Vicki L Mayfield, M.Ed., R.N., LMFT Marriage and Family Therapy Oklahoma City If you would like to send a question to Vicki, email us at

Q. I work in an environment that has a high potential for violence and injuries. (People have been seriously injured). I see the danger and voice my concerns. I find it perplexing when another coworker acts like it really isn’t that big of a deal. So am I overreacting or is she under reacting?

A. I think you might be describing the use of a defense mechanism by your coworker. For many of us, any situation that brings uncertainty triggers an unconscious protective measure that allows us to cope with unpleasant emotions. And in the short term, many mechanisms can be adaptive. We keep ourselves in a better state.
Yet in the long run, the effect is actually the opposite, as routine use of defense mechanisms can actually reduce the effectiveness of emotional processing.
Here are some of the more common defense mechanisms:
When a situation or fact becomes too much to handle, you may simply refuse to experience it. By denying reality, you are essentially protecting yourself from the having to face and deal with the unpleasant consequences and pain that accompany acceptance. ——In other words, your coworker may not want to accept the reality and threat of violence as “that bit of a deal.” What would that mean to her; the need to look for another job, the possibility of a really serious injury?
When a situation is scary or dangerous, this defense mechanism is used to say, “oh its really not that bad.” “He hit me and I had a concussion but I am still alive.” So when does it become reality to say, “Oh my God, he hit me, I got a concussion and I am out of here.” Maybe never. ——–Another good example is one frequently heard by battered women, “he only hits me when he is really drunk and doesn’t remember it the next day.” BUT HE HIT YOU!!!!
In the simplest of terms, rationalization occurs when you try to explain someones bad behavior away.This mechanism helps you justify why you put up with something, you make excuses or you blame some other reason for the behavior occurring. And your apparent acceptance of it. ——You say your coworker seems to make light of these dangerous situations, she may do that with other things that occur in her life. Danger is danger. You can’t sugar coat it. But this is a powerful defense mechanism. It is hard to make someone see the reality if they don’t want to.
Unfortunately you cannot get another person to stop using these defense mechanisms, but you can take action when you see red flags and try to protect yourself. Remember when you get that gut feeling that danger is imminent, take action.

Vicki L Mayfield, M.Ed., R.N., LMFT Marriage and Family Therapy Oklahoma City

If you would like to send a question to Vicki, email us at