An aerial image of a boat sailing and leaving a water trail.

Recognizing our defenses: lessons from transformative leadership practices for turbulent times

April 22, 2020
This is Part III of a four-part series that is aimed at supporting you to develop the strength and resilience to lead through difficult times. In this next part we will take a deeper dive into our defence mechanisms and explore how they can be used to help us navigate uncertainty with a greater sense of humanity, kindness and compassion for ourselves and those around us. We have a long road ahead of us to rebuild the world we want out of this crisis so thank you for taking this journey with me. As is always the case, we are #bettertogether.

Part I introduced the idea of certain leadership practices that can help us to feel more equipped for showing up during times of crises and unpredictable change. Part II followed on to discuss the Learning Zone Model, and how we can use this model to better understand how our own brains are uniquely wired to go into autopilot when faced with danger in order to keep us safe. Hopefully by now you have had a chance to think about the Learning Zones, and perhaps even witness some of that in action. I also presented the idea that under current circumstances, many of us may be either stuck in Panic zone, or cycling quickly back and forth between Panic and Stretch zones.


In this section we will now take some time to explore our Defence Mechanisms in a little more depth. If you remember back to Part II, I talked about the idea of our defence mechanisms as flags signalling danger. Using our boat metaphor, we talked about how our defence mechanisms are like the buoys that signal to us that danger is nearby, and how we want to learn to recognize and interpret those signals to ensure smoother, safer sailing for us and those onboard. In essence, these signals are designed to let us know that we are getting too close to our Panic zone and that we need to pull back.

Just as with our Panic Zone reactions, the most important thing to recognize in working with defense mechanisms is that we all have them. They are largely developed when we are children to protect us from situations that don’t feel safe. As adults, many of the reasons for these defences no longer exist and yet we continue to carry them with us. This is problematic for two reasons. First, if left unchecked they can stop our personal growth and development as well as the development of relationships with others. Second – and most relevant to this training – is that they are distracting and exhausting, taking away much needed energy and attention at the time when we most need it.


To begin to understand our defence mechanisms and differentiate between which ones are signalling real danger (hidden rocks under the water) and which ones are perhaps left over from an old sandbar that has since dissolved, we have to first learn to identify the flags.  Below is a list of some of our most common reactions when our defences are triggered. As you can see, there are plenty there!

List of Defence Mechanisms | euforia


One of the things that I find most interesting about this list is while some are obvious trigger reactions like attacking or getting defensive, others we may not have connected previously to signs of being triggered or feeling threatened. Take for example Intellectualizing (No. 30, one of my go-tos), or Selective Deafness (No. 38) which is a common defence of one of my close work colleagues. By familiarizing ourselves with these defence mechanisms, we can begin to act with more awareness, kindness and compassion towards ourselves and those around us. Whereas previously my colleague’s selective deafness would drive me crazy, I am now able to realize that for whatever reason she is not feeling safe. I am able to create a pause in the interaction and slow things down so that she can take time to make whatever comments or adjustments she may need to feel grounded again, and I can also check my own behavior to see if I am consciously or unconsciously being an antagonist. Similarly, by recognizing that intellectualizing is a defence mechanism for me I can use that awareness to create a break that interrupts my auto-pilot. When I notice myself starting to intellectualize I can stop and ask: what is it about this situation that is causing me to feel unsafe?  In creating that pause, I create the space to step back and reassess. Is the danger real or imagined? Is there something I could do or shift to feel a little more grounded? In other times, the sense of danger has passed and I am intellectualizing as a way of processing. But rather than doing so on autopilot and let myself be at the mercy of my defences, I am mindful of what is happening and allow myself conscientiously to go through this process as a way of coming back to being grounded once again.

Those last two examples represent the kind of shift that we are seeking as leaders who can use our defence mechanisms as tools to help us lead with more wisdom, kindness and compassion towards ourselves and those around us. We are not trying to eliminate our defence mechanisms, simply take away the emotional hijacking and autopilot so that our whole selves (and not just our reptilian brains) are in control!

So how do we stop the hijack? The good news (see below) is that just by reading this, you are already on your way to reaching personal mastery! Now it just requires practice to keep on moving up the competence ladder.

Conscious Competence Ladder | UKCPD College Members


If you are going to overcome thousands of years of survival programming then I suggest you have a plan to do it! The following section will help you build that plan and give you a few exercises to help develop what I refer to as Personal Mastery. Before I do however let me first of all acknowledge that this is a lifelong practice. I have been working on this for years and there are still times when I miss the signals, my brain gets hijacked and before I know it I’m quite literally running down the road like a rabid lion is after me (fleeing is my panic zone reaction). The good news however is that there are many more times when I do catch the signals. In that small space that is created between action and reaction, I can bring mindful awareness to what is happening, calm my limbic system and keep myself grounded and engaged in dealing with whatever is in front of me.

Now, each defence that you could identify with from the list above will have a different reaction and hence will require a different plan. My suggestion is to take this step-by-step: choose one or two from the list that are most easy to recognize, and work on those first over the course of a few months. Be curious and give yourself constructive feedback as to how you’re going. Make adjustments. As you begin to see progress, then you can come back and try some new ones. As with mastering any skill, it just takes practice and perseverance. So let’s get started.

Step 1: Own It

The first step in working to master your defences is to own them. Start by looking over the list of defences above, and making a note of those reactions that you recognize in yourself. You should be able to identify at least 5-10. This can be a nice exercise to share with a friend, family member or co-worker: each choose 2-3 defences that are most common, and reflect on how and when they come up for you. If you don’t have the opportunity or feel comfortable sharing with anyone, I would suggest still choosing 2-3 and taking a few days to get curious about them, observing things like: what situations cause them to come up?, what do you experience (physical symptoms) when they do?, what’s the track that begins to play in your head? and, where you most feel it in your body?.

Step 2: Cool It

If you’re feeling defensive and I (or anyone else) tells you to take a breath and calm down, I can pretty much guarantee that it will have very little effect. There is however a scrap of wisdom here that is worth holding on to, and that’s about learning how to calm your biological system. Our defences are our mammalian brain telling our reptilian brain to get ready for danger. Stress hormones like adrenaline are being released into your body, and you need to calm that system down if you want to avoid being hijacked.

For each defence that you’ve identified, you need to find what it is that helps you to calm down. It can be anything at all e.g. going for a walk, touching something physical, hugging yourself, being hugged, doing some controlled breathing, playing music, dancing – the list is endless. In my own experience, the calming process normally includes some kind of physical movement since our adrenal system is physically charging our bodies and it is important to dispel that energy, but you need to let your own intuition and experience guide you. I have also found that the defence mechanisms themselves can provide a clue to the kinds of activities that can help to calm them. If my reaction is one that involves a strong build-up of energy, I find a quick 5-10 minute walk is helpful. If my reaction is more in my head than my body (e.g. I start intellectualizing), I allow myself 20-30 minutes of free writing time with a pen and paper. And when I find that the situation has caused a dip in energy and I start attacking or blaming myself, I’ll choose one of my favorite songs to dance to and throw in a few minutes of Amy Cuddy’s power poses.

As you can see this is a very personal process, and it will likely take some experimenting to find what works for you. Your goal is to find something to get you feeling back under control within 5-30 minutes max. With practice, you will find that it takes less and less time to catch yourself in a triggered moment and bring yourself back on track. In fact, as your brain builds up new neural pathways, you will eventually find that the memory of doing the activity is often enough to stop the trigger from firing and ground you back in the present moment.

Step 3 Next Track Please  

Just like a well choreographed musical, when our defence mechanisms get triggered our brain has what I call the Superlative Trap track that it begins to play to accompany our reaction. As you can probably guess, this (unhelpful) track involves words like always, never, everyone (I always get it wrong, nobody listens to me, everyone thinks I’m stupid etc.). You get the point. While it may seem trivial, by constantly repeating these mantras we are reinforcing the belief that this situation or feeling is permanent and that we are powerless to stop it. Changing this track is an important step in mastering your defences. It’s not easy, and I suggest approaching it by gently confronting your own thinking with curiosity – where does this thinking come from? Do I really believe it? Does it reflect the person I want to be?

There are a couple of other exercises that I have found helpful in different situations. One is to try writing it down: “when I get defensive, I normally start thinking…. Next time, I’ll change it to….”. The other is to assign an actual track to go with your Superlative Trap track. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to keep repeating “I’m not worthy” with the Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive playing in my head!

Step 4 Repeat, repeat, repeat

As you can see once again, this work is deeply personal and it takes practice. I invite you to play with it, experiment with it, take it lightly and have some fun. Getting to know yourself better is a wonderful part of life’s journey.

You can find other information and postings on my blog. Finally, if you are reading this and feel that you could benefit during this time from one-on-one support, please feel free to contact me directly.

Part I Practicing Wholeheartedness

Part II Navigating Stormy Seas

Part III Recognizing our Defences

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