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Ten Defense Mechanisms:
The Soul & Why We Guard It
Christian community, holy kisses.
When God breathed into Adam, the Hebrew does not say he became a living spirit (ruach), it says he became a living soul (nephesh). Genesis wants us to know, in that instant, Adam became self-conscious. He could feel, think, and choose from a self-aware entity inside--the soul. All physical descendants of Adam, all humans, have a soul. Many people proactively, reactively, knowingly, and unknowingly guard that soul, sometimes at all costs, with defensive red herrings and other fortifications.
The Soul & Why We Guard It
The soul is inherently sensitive and vulnerable because of its God-given emotional range. It can feel high and low and anything in-between. To say only some people are sensitive (women, empaths, emos, the troubled, the gifted, etc.) is, in and of itself, a defense mechanism. And it is uninformed. What some might be noticing is hypersensitivity, an inner sunburn or touchiness that comes from unhealed pain or unmet needs.
The soul's capacity for euphoria, anguish, and a range of sensations causes us to coddle our souls exceedingly. David expressed this in Psalm 22:20 and 35:17, sentimentally nicknaming his soul "my darling" (KJV). The Hebrew is yachiyd, literally meaning "the only one", and therefore, uniquely precious or darling, which is why the NIV renders yachiyd as "my precious life".
This helps us understand defense mechanisms. We have only one soul, and because of that, it is precious and darling to us. Even the most manly stoic or fire-breathing tough girl coddles that soul, guarding it in obvious or stealthy ways to protect its vulnerabilities, feelings, cravings, traumas, and secrets. Very few people outgrow their defense strategies. To do so requires advanced amounts of self-awareness and other maturation tools.
Here's how the soul defends itself.
More defenses could be listed, but I am prompted to focus on these. 1-5 are better known and easier to understand, while 6-10 are more sophisticated.
(1) Avoidance, Denial
Description: Ignoring (avoidance) or rejecting (denial) a reality your soul does not want to face or resolve.
Scripture: David's peculiar lack of punishing, or even addressing, Amnon's rape of Tamar. He was furious at first (2Sam 13:21), but avoided the matter entirely from then on, fueling Absalom's vengeful recourse against he and Amnon.
Additional Explanation: Avoidance and denial are well-known. Denial is an escalation of avoidance; it is stronger and more desperate. Those that escalate into or remain in denial have mental health and sanity concerns.
Description: Reassigning to others negative emotions, impulses, or traits you yourself have.
Scripture: Read Saul's flare-up at Jonathan (1Sam 20:30,31). Saul called him "the son of a perverse and rebellious woman", ironically, because he himself carried the "rebellious" stigma (15:23). He berated Jonathan for siding with David, ironically, because that is what God did (15:28). He said Jonathan's kingdom would never be established, ironically, because that is what God said to him (13:13,14).
Saul reassigned to Jonathan the failures and stigmas he himself had. Projection is one way the parent's issues metastasize to the children (Gen 5:3). Generational sins are not always directly demonic or genetic. Sometimes it is one or both parents vomiting their own internal crises onto the children, which they in turn absorb, host, and express. Many children are unfairly labeled bad apples when they came from a bad barrel.
Additional Explanation: God commands us to discern good and bad fruit in others (Mt 7:15-20), discern good from evil (Heb 5:14), and love with good information (Php 1:9). Discernment is not projection, projection is not discernment. Projection is a preemptive strike, a manufactured distraction, to shift attention away from one's own dark spots and crises by reassigning them to someone else.
Description: Releasing emotions or impulses in unrelated contexts, instead of dealing with them directly in their original, actual context.
Scripture: Read Peter's rebuke of Simon the Sorcerer (Ac 8:20-23). Simon was "full of bitterness" (v23 NIV), but displaced or released this inner negativity in religious contexts. He tried to become admired and famous as a guru, even trying to buy the Holy Spirit to accomplish this (v20).
Additional Explanation: In displacement, we "get it out in other ways". Road rage may be the most recognizable form of displacement. Someone who feels powerless at home might seek excessive or unhealthy power at work, at church, or in some other context, instead of addressing the original, actual dynamics at home. A child bullied at home cannot fight back, so he/she displaces the negative energy by bullying others at school. Sexual tension often gets displaced as aggression, workaholism, overactivity, even religiosity.
Description: Using intellectual and bookish communication to avoid all emotions, or specific emotions, or some other inner reality.
Scripture: The Pharisees are known for their perfectly pedicured piety, but, it was de facto intellectualization at work. Jesus called attention to their towering, obsessive-compulsive head knowledge of Scripture (Jn 5:39), yet scathed their internal condition that head knowledge concealed: self-indulgence (Mt 23:25), guilty carnage of harm done to others (v27), and hypocrisy and wickedness (v28). They used a mixture of intellectualism and Judaism to defend and hide an absolutely rotten innerspace.
Additional Explanation: Legalistic Christians and groups depend heavily on this defense mechanism. One of my early mentors, a Holiness Movement and Mennonite survivor, had great head knowledge of Scripture, but used it defensively and aggressively to avoid ever discussing the abuse she suffered in the movements. (Eventually she did open up and sought professional Christian counseling.)
Anyone might use a bookish, brainy Great Wall to avoid being real. Think of Reid on Criminal Minds, who suffered greatly because of a schizophrenic mom, but talked only in factoids and stats until he was forced to face reality. Think of a university professor, an academic overachiever, or any supersmart person that exudes a creepy detachment, a snarky know-it-all vibe, or a knowledge blowtorch that says, "Don't get too close."
Description: Using a sanitized, safer, prettier explanation for negative emotions, impulses, behaviors, or traits instead of the truest, most direct explanation.
Scripture: Rationalization is a form of lying. It is not being honest about the true nature of something. Many scriptures use the admonition, Do not deceive yourselves (Job 15:31, Jer 37:9, 1Co 3:18, Gal 6:3, Jas 1:22,26, 1Jn 1:8).
Additional Explanation: Trump's so-called "locker room talk" is a rationalization for a sexual assault confession caught on tape. Blaming someone else's shortcomings for your own temper. Saying you do not have time to meet with God. Blaming it on your period. Blaming it on "this is just what we men do". Saying you are too old or too young. Oh how we recast as cute toy trolls what are actually hideous swamp ogres inside! If your jaw just tensed with offense and comeback lines, you are guilty of this defense mechanism. Repent now and kickstart your liberation and honesty process.
(6) Oppositional Attraction
Description: Concealing affection or need for another person through oppositional, antagonistic, even harmful, behavior.
Scripture: Instead of Saul just telling Jonathan honestly that he needed his support and loyalty, he harassed and berated him (1Sam 20:30,31). Instead of Amnon courting Tamar honestly and properly, he raped her--a dreadful example of how far oppositional attraction can go in a dark and troubled soul.
Additional Explanation: This counterintuitive acting can be easily seen in children, who do it without being taught and who do it often. Adults are more vinegary in their oppositional attraction. In extreme cases, jaded women call men "dogs" and jaded men call women "b-----es", and sometimes both become violent. Underneath this bombastic front is an enduring need, a craving, for a great man or a great woman. On a lesser level, many women test, sass, or try to cut down men they are attracted to, and many men tease, embarrass, or also try to cut down women they are attracted to.
Why not just tell them you want them? Need them? Because that would reveal the soul in a way it obsesses to avoid: vulnerability. The more one fears vulnerability, the more delicate their ego, the more likely they will use oppositional acting. Though I have focused here on romantic dynamics, this defense mechanism can be used in any social interaction.
(7) Playing Patron, Caretaker Codependency
Description: Taking care of others superfluously as a way to feel specific emotions (validation, needed, competent, etc.) or not feel specific emotions (lonely, unimportant, past or present abuse, etc.).
Scripture: Martha, outwardly Patron of the Year, inwardly hurting and angry about numerous things. Jesus ignored--yes, ignored--her cooking and cleaning and went straight to her hidden core. "You are worried and troubled about many things," He said, lovingly pulling off the sockpuppet she was hiding in. The story is in Luke 10:38-42.
Additional Explanation: Know anyone who always needs to take care of someone? Someone to help, serve, rescue, protect, manage, especially when not entirely appropriate, or appropriate but over the top? You know what it looks like. A defense fortress of flowers. A defense hedge of Hallmark cards. A wall of whatever-you-need.
This is most easily seen in parents who never grow out of parenting. In ministry, I see this with servants who serve, not to bless, but to escape or suppress something in themselves. Or leaders with savior complexes. Almost every social circle has one person with caretaker codependency who plays the patron. Do not be charmed or awwww-ed; this is not a fruit of the Spirit, this is a defense mechanism.
Description: A type of conformity in which we seize upon and internalize aspects of another person or group (the exemplar), allowing us to suppress or hide our truer self.
Scripture: The Biblical terms for the identification mechanism are conformity (Eze 11:12 NIV, Ac 26:5 NIV, Ro 12:2) and imitation (Deu 18:9 NIV, 3Jn 1:11).
Additional Explanation: Identification can be a positive process if the exemplar is healthy, godly, and necessary for our development. Identification becomes sinful if we use it to protect ourselves against tension and fallout from being ourselves, thinking independently, or pioneering something original. Identification is also used to mitigate or survive abuse in real time; the most extreme form of this is called Stockholm Syndrome.
Description: Using a sexualized character to feel specific emotions (attention, validation, power, etc.) or not feel specific emotions (rejection, past or present abuse, etc.)
Scripture: Solomon and Jezebel both sexualized their reality to escape deeper issues. It would take too much space to explain here. Thoughtful students of Scripture can read and learn on their own how and why they used this mechanism.
Additional Explanation: Dramatically attractive or oversexualized individuals are perhaps the most difficult to get to know. The dazzling optic is a strong red herring that throws people off, distracting them from asking the right questions and saying candid things. Doing ministry and having friends (male and female) in the adult industry brought this truth to light in a blinding way. The setup is riveting while the payoff is disappointing: the "sexy shield" or "beauty shield" is just another Great Wall concealing uglification inside.
(10) Isolation, Direct & Indirect
Description: Withdrawing physically or subtly from authentic social interactions.
Scripture: After being raped, Tamar did the worst thing she could possibly do: isolate herself in the house of an unhealthy, unhelpful, ungodly person (2Sam 13:20). To counter indirect or subtle isolation, James said to regularly confess things one to another (Jas 5:16).
Additional Explanation: Direct isolation is self-explanatory. Some Christians (loners and hermits) go underground to the internet as conspiracy theorists, trolls, or attack dogs. Some run angry websites or Youtubes as anonymous misanthropes. They use a screen name with no picture, conveniently, and vomit their Christianized bitterness everywhere. If this is you, you need correction, repentance, and spiritual growth. Get the deep healing you need and come out into the light. If you have a true ministry call, you need this personal and interpersonal healing to rid yourself of that venom and vomit.
Indirect isolation is more stealth. These withdrawers stay involved in social groups, but keep their soul walled off (the lonely-in-a-crowd person). In one church I attended, this describes the weekly home group I went to. Everyone showed up faithfully, but no one shared anything meaningful, candid, or human. The construct was controlled: musicman played three songs, the pastor monologued for twenty minutes, asked if anyone had questions (of course, no one ever did), then we all ate amazing food homecooked by congregational matriarchs. This weekly skit was nothing more than indirect, institutionalized isolation.
Response & Application
God's Promise for Your Darling
Remember our Hebrew word of interest I mentioned at the beginning of this article: yachiyd. David used it as a sentimental nickname for his soul in Psalm 22:20 and 35:17 (see opening section above). It literally means "the only one", and therefore, uniquely precious or darling. In 68:6, a lovely promise appears for our yachiyd (NKJV):
God sets the solitary [yachiyd] in families; He brings out those who are bound into prosperity...
David wrote this psalm. Tie it together with what he also wrote in 22:20 and 35:17. Though yachiyd is translated in 68:6 as "solitary" or "lonely", remember the literal meaning is "the only one". David is saying here that God will find a place--a home, a family, good relationships, etc.--for our one and only soul that we try so hard to defend and protect. How can God do this for you if your defense mechanisms alienate those very people and turn them away? Block out God-relationships enough times and you will find yourself on the clearance rack begging to be taken (Pr 29:1).
Confess your defense mechanisms to God, and two or three praying friends.
Logically, the most direct way to demolish defense mechanisms is to do the very opposite: reveal and offer yourself. Step 1 would be to confess your defensive tricks specifically to the Lord--as sin (1Jn 1:9). Then confess specifically to praying friends (Jas 5:16). Realness should be a trait, not an event, but if this is new to you it will be an event or series of events at first. Kinda like a Grand Opening. Pun intended.
Grow into a carefree life philosophy that is regulated by wisdom, not defenses.
There is no way around it. You have to discover a carefree anti-perfectionism to really be yourself in all situations. Wisdom will guide you to express less or express more depending on the situation, however, it must be wisdom that regulates and calibrates your behavior, not defensive strategies.
You care too much. That blood-drip is dangerous.
Living with an unmet quota of validation hypersensitizes us to fill that quota. The last thing the hungry soul wants is more invalidation and rejection, so it defends itself. Take that love-me craving to the Father's presence every morning. He will fill your quota Himself first, then organize others to fill it as well--in His time, in His way. You have to toughen up. Your blood-drip keeps attracting great white sharks.
Most people are not fooled.
Though the people around you might never peep a word, believe me, they know your false frames and misleading camera angles. You are not fooling most people, especially not the One who requires you to walk in the light (1Jn 1:6,7). The season of defense mechanisms is winding down, says the Lord. He will be putting you in situations where you have to come out with your hands up, not to be handcuffed or imprisoned, but to be free to live the life that only real, undefensive people can live.
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