Defense Mechanisms: Everything You Need to Know

Unconscious defense mechanisms are ways for individuals to shield themselves from unpleasant emotions or ideas. Defense mechanisms don’t have to be unpleasant; they may help individuals deal with difficult situations or use their energy more effectively. However, they constitute a concern if used too regularly or too long.

10 Major Defense Mechanisms

Projection: blaming someone else for one’s unwanted thoughts or aspirations. For instance, if a bully repeatedly makes fun of a peer’s anxieties, the bully may be projecting his self-esteem issues onto the victim.

Denial: avoiding facts or experiences that might cause anxiety or refusing to accept them. An individual with a drug use disorder, for example, may not be able to see his issue effectively.

Repression: preventing challenging ideas from accessing the mind, as when a trauma sufferer blocks out a traumatic event.

Regression: returning to the previous developmental stage’s attitudes or actions.

Rationalization: Providing explanations or justifications that appear sensible to support a mistake or uncomfortable mood.

Displacement: shifting a proper recipient’s emotional response entirely to a different individual. For instance, if a boss yells at an employee, the employee won’t shout back—but later that night, the employee could yell at her spouse.

Reaction Formation: acting or communicating contrary to one’s genuine sentiments. For instance, a guy uneasy with his masculinity may display excessive aggression.

Sublimation: directing inappropriate or sexual desires into a constructive outlet, such as a job or a hobby.

Intellectualization: concentrating on a situation’s logical rather than its emotional ramifications. For instance, if a roommate suddenly moves out, the other person may do a thorough financial analysis instead of venting their angry sentiments.

Compartmentalization: dividing various aspects of one’s life into categories to avoid having contradictory feelings.

Theories of Defense Mechanisms

Freud’s theory of personality serves as the foundation for defense mechanisms. His theory states that the mind is comprised of three opposing forces: the id, which represents unconscious and primal drives for hunger, comfort, and sex; the superego, which represents a somewhat conscious tendency toward moral and societal ideals; and the ego (a partly conscious force that moderates the id and superego).

According to this theory, anxiety develops when the superego’s needs and the needs d’s conflict. The ego employs self-deception techniques to alleviate stress by avoiding the pain. For instance, the undesirable idea or feeling could be rejected, justified, or transferred to someone else.

Many of Freud’s theories have fallen apart under the examination of contemporary science. However, psychological defenses have shown to be a persistent idea, one that academics and medical professionals are still researching today.

How do psychologists today conceptualize defense mechanisms?

The fact that several post-Freudian thinkers and researchers independently came to the same conclusion about psychological defenses is evidence of the concept’s intuitive appeal and potential value. Like Karen Horney, Alfred Adler established the concept of “safeguarding techniques,” defense mechanisms used by children whose parents abuse or neglect them. The term “cognitive dissonance,” created by Leon Festinger, Defenses were described by Carl Rogers as denial and perceptual distortion and by Albert Bandura as “self-exoneration processes.”

Defenses were ranked from immature to mature by famous psychiatrist George Vaillant, who described them as “unconscious homeostatic systems that limit the disorganizing consequences of unexpected stress.” Defenses are also present in talks on coping strategies and emotion control nowadays.

Why did defense mechanisms evolve?

Like all other living systems, humans have developed various defense mechanisms to counter threats to our physical safety and survival. The immune system is one example, and our neurological system’s built-in fight-or-flight response is another. Similar protective mechanisms—our feeling of self, identity, and worth—have probably developed to safeguard and promote the integrity of our psychological architecture.

Are defense mechanisms unhealthy?

No, never. A greater number of the often mentioned defenses, such as denial and projection, may be dysfunctional and need counseling. Defense systems serve to shield the self from worry or suffering, which is sometimes a beneficial thing. An attendee at a party, for instance, may utilize comedy to ease an awkward situation. Another option is for someone in an emotionally taxing line of work, like a counselor for suicidal people, to classify their job to function better in everyday life.

Defense Mechanisms in Everyday Life

Unexpected or difficult events often occur in life, and defensive systems may help to lessen the pain. For instance, they may show as passive-aggressive conduct when two friends cannot resolve a disagreement or when a worker vents her resentment against her employer onto her kid over dinner. Defense mechanisms may be the result of one-off occurrences, both advantageous and maladaptive, or they can be a recurring pattern of behavior that can be investigated with a therapist’s assistance.

When do individuals develop defense mechanisms?

Certain psychologists think that defense mechanisms may manifest more strongly and often in some persons due to anxieties experienced as children. Children may not know how to deal with or overcome certain obstacles, which causes them to doubt themselves and put up barriers to overcome such obstacles. Adults can handle such difficulties, but sometimes old stress-relieving defensive mechanisms resurface.

Which defense mechanisms can hurt relationships?

Close interactions often stir up our most intense emotions, and sometimes we develop defenses to control those feelings. But since it might strain your relationship, it’s important to consider if you or your partner use any particular defenses. These consist of:

  • Do you attribute your partner’s shortcomings to your own? Do you blame your spouse for being sloppy or irresponsible rather than calling it what it is?
  • Denial: Do you act as if unpleasant events never happened? Do you shut your eyes and tell yourself everything will be okay even though your spouse seems upset?
  • Compensating: Do you use drugs or alcohol to avoid dealing with uncomfortable feelings? Is it simpler to have an additional glass of wine or beer than to discuss your concerns with your partner?


How are defense mechanisms addressed in therapy?

When a patient in treatment uses psychological defenses, the therapist may use this as a chance to discuss these patterns with the patient. A therapist could deal with a patient, for instance, who denies having a drug issue or who seems to transfer their fears onto their spouse. These times of self-deception may be an opportunity to talk about underlying issues that might aid the patient’s progress.

How can parents address a child’s defense mechanisms?

To determine if disruptive or negative conduct is a child’s way of coping with challenging emotions, it may often be beneficial to investigate their reasons. For instance, a 5-year-old may misbehave when a new baby is born. The rage may hide his anguish at feeling dislocated by the new baby in the family. Then, rather than punishing the youngster, parents could deal with the outbursts by talking to the child about the shift and dividing their attention between the two when it was feasible. A child’s capacity for accepting and mastering unpleasant emotions will aid in their development into well-adjusted adults.

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