Defense Mechanisms are psychological processesthat protect the conscious mind from threateningimpulses, thoughts and feelings. They do so by denying or distorting reality, and they are largely unconscious. Defense mechanisms are normal and, if used inmoderation, they can be helpful -helpful in that they can give us time to recognizeour discomfort, identify its source and find waysto consciously deal with it. However, theextensive and prolonged use ofdefense mechanisms can be problematic in thatunderlying difficulties remain, energy is wastedand stress builds.Sigmund Freud first used “defense” as a psychoanalytic term in 1894; and it was his daughter,Anna Freud, who refined and expanded his theoriesin the 1930s.
In some areas of psychology (especially in psychodynamic theory), psychologists talk about “defense mechanisms,” or manners in which we behave or think in certain ways to better protect or “defend” ourselves. Defense mechanisms are one way of looking at how people distance themselves from a full awareness of unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
They are more accurately referred to as ego defense mechanisms, and can thus be categorized as occurring when the id impulses are in conflict with each other, when the id impulses conflict with super-ego values and beliefs, and when an external threat (i.e. humiliation) is posed to the ego.
Most defense mechanisms are fairly unconscious – that means most of us don’t realize we’re using them in the moment. Some types of psychotherapy can help a person become aware of what defense mechanisms they are using, how effective they are, and how to use less primitive and more effective mechanisms in the future.
Psychologists have categorized defense mechanisms based upon how primitive they are. The more primitive a defense mechanism, the less effective it works for a person over the long-term. However, more primitive defense mechanisms are usually very effective short-term, and hence are favored by many people and children especially (when such primitive defense mechanisms are first learned). Adults who don’t learn better ways of coping with stress or traumatic events in their lives will often resort to such primitive defense mechanisms as well.
Disavowal Level of defense: defense mechanisms in this category try to keep unpleasant or unacceptable stressors, impulses, ideas, feelings, or responsibilities out of awareness.Denial involves dealing with stress by refusing to acknowledge some painful aspect of reality or experience that is apparent to others.Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. It is considered one of the most primitive of the defense mechanisms because it is characteristic of early childhood development. Many people use denial in their everyday lives to avoid dealing with painful feelings or areas of their life they don’t wish to admit. For instance, a person who is a functioning alcoholic will often simply deny they have a drinking problem, pining to how well they function in their job and relationships.
Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses. For an example an adolescent who is overwhelmed with fear, anger and growing sexual impulses might become clingy and start exhibiting earlier childhood behaviors he has long since overcome, such as bedwetting. An adult may regress when under a great deal of stress, refusing to leave their bed and engage in normal, everyday activities.
ACTION LEVEL DEFENSE MECHANISMS characterized by defenses that deal with internal or external stressors by action or withdrawal.Acting out involves dealing with stress by using action rather than reflection or feeling. Defensive acting out is often associated with “bad behavior” when there are underlying emotional conflicts. Acting out means literally acting out the desires that are forbidden by the Super Ego and yet desired by the Id. We thus cope with the pressure to do what we believe is wrong by giving in to the desire.Acting Out is performing an extreme behavior in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing. Instead of saying, “I’m angry with you,” a person who acts out may instead throw a book at the person, or punch a hole through the wall. When a person acts out, it can act as a pressure release, and often helps the individual feel calmer and peaceful once again. For instance, a child’s temper tantrum is a form of acting out when he or she doesn’t get his or her way with a parent. Self-injury may also be a form of acting-out, expressing in physical pain what one cannot stand to feel emotionally.
Dissociation involves dealing with stress by breaking off part of memory, consciousness, or perception of self or the environment to avoid a problem situation (e.g. amnesia).Dissociation is when a person loses track of time and/or person, and instead finds another representation of their self in order to continue in the moment. A person who dissociates often loses track of time or themselves and their usual thought processes and memories. People who have a history of any kind of childhood abuse often suffer from some form of dissociation. In extreme cases, dissociation can lead to a person believing they have multiple selves (“multiple personality disorder”). People who use dissociation often have a disconnected view of themselves in their world. Time and their own self-image may not flow continuously, as it does for most people. In this manner, a person who dissociates can “disconnect” from the real world for a time, and live in a different world that is not cluttered with thoughts, feelings or memories that are unbearable.
Compartmentalization is a lesser form of dissociation, wherein parts of oneself are separated from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values. An example might be an honest person who cheats on their income tax return and keeps their two value systems distinct and un-integrated while remaining unconscious of the cognitive dissonance.
Disavowal level of defense mechanism trying to keep unpleasant or unacceptable stressors, impulses, ideas, feelings, or responsibilities out of awareness.Projection involves dealing with stress by falsely attributing your own unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts to another person. For instance, a strong dislike for someone, you might instead believe that he or she does not like you. Projection works by allowing the expression of the desire or impulse, but in a way that the ego cannot recognize, therefore reducing anxiety. Ex: Having the feeling of disliking a professor, instead, the student thinks the professor does not like her.Projection is the misattribution of a person’s undesired thoughts, feelings or impulses onto another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings or impulses. Projection is used especially when the thoughts are considered unacceptable for the person to express, or they feel completely ill at ease with having them. For example, a spouse may be angry at their significant other for not listening, when in fact it is the angry spouse who does not listen. Projection is oftne the result of a lack of insight and acknowledgement of one’s own motivations and feelings.
Reaction Formation involves dealing with stress by substituting behavior, thoughts, or feelings that are the exact opposite of your won unacceptable thoughts or feelings (which the person is usually not aware of) by treating someone you strongly dislike in an excessively friendly manner in order to hide your true feelings. Why do people behave this way? According to Freud, they are using reaction formation as a defense mechanism to hide their true feelings by behaving in the exact opposite manner.Reaction Formation is the converting of unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings or impulses into their opposites. For instance, a woman who is very angry with her boss and would like to quit her job may instead be overly kind and generous toward her boss and express a desire to keep working there forever. She is incapable of expressing the negative emotions of anger and unhappiness with her job, and instead becomes overly kind to publicly demonstrate her lack of anger and unhappiness.My example with triage person (R. G).
Action Level Defenses: Acting Out, Help-Rejecting, and Passive Aggression.This level is characterized by defenses that deal with internal or external stressors by action or withdrawal.
Less primitive defense mechanisms are a step up from the primitive defense mechanisms in the previous section. Many people employ these defenses as adults, and while they work okay for many, they are not ideal ways of dealing with out feelings, stress and anxiety. If you recognize yourself using a few of these, don’t feel bad –everyone does.
Repression involves dealing with stress by removing disturbing wishes, thoughts, or experiences from conscious awareness. The person may still be aware of the feelings associated with the repressed issue, but will not know were the feelings come from. Repression acts to keep information out of conscious awareness. However, these memories don’t just disappear; they continue to influence our behavior. For instance, a person who has repressed memories of abuse suffered as a child may later have difficulty forming relationships. Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses. The key to repression is that people do it unconsciously, so they often have very little control over it. “Repressed memories” are memories that have been unconsciously blocked from access or view. But because memory is very malleable and ever-changing, it is not like playing back a DVD of your life. The DVD has been filtered and even altered by your life experiences, even by what you've read or viewed.
Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts feelings and impulses directed at one person or object, but taken upon another person or object. People often use displacement when they cannot express their feelings in a safe manner to the person they are directed at. The classic example is the man who gets angry at his boss, but can’t express his anger to his boss for fear of being fired. He instead comes home and kicks de dog or start an argument with this wife. The man is redirecting his anger from his boss to his dog or wife. Naturally, this is a pretty ineffective defense mechanism, because while the anger finds a route for expression, its misapplication to other harmless people or objects will cause additional problems for most people.Displacement involves dealing with stress by transferring strong feelings about a situation onto another (usually less threatening) substitute situation. Displacement involves taking out our frustrations, feelings and impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. Displaced aggression is a common example of this defense mechanism. Rather than express our anger in ways that could lead to negative consequences (like arguing with our boss), we instead express our anger towards a person or object that poses no threat (such as our spouses, children or pets).
Intellectualization is the overemphasis on thinking when confronted with an unacceptable impulse, situation or behavior without employing any emotions whatsoever to help mediate an place the thoughts into an emotional, human context. Rather than deal with the painful associated emotions, a person might employ intellectualization to distance themselves from the impulse, event or behavior. For instance, a person who has just been given a terminal medical diagnosis, instead of expressing their sadness an grief, focuses instead on the details of all possible fruitless medical procedure.
Disavowal level defense mechanism in which the person try to keep unpleasant or unacceptable stressors, impulses, ideas, feeling, or responsibilities out of awareness.Rationalization involves dealing with stress by concealing the true motivations for a thought, action, or feeling by using elaborate, reassuring, and self-serving (but incorrect) explanations. Ex: A mother being over protective of an adolescent to cope with her fear of the adolescent being hurt; she will rationalize that it is for the benefit of the child, but in fact it is to cope with her own anxiety.Rationalization is putting something into a different light or offering a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviors in the face of a changing reality. For instance, a woman who starts dating a man she really, really likes and thinks the world of is suddenly dumped by the man for no reason. She reframes the situation in her mind with, “I suspected he was a loser all along.”My own rationalization about my childhood trauma and my mother abandoning/rejecting me after several letters trying to reconnect. I rationalized by saying that probably I created the whole traumatic narrative to extricate myself from the misery of my beginnings because I was unique, didn’t belong there, and I was supposed to live a better life. I created the traumatic narrative in order to have a reason to detach from her/them/Spain and move far away. It is a rationalization Lucy! You suffered the abuse! That is the reality. The reality is that she is not answering your letters!
Undoing involves dealing with stress by using words or behaviors designed to negate or make amends symbolically for unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or actions.Undoing is the attempt to take back an unconscious behavior or thought that is unacceptable or hurtful. For instance, after realizing you just insulted your significant other unintentionally, you might spend the next hour praising their beauty, charm and intellect. By “undoing” the previous action, the person is attempting to counteract the damage done by the original comment, hoping the two will balance one another out.The defense mechanism referred to as undoing is an unconscious attempt to take back, nullify or “un-do” a thought or action that had resulted in guilt or anxiety. Ex: A physician may become over-solicitous or may over-medicate a patient in whose treatment hehad made an error.
Mature defense mechanisms are often the most constructive and helpful to most adults, but may require practice and effort to put into daily use. While primitive defense mechanisms do little to try and resolve underlying issues or problems, mature defenses are more focused on helping a person be a more constructive component of their environment. People with more mature defenses tend to be more at peace with themselves and those around them.HIGH ADAPTIVE LEVEL DEFENSES:Defense mechanisms in this group result in optimal adaptation to stress. The defenses usually maximize feelings of well being and do not interfere with the conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and their consequences.
Sublimation is simply the channeling of unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones. For instance, when a person has sexual impulses they would like not to act upon, they may instead focus on rigorous exercise. Refocusing such unacceptable or harmful impulses into productive use helps a person channel energy that otherwise would be lost or used in a manner that might cause the person more anxiety.
Sublimation can also be done with humor of fantasy. Humor, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable impulses or thoughts into a light-hearted story or joke. Humor reduces the intensity of a situation, and places a cushion of laughter between the person and the impulses. Fantasy, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable or unattainable desires into imagination. For example, imagining one’s ultimate career goals can be helpful when one experiences temporary setbacks in academic achievement. Both can help a person look at a situation in a different way, of focus on aspects of the situation not previously explored.High Adaptive Level: Defense mechanisms in this group result in optimal adaptation to stress. The defenses usually maximize feelings of well being and do not interfere with the conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and their consequences.Affiliation involves dealing with stressors by turning to others for help or support. This involves sharing problems with others but not trying to make someone else responsible for them.Altruism involves dealing with stressors by dedicating yourself to meeting the needs of others. The individual receives satisfaction vicariously or from the response of others.Anticipation involves dealing with stressors by anticipating the consequences and feelings associated with possible future events and considering realistic solutions.Humor involves dealing with stress by emphasizing the amusing or ironic aspects of the situation.Self-Assertion involves dealing with stress by expressing your feelings and thoughts directly in a way that is not aggressive, coercive, or manipulative.Self-Observation involves dealing with stress by reflecting on your own thoughts, feelings, motivation, and behavior, and then responding appropriately.Sublimation involves dealing with stress by channeling potentially disruptive feelings or impulses into socially acceptable behavior (e.g., playing rugby to channel angry impulses).Suppression involves dealing with stress by intentionally avoiding thinking about disturbing problems, wishes, feelings, or experiences.
Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other arenas. By emphasizing and focusing on one’s strengths, a person in recognizing they cannot be strong at all things and in all areas in their lives. For instance, when a person says, “I may not know how to cook, but I can sure do the dishes!.” they’re trying to compensate for their lack of cooking skills by emphasizing their cleaning skills instead. When done appropriately and not in an attempt to over-compensate, compensation is a defense mechanism that helps reinforce a person’s self-esteem and self-image.
Affiliation involves dealing with stressors by turning to others for help or support. This involves sharing problems with others but not trying to make someone else responsible for them.
Assertiveness is the emphasis of a person’s needs or thoughts in a manner that is respectful, direct and firm Communication styles exist on a continuum, ranging from passive to aggressive, with assertiveness falling neatly in between. People who are passive and communicate in a passive manner tend to be good listeners, but rarely speak up for themselves or their own needs in a relationship. People who are aggressive and communicate in an aggressive manner end to be good leaders, but often at the expense of being able to listen empathically to others and their ideas and needs. People who are assertive strike a balance where they speak up for themselves, express their opinions or needs in a respectful yet firm manner, and listen when they are being spoken to. Becoming more assertive is one of the most desired communication skills and helpful defense mechanisms most people want to learn, an d would benefit doing so.
Dealing with emotional stressors by dedication to meeting the needs of other. For example, a person putting away her own problems start to volunteer.Altruism involves dealing with stressors by dedicating yourself to meeting the needs of others. The individual receives satisfaction vicariously or from the response from others.
Self-observation involves dealing with stress by reflecting on your own thoughts, feelings, motivation, and behavior, and then responding appropriately.
Suppression is dealing with emotional stressors by deferred dealing with the stressor. For example, a worker finds that he is letting thoughts about a date that evening interfere with his duties; he decides not to think about plans for the evening until he leaves work.Suppression involves dealing with stress by intentionally avoiding thinking about disturbing problems, wishes, feelings, or experiences.
Anticipation involves dealing with stressors by anticipating the consequences and feelings associated with possible future events and considering realistic solutions.
DEFENSE MECHANISMS OF DISTORTIONS: Distortions in regards to defense mechanisms are broken down into three separate levels:Minor, major, and dysregulation.Minor image-distorting level is characterized by distortions in the image of self, body, or others that may be used to maintain self-esteem. Examples include:Devaluation: attributing exaggerated negative qualities to self or others.Idealization: attributing exaggerated positive qualities to self or others.Omnipotence: acting as if self is possessed with special powers or abilities and is superior to others.
Minor image-distorting level is characterized by distortions in the image of self, body, or others that may be used to maintain self-esteem.Example:Devaluation:Idealization:Omnipotence:
Major image-distorting level is characterized by gross distortion or misattribution of the image of self or others. Examples are:Autistic Fantasy: Excessive daydreaming as a substitute for human relationship, more effective action, or problem solving.Projective identification:Splitting of self-image or image of others:
Falsely attributing to another the feelings, thoughts or impulses of self; differing from simple projection by the fact that the individual doesn’t fully disavow what is projected; rather misattributes them as justifiable reactions to the other person. Frequently the individual induces those very feeling in others that were believed to be thre, making it difficutl to untangle the situation.
Compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of self or others into cohesive images. Self and object images tend to alternate between polar opposites.
The more severe level of distortion, defensive dysregulation, is characterized by a failure of defensive regulation in individuals’ reactions to stressors, which lead to a pronounced break with objective reality. Examples include:Delusional projection: attributing non reality-based thoughts, emotions and impulses to others.Psychotic denial: gross impairment in reality testing.Psychotic distortion:gross impairment in perceiving reality differently than others.
Gross impairment in reality testing
Gross impairment in perceiving reality differently than others.
Remember, defense mechanisms are most often learned behaviors, most of which we learned during childhood. That’s a good thing, because it means that, as an adult, you can choose to learn some new behaviors and new defense mechanisms that may be more beneficial to you in your life. Many psychotherapist will help you work on these things, if you’d like. But even becoming more aware of when you are using one of the less primitive types of defense mechanisms above can be helpful in identify behaviors you would like to reduce.
15 common defense mechanisms
Lucia Merino, LCSW November, 2011
Defense Mechanisms Ways to behave or think to protect or “defend” ourselves from anxieties. How we distance ourselves from a full awareness of unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Different Levels of DefensesPrimitive Defense Mechanisms Less Primitive, More Mature Denial Defense Mechanisms Regression Repression Acting Out Displacement Dissociation Intellectualization Compartmentalization Rationalization Projection Undoing Reaction Formation Mature Defense Mechanisms• Sublimation Compensation Affiliation• Self-Assertion Altruism Self-Observation• Suppression Anticipation
Denial (primitive) Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist while being apparent to others. It is considered one of the most primitive because it is characteristic of early childhood development.
Regression (primitive) Reversion to an earlier stage of development when faced with unacceptable, fearful, threatening thoughts or impulses. Ex. An adult curling up in fetal position when feeling threatened or afraid.
Acting Out (primitive) Performing an extreme behavior in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing. Ex: self-injury is expression through physical pain of what can’t be stand to feel emotionally.
Dissociation (primitive) Breaking off part of memory, consciousness, or perception of self or the environment to avoid a problem situation. Trying to disconnect from the real world to defend from unbearable thoughts, feelings, and memories. Ex: Amnesia.
Compartmentalization (primitive) Lesser form of dissociation. Parts of self are separated from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values. Ex. Honest person cheating in income taxes and keeping both sets of values separated and un- integrated.
Projection (primitive) Misattribution of owns undesired thoughts, feelings or impulses onto another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings or impulses. Ex. a spouse angry at significant other for not listening, when in fact, it is he who is not listening.
Reaction Formation (primitive) Converting unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings or impulses into their opposites. Ex. Woman angry at boss and wanting to quit becomes overly kind and generous towards boss and expresses desire to keep working there.
Additional Primitive Defenses Help-Rejecting Complaining Passive Aggression Involves dealing with stress Involves dealing with stress by by indirectly and complaining and making unassertively expressing repeated requests for help that aggression toward others. disguise hidden feelings of The person displays an hostility toward others, which outward superficial is then expressed by rejecting cooperativeness that masks the suggestions, advice, or help the underlying resistance, that others offer. resentment, and hostility. The complaints may involve This defense may be physical or psychological adaptive in situation where symptoms or life problems. direct and assertive communication is punishes (e.g. abusive relationships).
Less Primitive, More Mature Defense Mechanisms Repression Displacement Intellectualization Rationalization Undoing
Repression Unconscious blocking of unacceptable and disturbing thoughts, feelings and impulses. Done unconsciously, thus, little control over it. Repressed memories –but never retrieved the same.
Displacement Redirecting of thoughts, feelings and impulses from one person or object to another who poses less threat. Example: Unable to express anger to boss for fear of being fired displaces anger into others: spouse, pet, etc.
Intellectualization Dealing with emotional stressors by excessive use of abstract thinking or complex explanations to control or minimize disturbing feelings. React in a cold way focusing on the intellectual aspect only. Ex: husband constructing elaborate logical explanations for wife’s recent paranoia ideas.
Rationalization Giving another interpretation to a situation in the face of a changing reality. Ex: Suddenly being dumped by somebody she was really interested in: “I don’t care , I suspected he was a loser all along.”
Undoing An unconscious attempt to take back, nullify or “un-do” a thought or action that had resulted in guilt or anxiety. Ex: a husband who showers his wife with roses and chocolates on Valentine’s Day may be unconsciously seeking to undo a year of neglect.
Sublimation (mature) Channeling of un- acceptable and potentially disruptive impulses, thoughts or emotions into socially acceptable behavior. Dealing with emotional stressors by using the energy in other, usually constructive activities. Ex: punching bag to channel angry impulses. Sports.
Sublimation (cont.) Humor: dealing with stress by emphasizing the amusing or ironic aspects of the situation. Fantasy: channeling unacceptable feelings, thoughts or impulses into imagination. Ex: after academic setback, fantasizing about ultimate career goals.
Compensation (mature) Psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other areas. Ex: a physically unattractive adolescent starts weightlifting. Or, “I am not a fighter, I’m a lover.” Napoleonic Cmplx.
Affiliation (Mature) Turning to others for help and support. Sharing problems with others, but not trying to make someone else responsible for them. Ex: going to therapy, a support group, spiritual counsel.
Self-Assertion (Mature) Being able to express own opinions and needs in a respectful and firm way. Not aggressively, coercively or manipulatively. Striking a balance between communicating passively or aggressively. Listening empathically and expressing self in a balanced way.
Altruism Dealing with stressors by dedicating yourself to meeting the needs of others. Through altruistic endeavors, a person receives satisfaction vicariously or from the response of others.
Self-Observation (Mature) Dealing with stress by reflection on one’s thoughts, feelings, motivation, and behavior –and then responding appropriately. Ex: engaging in journaling, self- exploration, therapy, bibliotherapy, etc.
Suppression (Mature) Dealing with stress by intentionally avoiding thinking about disturbing problems, wishes, feelings, or experiences. Ex: Thinking about all those sweets in the staff lounge and wanting to eat them while on a diet.
Anticipation (Mature) Dealing with stressors by anticipating the consequences and feelings associated with possible future events and considering realistic solutions. Ex: getting old –think ahead and plan your retirement wisely!
Devaluation (Minor) Attributing exaggerated negative qualities to self or others.
Idealization Attributing exaggerated positive qualities to self or others.
Omnipotence Acting as if self is possessed with special powers or abilities and is superior to others.
Autistic Fantasy (Major) Excessive daydreaming as a substitute for human relationship, more effective action, or problem solving.
Projective Identification Falsely attributing to another the feelings, thoughts or impulses of self; differing from simple projection by the fact that the individual doesn’t fully disavow what is projected; rather misattributes them as justifiable reactions to the other person. Frequently the individual induces those very feelings in others that were believed to be there, making it difficult to untangle the situation.
Splitting of self-image or image of others Compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of self or others into cohesive images. Self and object images tend to alternate between polar opposites.
Delusional Projection (Severe) Attributing non reality- based thoughts, emotions and impulses to others. Frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature Ex: blaming others, society, history, economy for self failure.
Psychotic Denial Gross impairment in reality testing.
Psychotic Distortion Gross impairment in perceiving reality differently than others.
In Conclusion We learn these defense behaviors in childhood to defend from perceived stressors. Good news is that we can modify them (and we should) as we become adults. Mature defenses are the most helpful ones!