Mind Games
The Use and Misuse of Defense Mechanisms

Theresa Burke
with David C. Reardon
Forbidden Grief: Chapter 6
Reproduced with Permission

"Buried emotions are like rejected people; they make us pay a high price for having rejected them." —Rev. John Powell

There once was a woman who discovered a corroded pipe in her basement. To hide the ugly sight, she built a wall around it. Once the wall was painted, papered, and decorated, she was relieved to know that neither she nor anyone else would ever have to look at that corroded pipe again.

For a time, she was content. But then she noticed a wet spot in the carpet. No matter how thoroughly she dried it, it soon returned even worse than before. Soon she was constantly cleaning and drying the carpet. All the effort was making her exhausted and stressed. Whenever she fell behind, the carpet began to mildew. In one corner of the basement, the floorboards began to rot. She blamed the problem on the high water table, or perhaps heavy rains.

Occasionally she would think of the corroded pipe behind the wall. Perhaps it was the cause of her problems. But quickly she turned her mind away from that possibility, for she had invested so much in building and decorating the wall that she was very afraid to pull it down. It was easier, and less messy, she told herself, to just keep cleaning up the carpet. Once the rainy season had passed, perhaps the problem would go away.

After many months, the worn-out woman burst into rage and tore the wall down. There was the rotted pipe, steadily weeping water down its length. She collapsed into tears. Even when she could cry no more, she simply sat staring at the leaking pipe. It appeared to be beyond repair. She did not know how anything could fix it. Her despair was complete. Her house could never be made beautiful again. She simply waited for the strength to cry some more.

In this analogy to post-abortion reactions, we see that hiding unresolved internal conflicts is like hiding a corroded pipe. The problem is still there. Like water from a leaky pipe, negative emotions inevitably seep out into other areas of one's life. If the root problem is not addressed, these problems begin to multiply. They drain away energy from other duties of life. They demand notice. And even when they are finally faced, they can appear to be an unsolvable, impossible burden if they are confronted without the support and love of others.

We can stretch this analogy a bit further. Every home with leaks will experience different patterns of water damage because each home has different low spots. Similarly, every person has differences in personality, temperament, and life experiences, so unresolved stress will be displayed in ways unique to each individual. Some will try to hide their problems through drinking or drug abuse. Others may become workaholics or obsessed with becoming the perfect parent. Still others may become angry and violent, become suicidal, or develop eating disorders. These are just a few of many ways that unresolved grief can cause damage to the foundation of a person's life.


An important concept to remember in trying to understand post-abortion reactions is the concept of approach-avoidance conflicts. A common example of such conflicts, often used in freshman psychology classes, is the case of a man who wants honey but is afraid of bees. This hypothetical man takes two steps forward, then three back, then four forward and two back, as his desire and fear each battle for supremacy.

Sometimes an approach-avoidance conflict is consciously understood. For example, the man above is fully aware of both his desire for honey and his fear of being stung. In other cases, the approach-avoidance issues can be partially or totally hidden or suppressed. This is especially common after traumatic experiences.

By definition, a trauma is an overwhelming experience that is simply "too much" for a person to handle or understand. The ordinary response to a trauma is to banish the experience from one's mind - to run away from it, hide it, or repress it. It is natural for trauma victims to try to forget and put their horrible experience behind them forever.

In conflict with this avoidance reaction, however, is the equally powerful human need to understand our experiences and find meaning in them. Thus, while a person may consciously choose to avoid thinking about the traumatic experience, his or her subconscious insists on calling attention to the trauma. The subconscious knows that an unresolved trauma is unfinished business. In order to be conquered, the horror of the traumatic event must be exposed, proclaimed, and understood. This tension between the need to hide a trauma and the need to expose it is at the heart of many of the psychological symptoms resulting from abortion.

More simply put, women who suffer from post-abortion problems want to avoid and deny those problems while at the same time seeking resolution and peace of heart. These two needs are working at cross purposes. Avoidance behavior, conscious or unconscious, can sabotage a woman's desire to confront and resolve her problems. Conversely, avoidance behavior will be disrupted and challenged by the subconscious release of unexpected emotions or behaviors that are designed to draw attention to the unresolved problems.

The distortions of women's attitudes toward pregnancy, pregnant women, and their children, described in the previous chapter, reflect this push-and-pull battle between the need to avoid and the need to resolve an abortion experience. For example, avoiding pregnant women may be a way to avoid confronting one's own negative feelings about a past abortion. But every time this effort fails, irrational feelings of abhorrence, fear, or simply an unnameable discomfort are aroused, forcing the woman to wonder, "What's wrong with me? Why does this bother me so much?" Conversely, it is very common for women to make the decision to participate in a post-abortion healing program, but at the last minute to be overcome with an overwhelming fear of "exposing the past." This is an example of how avoidance behavior can complicate and delay recovery.

In the chapters that follow, we will see many examples of this approach-avoidance conflict. Many of the symptoms of post-abortion psychological problems can best be understood by seeing how the behavior or emotion is being employed, consciously or unconsciously, to either hide the unresolved issues or to expose them.


The term "defense mechanism" refers to any of several ways in which the human mind attempts to avoid or hide anxiety-provoking truths. The military term "defense" is used because a mind that is using defense mechanisms is fighting an internal conflict. It is striving to protect what the person wants to believe from being overthrown by what is really true.

Defense mechanisms all serve, in one way or another, to sustain denial—the denial of one's unwanted emotions or the denial of one's flaws, mistakes, or responsibilities. Some defense mechanisms concentrate on containing the unwanted emotions. Others provide a means to release pent-up emotions in ways that disguise their true meaning or source, thereby preserving deniability.

While the use of defense mechanisms is always a sign of unresolved emotional conflicts, the mechanisms are not inherently bad. For example, if a child witnesses the slaughter of his family by enemy soldiers, his mind may repress the horrible image of their deaths. Even the memory of how they died may be blocked off from his conscious mind. This "grace of forgetfulness" gives the child time to reattach with other people and to restore some sense of self-confidence and emotional wellbeing. Because of this positive role that defense mechanisms can play, many therapists prefer to describe them as "coping mechanisms," or even more positively as "coping skills."

Defense mechanisms may provide time for healing, but like a crutch, they are not meant to be permanent. At some point, probably as an adult, a child who has blocked out memories of his family's murder is likely to face emotional conflicts surrounding issues related to death, security, the military, and so fc,rth, which are connected to his unresolved trauma. At that point, with the support, love and understanding of others, his peace of mind can only be regained by a willingness to surrender the crutch of repression, face the truth, and complete the grief process.

Defense mechanisms are to the mind what safety features are to a car. For example, when a collision causes a car's air bag to inflate, this protects the driver. But if the air bag is not deflated and put back into place, the car won't wc.rk properly. Similarly, if the driver's side mirror is bumped, it is designed to fold back instead of breaking off. This good design protects the mirror, but it also leaves it in the wrong position. If the driver doesn't put the mirror back in its right place, he won't be able to see traffic properly and may make wrong or even dangerous decisions.

The same principle is true with psychological defense mechanisms. They have temporary value. They can save us from "losing our minds" by confronting too much all at once, without the support of others. But when we rely too much on these defense mechanisms (or "coping skills"), especially when we keep them in place as permanent "fixes" to our problems, the mechanisms themselves become part of the problem.

If the walls we erect to defend ourselves are never taken down, they become no different than the walls of a prison. They deprive us of the freedom to explore the fullness of our own potential and the richness of relationships with others. As long as we hide some truth about ourselves, we cannot know who we really are. As long as we withhold ourselves from others, we cannot experience their embrace of who we are.

The following is a list of some of the most common defense mechanisms. You will recognize these in stories throughout this book, and perhaps in your own life and in the behavior of your family and friends.


When unacceptable thoughts and feelings are consciously pushed out of one's mind, this is called suppression. In surveys of women who have had abortions, one of the most common responses to the question, "How have you dealt with your abortion?" is "I just don't let myself think about it."

For example, in the weeks following her abortion, Carla was severely depressed and obsessed with constant thoughts about what had happened. Overcome with grief, she would find herself crying at the most inappropriate times throughout the day. But as her graduation from school approached and she was confronted with her final exams, she forced herself to suppress all her thoughts and feelings about her abortion. "I just put it out of my mind," she said. "I had to, or I would not have been able to answer any questions." By exercising her mind's powers of suppression, she was able to adapt to the specific need of that moment, passing her exams. Fortunately, Carla subsequently completed the grieving process.


Repression is a form of selective amnesia. It is the complete blocking out of an intolerable memory, thought, or emotion from the conscious mind. The mind pushes these objectionable experiences or emotions down into the unconscious, as far away from one's immediate awareness as possible, and acts as if the unacceptable subject or feeling does not exist.

The victim of a traumatic car accident, for example, may not remember a period of time both before and after the accident. In the case of Lorraine's traumatic abortions, she could not remember important facts concerning any of the three abortions she underwent. She even had great difficulty recalling the names of her boyfriends, although she considered her relationship with each one to have been "serious." Lorraine could not even remember how she felt after each of these men had abandoned her.

Repression may also manifest itself by a lack of awareness of the meaning of obvious behavior, by confusion or an inability to understand objective, scientific facts, or simply by keeping any item or concept away from consciousness. For example, after her abortion Madeline reacted angrily and jealously toward women who had children. Although her envy and temper were evident to everyone around her, Madeline was completely unaware of her feelings. Only in the course of subsequent counseling did she become aware of her own behavior and feelings.

Repression is a powerful and costly defense mechanism. It requires a great deal of emotional and mental energy to patrol the mind and repress unconscious truths. In some cases, the repression can be so complete that the person is not even aware that there is a missing memory. This is often the case with memories of traumatic events that occurred in childhood.

Women undergoing abortion routinely employ repression. One of my clients, Diane, could not remember a single detail about her abortion. Although she knew that the event took place, it was as if every other memory about it had been completely erased from her mind. The abortion memory was a vague perception, an impression, that resided not in her mind but in her body. Diane trembled and got violent butterflies in her stomach whenever she attempted to think about the abortion. If she persisted, her body went on full alert and she would be overcome with nausea, forcing her to attend to her physical needs rather than her emotional ones. Her attacks of nausea were like the sudden outbursts of a vigilant watchdog patrolling the edge of her consciousness, ready to repel any effort to approach her forbidden memory.


Rationalization is used to cover up mistakes, misjudgments, and failures. It is an attempt to fabricate reasonable arguments to justify behavior that is called into question by others or oneself. Fundamentally, rationalization is the way the mind distorts reality in order to protect one's self-esteem. It will typically involve a distortion of facts, events, or experiences and may also employ the use of false logic. Through rationalization, the mind attempts to construct explanations for behavior so that it appears to be logical or socially approved. A strong ego can accept failure, mistakes, and misjudgments, but a weak ego would rather distort the truth than admit it.

For example, Virginia had demanded that her 18-year-old daughter have an abortion. In the weeks following the abortion, her daughter was acutely grief-stricken and frequently suicidal. When she heard that I had counseled her daughter, Virginia called my office. She was angry at me for acknowledging her daughter's distress, insisting that she was "simply going through some teenage adjustment problems." Virginia argued that the abortion was a good choice - lots of women had them and were simply fine. She went on to explain how she had found the absolute best doctor to perform the abortion and that her daughter had received excellent medical care. Virginia was certain that her daughter would have been unha~y with a child. Now, because of the abortion, her daughter would be able to finish college and have a fantastic job.

Because Virginia had vehemently argued and pushed for the abortion, she could not tolerate the idea that her daughter had been hurt in any way by the experience, much less that she had made a mistake in pushing for the abortion. Every fact to the contrary was dismissed through rationalization. Her daughter's present grief and misery were viewed as temporary and insignificant compared to the wonderful, but mrealized, future that Virginia hoped to obtain for her daughter through the abortion. By clinging to her rationalizations, Virginia was able to deny any responsibility for her daughter's emotional problems.

Reaction formation

When the conscious mind takes a position that is the polar opposite of one's true feelings, this is called reaction formation. A textbook example is the story of a coed who discovers that the sorority she has joined is disappointing, at best. In her effort to cope with her unhappiness, she tries to force herself to enjoy it and brag about it and soon becomes the sorority's most ardent advocate. Her public behavior completely misrepresents her inner feelings. Another classic example is that of the shell-shocked soldier who is deeply terrified by the prospect of returning to battle, but who has consciously or unconsciously chosen to hide and defeat his fear by acting in a bold, reckless, fearless-warrior fashion.

In the case of abortion, reaction formation is evident in the cases of women who suddenly become ardent pro-choice activists even though their own abortion experiences were deeply disturbing. Unacceptable feelings are repressed and completely opposite feelings are asserted.

Another example is described by many women who feel emotionally abandoned by the fathers of their aborted children but continue to shower these men with loving behavior. Janet, for instance, was overcome with resentment, anger, grief, and jealousy following her abortion. Yet she continued in the relationship, maintained an active sex life, and even scribbled love notes and cooked romantic dinners for her partner. She often spoke of their future together, but underneath this devoted facade lay profound rage and murderous hatred.

Reaction formation can also play a role in a woman's decision to abort a wanted pregnancy in violation of her own conscience and maternal desires. When a man's response to a pregnancy is rejection, it is sometimes easier for the woman to displace her disappointment and anger at him toward her unborn child. This may occur because she does not have the emotional stamina to confront or blame the male. While on a fundamental level she loves her child and wants to bring him into the world, the anger and frustration resulting from her partner's rejection are more easily directed at her pregnancy and child than at her partner, to whom she feels a prior, and even higher, commitment.


Introjection is the absorbing of another person's values or opinions in place of one's own. This is a very common defense mechanism employed by women who seek to avoid conflict. Rather than explore their own feelings and beliefs, women attempt to mirror the feelings and beliefs of those around them, such as their boyfriends, parents, or abortion counselors.

Yvonne, for example, repressed her own objections to abortion in order to please her husband. He was focused on having a better home, an education, a brilliant career, and some "fun" before they would even consider having a child. She adopted his opinions as her own, and under their influence, aborted their first two children. Because these were not truly her own values, however, they cost her much loss and grief, and Yvonne eventually rejected them.


Undoing refers to activities designed to reverse or nullify a previous action that resulted in feelings of guilt. In undoing, Freud pictured the ego as trying to "blow away" not only the consequences of an event, but also the fact that the event itself ever took place. Replacement pregnancies are a commonly employed form of undoing among women who have had abortions. In the Elliot Institute survey in Appendix C, approximately 29 percent of the women surveyed reported attempting to conceive a replacement pregnancy, of whom around 45 percent succeeded within the first year following their abortions. Undoing may also be exhibited in the compulsion to be a "perfect mother" to subsequent children, as described in the previous chapter.

Another example of undoing is illustrated by women who try to make up for their guilt by laboring long hours in the service of some social cause or charity. In Diane's case, for example, volunteering became an obsessive chore that she felt she "owed" to society to atone for her abortion. No matter how much good she did, it never seemed enough to erase her sense of guilt. This sense of incomplete atonement compelled her to wear herself out by volunteering for an endless number of causes.

While charitable work is good and normally quite gratifying, it is never an adequate substitute for grief work. Only after one's grief work is complete can one's charitable works be fully satisfying.


Projection is when an individual refuses to recognize a flaw or objectionable behavior in himself but is quick to see, or even to imagine, this behavior in others. This tendency often explains why people often become most upset by that behavior in others which is most similar to their own. For example, an intolerant person may become incensed at any real or imagined intolerance on the part of others toward his own behavior or beliefs, while at the same time denying that he himself is intolerant Similarly, a fundamentally dishonest person may become incensed whenever he feels cheated or misled, while boldly proclaiming his own honesty.

One of the most common symptoms of projection that occurs among post-abortive women and men is a great anger or fear of abortion opponents. Some individuals cannot admit their own hostility and so ascribe it to others though delusions of persecution. Post-abortive women often project their own feelings of self-rejection onto politicians, pro-life activists, or religious figures or institutions whom they see as hateful, hypocritical, and rejecting. The message that these parties reject abortion as a moral choice but still have compassion for those who have had abortions, is unheard, disbelieved, or scorned. On a conscious or unconscious level, many post-abortive women need an outside "enemy" on whom they can project their own unresolved feelings of self-rejection.

Provocative Behavior

When a woman denies her own emotions or needs, she may sometimes try to provoke displays of her own emotion in other people. This defense mechanism provides a means of expressing one's emotions through a surrogate—the person provoked—while concealing one's own emotional needs.

In this vein, post-abortive women and men who are filled with unexpressed anger may attempt to provoke anger in others. If they are unable to give themselves pity, they may manipulate situations to extract pity from others. Those who are filled with unexpressed selfblame may say and do things to draw the blame of others.

After her abortion, Margie felt unlovable. To compensate for this deep-seated low self-esteem, she became alarmingly promiscuous. She dressed in an enticing fashion and attracted men through her charm and sexually inviting postures. Through her promiscuity, Margie provoked expressions of love and acceptance from a long string of wil g men. Purchased for the price of sex, their admiration was a substitute for the feelings of affection she was unable to express to herself.


Displacement is the process of releasing negative, pent-up feelings on people who are considered less dangerous than those who initially provoked the emotion. A textbook example of displacement is the case of a child who ridicules and hits his brother when he is actually angry at his mother.

In the case of abortion, a woman who is angry at her boyfriend may develop a general anger and hostility toward all men. Or a woman who is angry at herself may blow up at a concerned friend who asks if her abortion is bothering her.


When the mind and body interact to convert emotional pain into physical pain, this is called conversion. Physicians will often refer to these problems as "psychosomatic disorders." Some of the most common psychosomatic problems in women who have had abortions revolve around stomach cramping and symptoms related to the reproductive system.(1) Conversion or psychosomatic illnesses may help explain why women with a history of abortion are more likely to report more general health problems than are women without a pregnancy loss.(2)

After her abortion, Heather began to experience headaches, dizziness, exhaustion, fatigue, and nausea. She traveled from doctor to doctor seeking a diagnosis and relief from these various ailments. She kept insisting that "something was dreadfully wrong," even through numerous physicians and expensive tests had revealed normal results. She was certain she had cancer or some rare disease, or even a brain tumor.

Through conversion, it was easier for Heather to experience fear, sadness, and grief over her perceived health problems than to deal with her abortion. Furthermore, her health-related problems gave her much needed attention and sympathy at a time when she was feeling very demoralized and alone. Fortunately, Heather eventually entered postabortion counseling and all of her physical complaints disappeared.


People who fear rejection or failure will frequently resort to withdrawal. By withdrawing, the person is trying to avoid uncomfortable feelings and psychological pain. Unfortunately, this coping style invariably leads to intense feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Withdrawal after an abortion can be manifested by many behaviors. One of the most common is the use of alcohol or drugs. Silence is another means by which a post-abortive woman or man may curtail his or her communication with others. Running away from responsibilities and problems is still another form of withdrawal.


Regression is returning to early childhood behavior when faced with a new trauma. Thumb-sucking and violent temper tantrums are two examples. Another form of severe regression was demonstrated by Laura. Every time she was confronted with painful memories surrounding her abortion, she would curl into the fetal position and freeze.


Deflection is a pattern of changing a subject that has the potential to cause discomfort or anxiety. Anger and sometimes joking are the most common methods of deflecting people away from difficult subjects.


Denial is a broad, catch-all term that is commonly used to refer to any one or more of the defense mechanisms more specifically described above. Most people do not confine themselves to the use of a single defense mechanism. Suppression, repression, rationalization, projection, and other specific mechanisms can come into play at different times.

For example, Phyllis was a married woman who had an abortion but told her family and friends that she had simply miscarried. After a time, this lie took on a reality of its own that she half-believed herself. Her conscious defense mechanism was transformed into an unconscious one. In such a case, denial is a useful term for describing a pattern of behavior involving more than one specific defense mechanism.

In other cases, the term "denial" is useful for noting that some defense mechanism is obviously being employed, even when it is not immediately clear which one. For example, Kristin came to me for counseling regarding frequent panic attacks. Verbally, Kristin thoroughly denied that her abortion had ever bothered her. Yet it became obvious as she told her story that discussion of her abortion was provoking enormous anxiety. This was evidenced by her sweaty palms, rapid breathing, trembling voice, and fingers that twirled impatiently around long strands of hair, which she feverishly chewed on. At this initial stage of our interview, it was not clear whether she had suppressed or repressed her feelings, but it was obvious, despite her denial to the contrary, that her abortion was not a settled or insignificant issue.

Another good illustration of how multiple defense mechanisms contribute to denial can be seen in the case of Rebecca. Just three hours after her abortion, Rebecca insisted on returning to the preschool where she worked. She acted as if nothing significant had happened. Her behavior was no different than if she had just returned from buying a new party dress at the mall (reaction formation). As she ran and jumped with the toddlers, a co-worker saw broad rivulets of blood running down Rebecca~s leg and urged her to sit down and rest. She had just been through surgery, after all. But Rebecca shrugged her shoulders, dismissing her friend~s concerns. "I'm fine," she said. "I feel great!" Rebecca's cavalier attitude (deflection) about her heavy bleeding was a sign of how she was not yet ready to think about the reality of all that had happened (repression). Her bleeding, like her feelings of loss and grief, had to be completely denied.


The defense mechanisms described above operate to prevent or disguise the experience of painful emotions. But they always exact a price. In many cases, they can create more problems in our lives than they solve. They can also hurt the people around us whom we love. Here are just a few of the pitfalls inherent to defense mechanisms.

First, defense mechanisms consume a great deal of emotional and physical energy. Prolonged use of defensive coping mechanisms may even weaken our immune systems, making us more vulnerable to heart disease, cancer, and other stress-induced illnesses.

Second, defense mechanisms can distort our perception of reality. When we do not see or understand ourselves and others clearly, we are doomed to fail repeatedly in dealing with our problems in a productive way.

Third, these defenses do not just filter out painful emotions. Unfortunately, they serve as defenses against all emotions. They deaden the range of all of our emotional responses. The more we use defensive mechanisms to protect ourselves from painful feelings, the more we are cutting ourselves off from experiencing the gratifying, heartwarming, joyous, and cheerful feelings that make life meaningful.

Fourth, these defenses can themselves give rise to major mental health problems. These can include suicidal behavior, substance abuse, eating disorders, repeated abortions, traumatic reenactments, and the repetition of disturbing relationships and events, to name just a few of the myriad of symptoms described throughout this book.

Finally, defense mechanisms simply do not cleanse us of our negative experiences. They protect us from sms simply do not cleanse us of our negative experiences. They protect us from unwanted emotions, but they do not eliminate our painful memories and feelings. These problems are concealed, not resolved. As more and more pain is accumulated and hidden away, we will suffer from anxiety, nervousness, agitation, and irritability. We may become emotionally toxic and unpredictable. Whenever the defenses falter, we experience a roller coaster of emotional explosions. It is impossible to fix a leaky pipe until you first acknowledge that it is leaking. The same is true of unwanted emotions. If we deny that they exist, we deny ourselves the chance to deal with them. We deny ourselves an opportunity to heal. Defense mechanisms are not a cure; they are only a series of delaying tactics.


Theresa Burke, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and founder of Rachel's Vineyard, a post-abortion training and healing ministry that annually serves thousands of women and couples throughout North America and overseas.

David C. Reardon, Ph.D., is one of the nations's leading researchers and authors on post-abortion issues and the founding director of the Elliot Institute.

Book: Forbidden Grief
by Theresa Burke, Ph.D. with David C. Reardon, Ph.D.
Acorn Books, Springfield, Illinois