Habitual Patterns of Behavior – Defense Mechanisms

How often do you react to people and situations based on old habits (perceiving, thinking, feeling, behaving)? Have you ever noticed how you become defensive? Before even realizing it you automatically respond as if those old experiences were happening again (defense mechanisms). All of us have developed habitual patterns of behavior—automatic reactions are based on past experiences.

Many of the core beliefs about ourselves and the world are formed from the time of conception through adolescence from parents, relatives, teachers, society, etc. The natural response to birth or childhood trauma is to create defense mechanisms that go on to become unconscious habitual patterns. As we grow up these patterns can manifest as addictions, self-sabotage, phobias, anxiety attacks, and other self-defeating patterns that cause us to act unconsciously or negatively.

Here is a summary of excerpts from Kalsched’s understanding of defense mechanisms per Sieff (2008):

Psychological defense system

When as children we are shamed, or abused, when our caretakers can’t meet our needs, our healthy development process is compromised and psychological survival system kicks in. As highly dependent children we can’t withdraw, so a part of us withdraws. This part is our essence—the creative, authentic, innocent, vulnerable self— this part goes into hiding into the unconscious. We still grow up, but begin to develop a rigid psychological defense system that will use whatever means it can to protect that essence.

At the time we are shamed, abused, ignored as children we begin to separate from the experience (psychological dissociation) in order to survive and go into a trance, the trance of unworthiness. Our capacity for genuine and trusting human relationships disintegrates. We start to believe that we are in pain because we are fundamentally at fault: “I would not be suffering like this if I was an worthy person…There must be something wrong with me… I am not loveable…I am not good enough…”

Anger is used to create a self-blaming system, self-protecting but also self-persecuting. This is how the self-defense system ends up turning against the very person it is supposed to be protecting.

Ways in which the self-care system keeps life away

  1. Our inner voice stops us from venturing into the world by saying: “you are unlovable, you are too fat, you have nothing interesting to say, you are crap at communicating, nobody can trust you, you are a failure.”
  2. It creates additional psychological dissociation, often becoming a disembodied observer. People are cut off from experience, from feelings and from life in order to survive. This self-care system is experienced as trance covering unbearable pain.
  3. It encloses a person into a fantasy world, providing a vibrant private life where the fundamental essence can live safely.
  4. If often foster addition and looses the ability to root in real life.

This is a universal system. Not all of us have unbearable trauma, but we are all hurt to some degree. We all grew up in a home or society where only parts of us have been allowed to blossom, while others parts that were unacceptable have been locked away.

How to move beyond the prison of our self-care system

We can rewrite the shameful and self-blaming story that we developed to explain our original pain (where suffering got turned into violence and directed inwardly). The process of healing depends on transforming that violence back into rightful suffering. To do that requires a lot of grief work and this is tricky because the self-care system has a whole story about grievance we have suffered and so we have to distinguish between true grief and superficial grief.

Sometimes people don’t have a trauma story, but a conviction of not being good enough. The pain that surrounds this meaning is superficial grief—nevertheless it is painful. The self-care system is designed to prevent the deeper original pain from surfacing.

The self-care system covers our original pain with trance and feelings of unworthiness, of badness—our victim story. Hidden behind the story is the more profound original pain, or the pain of the threatened part of the child that had to go into hiding from fear of alienation.

It is the pain of the innocent child that suffered terribly (true grief). When we open to the deeper pain with self-compassion, we begin to cry the tears that bring healing.

Change and healing

Change is possible when we become aware of our own protector/persecutor system, appreciate the survival value, we accept that it is outdated and take the risk of letting go. Healing is possible once we take responsibility for the limiting destructive system we have constructed and when we grieve the trauma we have inflicted upon ourselves by our defense mechanism.

“Trauma is a loss of connection—to ourselves, to our bodies, to our families, to others, and to the world around us. This loss of connection is often hard to recognize, because it doesn’t happen all at once…We may simply sense that we do not feel quite right, without even becoming fully aware of what is taking place; that is, the gradual undermining of our self-esteem, self-confidence, feelings of well-being, and connection to life. Our choices become limited as we avoid certain feelings, people, situations and places. The result is this gradual constriction of freedom is the loss of vitality and potential for the fulfillment of our dreams” (Levine, 2008, p. 9).

Shift is possible if we are able to look at ourselves with deep compassion and forgiveness realizing that our self-traumatizing system was the only way to ensure psychological survival; thus protecting our essence.

If we remain focus on our self-blaming defense mechanism, our sense of unworthiness, we get into our victim story and get stuck in superficial grief, preventing from going into our more profound wounds. When we take responsibility for how we created our own pain we open the doors to our lost essence imprisoned within. Then we feel true grief and begin on a path of real healing—meeting our inner struggles and fears on the way.

Physiology of trauma

Have you noticed that every time you experience a shock or trauma of any sort, you stop breathing – you catch (or hold) your breath? The effect is an energetic imprint of the sights, sounds and smells of the trauma incident are energetically recorded in your body and the defense mechanism kicks in. There is an adrenaline rush with the classic ‘fight, flight and freeze’.

Sympathetic system sends messages up the spine to prepare for danger—instinct to run, high arousal. At the same time the parasympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive; the dorsal vagal part (of PNS) tends to toward shut-down—we experience fear, shame and freeze. These two responses occur within seconds of each other, almost simultaneously and they get coupled together. Healing occurs by slowly beginning to uncouple the two systems.

“When we begin to move out of immobility response we are often frightened by the intensity of our own energy and hidden aggression so we brace ourselves against the power of sensations. This un-discharged energy is stored back into the body and we get trapped by our past…When we are able to access our body memories through the felt sense then we begin to discharge the instinctive survival energy that we didn’t have a chance to use at the time of the event. This discharge can be dramatic and visible or subtle and quiet” (Levine, 2008, pp. 30-31).

According to Kalsched (Sieff, 2008):

Process of healing

  1. Many of us have grown up by learning to get by with limited creativity saying no to life.
  2. The counsellor sees the client’s as a whole, including his/her essence their potential; this has a profound effect on the client, initiating the healing. The client is fully seen and heard.
  3. Client risks letting down her/his defenses and begin to hand over their self-defense mechanism to the counsellor (uncovering habitual patterns, releasing trauma). The counsellor helps client see that there is a better healthier way to live—a more fulfilling vibrant life.
  4. Both the counsellor (by showing the client their habitual patterns/defense mechanisms) and the client (by choosing life instead of their fantasy world) have to let go and open the door to start a new life.

Every time we are successful in challenging our habitual patterns our world expands and we take a step towards being fully alive.


Brach, T (2003). Radical Acceptance. New York: Bantam Books.

Levine, P.A. (2008). Healing Trauma. Bolder: Sounds True.

Porges, S.W. (2001). The polyvagal theory: Phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42, 123-46.

Sieff, D.F. (2008) Unlocking the secrets of the Wounded Psyche – An interview with Donald Kalsched. In Psychological Perspectives 51 (2), 190-207.