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Understanding defences and defensiveness in social work


Pam Trevithick

Originally published

February 12, 2018

Number of pages



All human beings have defences some of which are unconscious, that is, reactions that for the most part lie beyond our immediate awareness and control. The purpose of this paper is to introduce the important role that defences play in social work and to identify the knowledge and skills that are needed when working with anxieties that lead to defensive behaviour. The paper is in two parts. The first provides a theoretical account of what is meant by the term defences, anxiety, resistance and related concepts, and then goes on to describe a number of key defences that are regularly encountered in social work, and in other related fields of practice. A second section looks at how we can work creatively with unconscious, defensive reactions and resistances, particularly the importance of containing anxiety. It describes how transference, counter-transference and projective identification can aid our understanding and help to illuminate the feelings, fears and fantasies that are evident in our work.

About Pam Trevithick

I started in social work in 1976 and over the years have had a variety of roles – as a residential worker, field social worker, family centre manager and academic. I’m currently retired but regularly present at conferences and lecture in the UK, Europe and Australia on themes covered in my writing or that trouble social workers.

I enjoy writing and am the author of the best-selling 3rd edition text Social Work Skills and Knowledge: A Practice Handbook (2012). In this book, and in other articles I’ve written, I highlight – and attempt to rectify – the superficial coverage given to social work skills in some areas of UK teaching and practice.

I’d like GAPS to be a key resource for social work practitioners and students – a place where new and inspirational ideas can be found, as well as freely available articles, handouts and presentations. I’d also like GAPS to take forward the voice and concerns of social workers in influential circles and policy contexts.


Understanding defences and defensiveness in social work

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