We all use defense mechanisms, whether we know it or not. Defense mechanisms are your mind’s efforts to protect you against painful emotions and experiences. Despite the negative connotation that is often associated with defense mechanisms, they’re not always harmful – some defense mechanisms can be healthy ways of coping.
In this article, we review what defense mechanisms are, and break down some of the most common examples.
What are psychological defense mechanisms and how do they work?
Defense mechanisms are our brains’ way of protecting us against unpleasant situations or experiences. Defense mechanisms are usually unconscious responses, which makes them different from coping skills. We may not know when our subconscious is using a defense mechanism to defend us.
Sigmund Freud first laid out the premise of defense mechanisms in the 19th century as part of his psychoanalytic theory. His daughter, Anna Freud, continued his work by further defining specific defense mechanisms.
According to psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms arise out of a conflict between the id and the superego – or, to put it simply, between your subconscious and conscious minds. Anna Freud described defense mechanisms as “unconscious resources used by the ego” to decrease stress and anxiety. They’re meant to distort reality in a way that makes it easier to handle.
Freud and his followers taught that the subconscious mind first assesses any threats or dangers. If it determines a situation to be too anxiety-provoking or a threat to our self-esteem, then it may use a defense mechanism to protect the conscious mind.
We’ve come a long way since Freud’s time, and many of his theories have been discredited. But many modern psychologists, across different fields, agree that unconscious cognitive processes do exist.
Defense mechanisms aren’t always bad for you. Any defense mechanism can be adaptive (healthy) or maladaptive (unhealthy). In some scenarios, using certain defense mechanisms could be an adaptive way to get through extremely difficult situations. Whether or not a defense mechanism is adaptive has to do with the context that it’s used in, as well as its severity and inflexibility (whether you’re willing to address it and let it go).
However, some defense mechanisms are almost always maladaptive. If you or a loved one tend to rely on maladaptive defense mechanisms, then psychotherapy can help you work through them.
Types of defense mechanisms
Since Freud, researchers have divided defense mechanisms into a hierarchy of two categories:
- Primitive defense mechanisms
- Mature or Higher-Level defense mechanisms
Primitive defense mechanisms are the first to develop in life. They’re almost always unconsciously used. They’re often used by younger children and adolescents, but may start to become maladaptive for adults.
Mature defense mechanisms are more evolved, and reflect a healthier relationship with reality. They are sometimes referred to as positive coping mechanisms in other psychological theories.
In addition to this hierarchy, researchers say that all defense mechanisms are one of two types: cognitive distortions or dissociation.
Cognitive distortions are a way to think about reality in a different way in order to protect yourself. They put a positive spin on the experience to make it easier to digest.
Dissociation defense mechanisms, on the other hand, help you to detach from reality.
Countless defense mechanisms have been introduced since Freud first defined them over a century ago. Next, we’ll go over the most common examples of both primitive and mature defense mechanisms.
Examples of primitive defense mechanisms
You may recognize these primitive defense mechanisms in children. They’re done subconsciously, meaning that you don’t have control over them. These defense mechanisms are usually maladaptive, especially when adults use them.
When someone uses this defense mechanism, they behave poorly to distract themselves (and others) away from whatever is distressing them. For example, a child could throw a temper tantrum when a parent tries to scold them.
In adults, this usually looks like behaving impulsively without regard for the consequences. Adults who use acting out as a defense mechanism could binge eat, drink a lot of alcohol, or act out sexually in an effort to distract themselves from their problems. Acting out is almost always maladaptive, especially when it happens in adults.
In avoidance, we simply avoid places, people, thoughts, and memories that make us feel upset. For example, someone could refuse to think about something that makes them feel sad or afraid. This can sometimes be adaptive, but avoiding our problems doesn’t make them go away.
This defense mechanism often appears in people who live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Something could remind you of a past traumatic event, and it could be so frightening to you that you avoid the reminder altogether.
Denial is one of the most well-known defense mechanisms; it’s even made its way into our popular vernacular. Denial describes when we refuse to accept the reality of whatever is upsetting us. For example, you could continue shopping even when you’re in a lot of debt. Or someone with an addiction could adamantly state they don’t have a problem.
People in denial also often refuse to acknowledge any emotions about the stressful event. For example, someone going through a recent breakup could repeatedly say that they “don’t care” or that they have no feelings about what happened.
Some people convert their emotions into psychosomatic (or physical) symptoms. This is a defense mechanism called conversion. For example, someone could deny they’re feeling anxious, but present with constant gastrointestinal problems (when medical reasons have been ruled out).
You probably know what passive aggression is, but you might not have identified it as a psychological defense mechanism. People who use passive aggression as a defense mechanism don’t communicate their upset feelings directly. Instead, they find indirect ways to express their unhappiness (while remaining compliant on the surface).
When these passive-aggressive behaviors don’t get them the results they want, they may assume the martyr role or complain that they are treated unfairly.
This is another well-known defense mechanism. When someone uses projection as a defense mechanism, they refuse to accept their own flaws while attributing these same flaws to someone else. For example, someone who has thought about cheating on their partner could suddenly become suspicious that their partner is cheating on them. They’re unable to face these shortcomings in themselves, so they project them onto others.
Often, people who use projection are suspicious of others’ intentions. This is another example of a defense mechanism that’s almost always maladaptive.
Splitting (devaluation and idealization)
Splitting is a defense mechanism commonly seen in people with borderline personality disorder. It involves black-and-white thinking, and being unable to reconcile the positive and negative aspects of a person or a situation.
During splitting, people may idealize an image (themselves’ or others’), only to later devalue it. They’re unable to see a person (including themselves) as having both positive and negative traits. They may see some people as “all good,” and refuse to see their negative traits. But if a problem occurs or they feel hurt by the person, they could become “all bad” – dismissing any accomplishments or positive traits.
Repression is when people subconsciously block or “forget” memories, impulses, or facts that are distressing to them.
For example, you may have gone through a traumatic experience like an assault. When someone asks you to talk about the assault, you could find you’re unable to remember key fragments or events that took place. You could lose your train of thought as you’re discussing the event, or only be able to describe it in vague terms.
This is a defense mechanism that’s recognized as a core symptom of a category of recognized psychiatric disorders (called dissociative disorders). It’s when people disconnect from reality to protect themselves from painful situations.
People may dissociate when they’re confronted with a situation that’s too stressful to bear. People who are dissociated may seem “out of themselves” or “spacey”; they may experience amnesia. Some may go into a fugue state, which is when a person separates from awareness, including missing time.
When people regress, they return to earlier periods in their development. For example, a 10-year-old child who uses regression as a defense mechanism may start sucking their thumb the way they did when they were a toddler. This defense mechanism is usually maladaptive, whether it happens in children or adults.
Some people retreat into their daydreams and fantasies to escape reality; this is a defense mechanism called schizoid fantasy. People who use schizoid fantasy as a defense mechanism prefer to daydream and imagine solutions to their problems instead of taking action in real life. They may act out certain fantasies in imaginary situations, like role-playing games.
Examples of mature defense mechanisms
In contrast, these “mature” or high-level defense mechanisms are more connected with reality. They require a higher level of self-awareness and life experience. Mature defense mechanisms can often be healthy ways to cope, depending on the situation .
Anticipation is an advanced defense mechanism that involves anticipating problems before they happen. People who use anticipation try to be aware of any challenges that may be coming up for them, and work to create solutions to these challenges before they happen.
For example, you could practice and rehearse a difficult conversation before actually having it. This is often an adaptive defense mechanism. People who use anticipation often find themselves trying to anticipate the potential challenges that may come along with new experiences so they can prepare for them.
Do you ever deflect emotional tension by telling jokes? You may be using humor as a defense mechanism.
Humor is usually an adaptive defense mechanism because the jokes are not intended to hurt or offend anyone. Someone who uses humor as a defense mechanism could make ironic or self-deprecating comments when receiving criticism. They’re often able to diffuse difficult situations (like a fight) by telling a joke, not at the expense of anybody but simply to encourage cooperation.
A classic example of using humor as a defense mechanism is telling a funny story about the deceased during a eulogy.
Many people find that they’re overwhelmed with emotion or stress – but instead of directly dealing with the problem, they do another activity (like cleaning the house). Or they may feel angry at one person, but direct these feelings towards someone else (who has no relevance to the stressful situation). This is a mature defense mechanism called displacement, and it can be either adaptive or maladaptive depending on the context.
For example, cleaning the house because you’re frustrated with your partner could be adaptive in some cases. Cleaning the house instead of tackling your to-do list at work could be maladaptive.
Another example of maladaptive displacement is someone who is angry with their boss, and gets home and lashes out at their family.
Sublimation is, in many ways, a healthier form of displacement. It is a defense mechanism that allows you to redirect emotionally difficult situations or pain into some sort of healthier activity. For example, someone who’s experienced a loss could redirect their painful feelings into creating a piece of beautiful music or art. Someone who feels a lot of aggression could take these feelings out in a sport.
After they’ve channeled or sublimated their feelings in this way, people who successfully use this defense mechanism are able to go about their other activities in a healthy way.
Suppression as a defense mechanism is about consciously choosing to ignore or push away unpleasant feelings, thoughts, or experiences. It differs from repression, a primitive defense mechanism, because it’s conscious. When someone represses as a defense mechanism, they don’t have control over it. When someone suppresses, they consciously put their emotional reactions aside to do what needs to be done.
An example of suppression is someone who has witnessed a gruesome car accident. They may feel frightened, but they’re able to put their fear aside to jump in and help where they’re needed. They aren’t in denial or repressing the fact of the accident; they’re simply putting their own emotions aside, temporarily, to take effective action.
You’ve probably met someone who often rationalizes their problems and mistakes. Someone who rationalizes tries to use “objective” explanations to justify their own (or others’) behaviors or feelings. They often do this in order to push away any blame or guilt over their contribution to a problem. People who rationalize often “explain away” their actions rather than take responsibility.
For example, someone who is unfaithful to their partner could rationalize it by saying, “I had to; I have physical needs which have been proven by science.” People also rationalize to avoid the distress brought on by others’ actions, not only their own. In the previous example, the partner could rationalize the unfaithful spouse’s actions as, “He still loves me, but the alcohol made him do it.”
Isolation of affect
This defense mechanism is when a person doesn’t seem to have any “affect” or visible emotion about an event that should cause distress. For example, someone could talk about their abusive childhood with no emotion on their face at all. This is often seen in trauma survivors. They may appear to be totally detached or describe the event as if it happened to someone else.
Isolation of affect can be adaptive in scenarios where the person needs to block out painful emotions in order to function in everyday life. But over the long term, it tends to be maladaptive and could be a sign of PTSD.
When people intellectualize, they try to understand difficult experiences through information and intellect rather than feeling them emotionally. They may make logical and scientific statements that describe their situation, but be reluctant to reveal how they feel about the situation or how these statements relate to them. Some people who often intellectualize even speak about themselves in the third person.
For example, someone who has had a miscarriage may dive into the research about why miscarriages happen. They may explain their loss in scientific terms but be unable or unwilling to talk about how it has affected them emotionally.
Reaction formation is a lesser-known defense mechanism in which people react the opposite way to how they’re feeling. For example, someone could feel very irritated and have the impulse to lash out. Instead, they behave very compliantly and act as though they aren’t bothered at all; they may even be overly friendly.
Some people use reaction formation when they feel guilty about something. When they’re confronted with the behavior they feel guilty about, they could refuse to accept the guilt and instead express anger or outrage.
Another example of reaction formation is someone who feels afraid, but displays excessive shows of bravery, excitement, and courage.
Next steps: Mental health treatment
Defense mechanisms are normal – we all use them at some point or another. Some of them can even be adaptive ways to cope with life’s biggest challenges.
But many defense mechanisms are maladaptive, especially when they’re used subconsciously. Maladaptive defense mechanisms could be a result of difficult experiences you’ve been through. You feel unequipped to fully face painful emotions, so you use defense mechanisms to avoid having to deal with them.
Defense mechanisms can protect you temporarily, but painful experiences and emotions don’t tend to go away on their own.
With the help of our compassionate team at The Center • A Place of HOPE, you can learn how to confront painful situations without relying on maladaptive defense mechanisms. We have decades of experience helping people heal from the inside out. We will walk with you every step of the way as you navigate healthier ways to cope with life’s challenges.
We have specific mental health treatment programs for many common challenges like depression, anxiety, OCD, and PTSD. All of our programs are founded on our proven Whole Person Care model. We don’t only focus on helping you recover from a mental health diagnosis – we know you’re a whole person, and we see the true you. We are committed to helping you heal mentally, physically, relationally, spiritually, and intellectually.
Are you ready to receive holistic support to overcome the challenges life has thrown at you? Get in touch with us today for more information about our programs.