Each of us possesses coping skills, some that are unconscious psychological techniques which protect us against strong feelings. These automatic mental maneuvers are commonly referred to as defense mechanisms.
The most basic of these defense mechanisms involves keeping thoughts and feelings out of our awareness. This is commonly known as denial. Whether we “forget” an event or just rationalize some part of an objective reality to be other than it truly is, we are using denial. Once a young child has learned to play “peek-a-boo,” they too have the ability to use denial.
Sometimes we don't deny reality, but we distort it. Distorting a reality about ourselves or others protects our self-esteem. When using distortion, the unconscious mind uses generalization and exaggeration to create a personal version of reality that is not objectively true. Shared distortions are the basis for prejudices of all types.
When our minds cannot deny or distort reality, we may use a defense mechanism to keep the truth just out of awareness. There are many ways to “disconnect” from our feelings: We may get involved in thoughts or activities; We may act in ways opposite to our true feelings; We may try to undo whatever feelings we experience; We may only feel the feelings in isolated settings and seemingly unrelated situations.
Individuals come to therapy when the coping skills they are using no longer work, such as when they are still using a defense that was needed in the past, that is no longer necessary. Gaining awareness of our defenses helps us handle our feelings better. This results in improved moods, greater spontaneity and better relationships with others.