If you struggle to cope, find yourself experiencing high levels of distress frequently, or compartmentalise emotions and actually feeling numb to things which should be upsetting, you may benefit from exploring your toolbox of coping mechanisms. Everyone uses a few different ones, and everyone has the capacity to learn more adaptive techniques. The first step is to understand what defence mechanisms are, and to help with that, we’ve applied them to examples in our favourite video games.
This is not by any means a definitive list and all of the examples are used as entertainment and educational purposes only! Yonder thar be spoilers…
Maladaptive Defence Mechanisms
“Maladaptive” defences are those which are more basic, instinctual, and not very useful in the long term.
EXAMPLE: James Sunderland, Silent Hill 2
Just about everybody in Silent Hill 2 seems to be repressing something (I guess that’s kinda the point of the town). With the exception of Laura, no one is quite up to speed on their own recent history. James, of course, has constructed a whole fantastical mythology around his deceased wife, believing that she died of an illness three years ago. The truth is, he murdered her three weeks ago, to provide her (and himself) with relief from pain. Angela and Eddie both have crimes they must confront too, and all three characters ultimately face their demons – literally as well as metaphorically.
Repression is one of the more commonly known defense mechanisms, and the term “repressed memory” gets thrown around often. It is actually relatively common, particularly in severe childhood trauma. Instead of acknowledging the unbearable truth of what has happened, the brain simply puts it in a box, inaccessible to the conscious mind. The unconscious can still access it, however, and so the emotional damage of the trauma is never actually addressed. We can use Silent Hill 2 as a very eloquent example of this being represented artistically; though the characters cannot remember what they have done, they experience the effects of it in a very tangible way through the world around them. From James and the Pyramid Head to Angela and the everlasting fire around her, each person in Silent Hill must carry with them the effects of their trauma.
How is this different to denial?
The key here is that when James sees the tape, he remembers what he has done and acknowledges it consciously. If he was in denial, he could watch the tape but would still say she had died three years ago of an illness, even whilst being shown an actual video of him killing her.
EXAMPLE: Handsome Jack, Borderlands
We are complex creatures, driven by several instinctive impulses simultaneously which we must understand and process in order to function within society. We learn not to hit when we are angry, not to scream when we are upset, and ultimately, to reign in and moderate those feelings of anger and distress in the first place.
Projection is occurring when a person accuses another of an undesirable feeling or inappropriate behaviour, but actually they are the one experiencing it. For example, they angrily shout, “Don’t yell at me, you’re so mad!”
I call this “mental gymnastics” – using others as a scapegoat for anything that makes us feel uncomfortable about ourselves, or bring shame and guilt.
Handsome Jack seems to hate the world and everything in it, for the mere fact it represents what he hates about himself. He chastises the player for acts he has himself committed (such as murder), and is able to reconcile this cognitive dissonance in his mind using compartmentalisation.
EXAMPLE: Joel, The Last of Us
Reaction formation can seem like a mature coping mechanism, but for the impact it has on the person and those around them. Reaction formation is a fancy way of saying “feeling one thing and doing the opposite”. A great example of this in The Last of Us is in the scene after Ellie runs off from Tommy’s dam. She hides out in a cabin bedroom where Joel confronts her angrily. Is he truly annoyed that she behaved recklessly when her life is worth so much? Doubtful, he didn’t really care about that previously. The more acute emotion is one of guilt. Guilt for handing Ellie over to Tommy, guilt for feeling relieved about it, and guilt that he cannot commit to the whole journey because of how much Ellie reminds him of his daughter. The relationship that is forming there terrifies him. Instead of confronting all of these difficult and conflicting feelings, he responds with the opposite – rage and resentment.
Notably he quickly flip-flops on this and makes the decision to take her to the Fireflies himself. This could also be an example of undoing, another defence mechanism we won’t go into today!
Displacement is sometimes known as “Kick The Cat Syndrome”. It’s the act of taking out one’s frustration on a lesser, inferior, or “safer” target instead of the true target. For example, a man’s boss shouts at him at work, he comes home and starts an argument with his wife, who goes into the bedroom and kicks the cat. I’ve also seen it called “shit rolling downhill”.
I couldn’t think of any so I opened this one to Twitter. Here’s what you came up with:
I believe the rebellion leaders in Far Cry 4 hold anger towards Ajay because he is Western and they can’t do much to the Western dictator
Being able to see Squall’s internal monologue throughout FFVIII provides a really powerful and balanced insight into the pros and cons of intellectualisation as a defence. It describes the act of analysing every stressor through a purely logical lens, removing all emotion and seeing it like Spock would. At times this is very useful – it allows Squall to be an excellent leader, containing and soothing the anxieties of his team with ease. He is an efficient strategist, as his purely objective perspective enables him to see situations the way others can’t. However, it ultimately is his biggest weakness.
Squall carries with him some pretty significant self-doubt and insecurity. He constantly judges others (often exhibiting projection). Eventually his defence of rationalising everything fails, because anxiety isn’t rational. He gets stuck in this vicious cycle of rumination, trying desperately to think his way out of his own emotions, and repeatedly failing because, well, they’re emotions. He actually ends up curled up in bed going over the same thing over and over and over, too confused and distressed to actually do anything. It isn’t until he learns some more productive coping skills that he can continue on, accepting his vulnerabilities and the risks he will face, finally acknowledging the fact he may fail – but must try anyway.