The Hierarchy of Defence Mechanisms

. Excuses – or defence mechanisms?

“I forgot”

“I didn’t realise”

“It’s not my fault”

Sound familiar? These are all comments that many trainers experience when training clients, but are they excuses or are they unconscious protective measures? And is there a difference?

An excuse tries to explain (a fault or an offence) in the hope of being forgiven or understood. We all partake in some sort of self-deception, at least some of the time. The thing to be aware of, if you can, is whether this is to see a reduction in an instinctive desire or simply a conscious explanation to seek forgiveness.

As a personal trainer, I can be quick to jump on clients who try and explain away why they cannot do something, or when they say that it wasn’t their fault they forgot to do something. I have to consider whether they are actually just wrestling with the changes they are going through and are just being lazy, or whether what I am asking them to do is actually the wrong fit for them individually.

Defence mechanisms are protective measures that kick in when we encounter an anxiety-provoking situation, like the gym, or when we are looking to confront weaknesses. This may sound like a familiar situation you might find yourself in when you consider joining a gym or a boot camp. I need to continually ask myself if I am really taking my clients’ perspective onboard when I’m telling them they can/can’t do this or that, as maybe they are unconsciously trying to protect themselves.

So what sort of defence mechanisms can people encounter?

Here is my quick guide to some defence mechanisms that you may be able to relate to in your fight against the fat.

Defence mechanismsDefence mechanisms


This is the most generic, and the one that underlies many of the other ones coming up. You simply refuse to accept the truth or reality of a fact or experience.

I’ll perhaps hear from an overweight client “No, I eat really well”. They are trying to protect themselves and their self-esteem by failing to acknowledge their behaviours. These are behaviours that are stopping them from moving forward and are ones that may cause them discomfort.


This is simply forgetting something bad. This may be being bullied because of their weight, or that they find it hard to sit in certain seats due to their size. This may also be used when clients “forget” to do something unpleasant, which may be as simple as not coming to the gym. After all, for them, the gym can be bad, however much we as trainers may love it. Repression may be beneficial if it allows someone to forget something truly bad that has happened to you, such as an accident, but if it isn’t confronted in time it will lead to problems in the future.


This is when you revert back to a childlike emotional state in which unconscious fears and/or anxieties may reappear. It is believed that we develop through different stages during childhood and these stages can be reverted back to during phases of uncomfortable psychological distress.

Clients may fail to come to a session due to them experiencing stress and regressing back to a stage of dependency, which sees them quite happy to seek comfort in their duvet. They may build an emotional barrier to their problems. Yes, it may seem childish to have a “duvet day” if you have a 6am boot camp. It may be needed, but again you need to confront the issues at hand to move forward.

Defence mechanismsDefence mechanisms


Clients may be angry at being overweight or unfit and unable to do what you ask of them, and instead of them shouting at you they may take it out on someone weaker. This may be their family or a wall or they may shout into a pillow or even harm themselves. They are unlikely to shout back at you, however, I did see this recently when someone shouted back at an instructor that had let we say a rather harsh way of communicating. This I actually found very refreshing.


This example of defence mechanisms is a little bit more difficult to detect if you aren’t aware it exists. Say for example I have a client who is overweight. They know it, and you know it, but it is never brought up because you are too timid a trainer or haven’t for some reason conducted a consultation or asked them about their goals.

If this is the case you may find them getting pissed off at no apparent reason and blurting out “is it because I’m fat?” Now neither of you have said anything, but there’s an underlying tension that you may not feel, as it’s in the client and not you. They are projecting their feelings and frustrations onto you. You may also see this when your partner buys a new outfit and aren’t too sure of how it looks. If you don’t say anything they can take this as you not liking it and they may have a go at you.

Reaction formation

I may see this when a client really loves chocolate and knows it’s inappropriate when they are looking to lose weight. They know they should stay away from it, but instead, they protest their hatred of eating chocolate to compensate. So when a client professes to hate something, I dig a little deeper as they may not be being entirely truthful. This can be a part of an addiction to eating, which sounds extreme but is probably true of a lot of people.


This can be simply defined as thinking away an emotion or situation you don’t enjoy. Your client may have lost a partner because they didn’t find them attractive due to their weight. To protect themselves they may look to consider this a blessing, giving them more time to concentrate their weight loss. It’s the spark they have been waiting for.

But what of the pain inside? Most trainers will say to move forward, but the past cannot just be swept under the carpet without being acknowledged.


This is explaining away bad behaviour on your part. It’s a chance to deal with something you regret so that you can keep insecurity or anxiety in check. Think, “I didn’t make today’s session because my husband wanted me to stay at home”. It’s often easier to blame someone else when the other option would leave you feeling embarrassed or shameful.


This tends to form over time and can be seen when people transform their conflicted emotions into productive outlets. This can be seen in many weight loss classes and gyms. It’s where people who have been overweight in the past overcome their issues, paying it forward by starting a class or studying to become a trainer.

In conclusion, clients are complex! They aren’t always making excuses, a lot of trainers I have witnessed would just jump on this as a weakness.

As a trainer, we need to be more aware of our clients on a deeper level. It’s easy to simply think they have a week will. You have to strive to understand not only your clients better, but yourself.

We are all complex individuals.