mechanisms, because, like an infected wound that’s left untreated, the negativity will fester and blossom until it explodes in a number of different ways… but the person who represses emotions rarely does so intentionally; the mind just does this in an attempt to protect the sufferer. This often happens as a result of a trauma, such as sexual assault, or witnessing physical violence against another.
Repressed emotions can manifest in anxiety or panic attacks, depression, night terrors, or outbursts at totally unrelated situations. Worst of all, if issues are repressed and not dealt with quickly, they can grow and alter into something far worse, with details being muddied and either misinterpreted at a later date, or built up into a much more serious condition.
This often happens when a woman has to face a difficult situation that she is really unprepared for emotionally, and is common in those who have advanced education or are in strong career paths. Rather than acknowledging and dealing with the emotions that arise from said situation, the person will withdraw emotionally and approach things from an impersonal, clinical standpoint.
For example, if a woman is diagnosed with a serious illness, rather than allowing herself to feel and express the anxiety and sorrow associated with it, she might go emotionally numb and talk about it in a very controlled, rational manner. She will focus on facts and distance herself from any personal reaction. She may immerse herself in case studies, cite survival rates, and remain stoic and clinical… until such time as she breaks down.
This can happen when a person feels certain emotions that they feel embarrassed to have, so they accuse others of having them instead. From earliest childhood, girls are inundated with the idea that they always have to be nice, so emotions such as anger, frustration, and the like are seen as negative and not to be indulged in. As such, women often channel their emotions into different directions in order to release them.
A woman might lash out at a friend of hers for being shallow and judgmental, when in fact she’s the one who exhibits those very traits but is loath to admit them. Calling another person slutty, nasty, ugly, or mean is fairly common as well, and speaks volumes about the accuser’s self-esteem issues.
We often condemn others for traits that we dislike in ourselves. After all, it’s a lot easier to put another person down for what we perceive as their negative tendencies rather than acknowledging our own issues.
You can tell if someone is projecting onto you if they inform you of what you’re thinking or feeling instead of asking you. Insisting that other people dislike them is also very common, when in fact it’s usually a case of the complainer being the one who dislikes the other.
A woman may be afraid to express her anger and frustration at her spouse, so she’ll lash out at or hit her kids, especially if her partner is more dominant and makes her feel powerless. She’ll take her frustrations out on someone who doesn’t intimidate her. This is also very common in the workplace; if a female employee is reprimanded by a superior, she’ll often turn around and either insult or reprimand someone who’s subordinate to her. It’s her way of reclaiming a sense of personal power when she feels that hers has been taken away.
Of course, this ends up causing outward ripples like when a pebble is thrown into a pond. Those subordinate women may also exhibit displaced emotional tendencies, so after being reamed out by their boss, they might turn it around and yell at others in turn, or kick their pets, or scream at random people who take too long in a shop, like wide-ranging shockwaves that cause lasting negative effects originating from a distant source.
Also known as backpedaling, undoing generally manifests in rampant positive compensation for wrongdoing. A woman might insult her sister for being fat, realize the damage she’s done, and then spend a couple of hours gushing about how beautiful her sister’s hair is, and how nice her nails look, etc. As the mechanism implies, it really is basically a fevered attempt to “undo” damage by flooding the hurt person with positivity.
This rarely works, as “a word spoken cannot be caught by the swiftest horses”. The damage has been done, and throwing a bunch of honey on a wound won’t seal it.
There are healthy ways to deal with emotional situations, but these mechanisms don’t fall into that category. Fortunately, the first step to overcoming these types of behaviors is to recognize them for what they are. It’s difficult to be honest and objective with oneself and really be honest about strategies you use, but by doing so, steps can be taken to pursue healthier coping mechanisms in the future.
If you have difficulty moving on from the mechanisms that you have depended upon for years, don’t feel that you need to power through them alone. Counselors, therapists, and psych professionals exist for a reason; to help people work through difficulties and become healthier, stronger individuals. Getting professional help isn’t a sign of weakness, but is an important step to becoming a healthier, more confident, whole person.
Do you recognize any of the above defense mechanisms in your own behavior? Are there others that we have missed off the list? Leave a comment below with yours thoughts.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.