Reflections on Cognitive Distortions and Defense Mechanisms

Counselling Studies Level 3

Learning Journal for Week 3: Wednesday 10th October, 2012


Unfortunately, I missed class this week because my partner arranged a trip to Paris for us. It was, however, far from the fun and exciting trip we had hoped for. We hit so many challenges throughout the trip, with it culminating into us sitting at the airport waiting for a late night flight while our car remained (and still remains) in a French garage!


On reflection, a positive of the trip, besides seeing the Notre Dame and Eiffel Tower, was the insight it gave me into my own personality and how this has been influenced by my personal history. This insight came from a comparison of my own reaction to events versus my partner’s. While my partner was able to stay in the moment and deal with one thing at a time, I found myself in a state of anxiety about what had happened previously, what was happening in the present, and what this meant for the future.  I could not think rationally and my all-or-nothing thinking, which Beck (1975) and Burns (1989) would call ‘cognitive distortions,’ came to the fore. Everything was in absolute terms to me (i.e. “Everything goes wrong for me”), which created more cognitive distortions that my partner seemed able to resist, such as overgeneralisation (e.g. making generalisations based on limited evidence), magical thinking (e.g. expecting one event to impact a completely unrelated event), and mental filtering (e.g. an inability to see any positive, only focusing on the negative). In many ways, I regressed into a childlike state, unable to negotiate the problems in the adult world. According to Freudian theory, regression is a ‘defense mechanism,’ where a person reverts back to a childlike emotional state in which their unconscious fears and anxieties reappear (Freud, 1916). Such regression is more likely under stressful situations, which I was clearly in.


The childlike state I found myself in also reminds me of the theory of transactional analysis (TA) (Berne, 1950), which is an integrative theory of psychotherapy that includes elements of psychoanalytic, humanist and cognitive approaches. According to this theory, people have three ego-states in the form of the Parent, Adult, and Child (PAC), with these ego-states explaining how people function and how their personality is reflected in their behaviour. While I was in a Child ego-state, my partner was in an Adult ego-state. The way I understand this is that we had very different experiences in our formative years, which has evidently impacted how we react to stressful situations. For me, things going wrong were genuinely devastating due to growing up in an abusive household, and therefore my old defense mechanisms automatically ‘kick in’ when faced with stress; it was how I survived. My partner, on the other hand, never experienced any devastating impact when things didn’t go to plan. He was also afforded the opportunity to see his parents cope effectively with such stressful situations. My father would drink alcohol when stressed, while my mother would eat or close her eyes to the situation completely (i.e. the Freudian defense mechanism known as denial). Although I don’t like to admit it, I appear to have picked up on some of the ‘learned helplessness’ (i.e. behaving helplessly and feeling unable to control the outcome of events) (Seligman) I witnessed in my parents. This highlights how important early role models are in our personal development and how we learn to cope with the inevitable upheavals in life. This is possibly why counsellors can, in some ways, become important role models as clients find their own new ways of coping (Geldard and Geldard, 2005).





Beck, A.T. (1975) Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. Intl Universities Press.


Berne, E. (1964) Games People Play. New York: Grove Press.


Freud, S. (1916) Introductory lectures on psychoanalysis in Standard Edition 15 & 16, Hogarth Press, London.


Geldard, D. and Geldard, K. (2005) Basic personal counselling: A training manual for counsellors. NSW, Australia: Pearson Education.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. 

Categories: Counselling, Personal/Professional Development, Psychology

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. I don’t mean this offensive, but isn’t there a biological explanation for that?

    What you describe is a very common difference between men and women. I read about it a while ago, think it had something to do with testosteron and adrenaline levels.

    Very interesting by the way, is the way you are able to analyze yourself. You are a rich person. 🙂

  2. Hi Daan, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this. It isn’t the most pleasant side to me, so I appreciate you giving feedback and not judging me. I think you could be right too; there is some biological explanation here. I do think many men are more able to stay in the moment and also to keep emotions and rationality separate when necessary – something I’m working on!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: