This article explains the concept of defense mechanisms. It defines the term, details a short history of the origins of defense mechanisms within psychology and psychotherapy, and gives descriptions of each of the main defense mechanisms.
What should you do if you recognize aspects of these defense mechanisms in your own behavior or that of a friend or family member? Continue reading to explore alternative ways of relating to others in regards to defense mechanisms.
What is a defense mechanism?
According to the American Psychological Association, a defense mechanism is defined as follows:
In classical psychoanalytic theory, a defense mechanism is an unconscious reaction pattern employed by the ego to protect itself from the anxiety that arises from psychic conflict.
In other words, a defense mechanism refers to a psychological strategy or process that individuals employ unconsciously to protect themselves from experiencing anxiety, distress, or threatening thoughts or emotions.
The unconscious part here is important.
Defense mechanisms are not the same as being defensive, which is typically a conscious reaction or style of relating that may arise when feeling attacked or criticized.
Instead, there are many defense mechanisms that are believed to operate at an unconscious level that serve as a means of managing or reducing psychological discomfort.
Another way to think about defense mechanisms is they are adaptive strategies that help individuals cope with internal or external conflicts, stressors, or perceived threats.
While they can provide temporary relief or protection, defense mechanisms may also interfere with personal growth, self-awareness, and the ability to address underlying issues.
For example, think back to 2020 and the ways in which you and those around you responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. The way each of us reacted was representative of some of our defense mechanisms, revealing something about what we each had to do in order to survive emotionally.
Perhaps you became very anxious and fearful of what might happen. Or maybe your response was to avoid situations arising from the pandemic, believing it would be taken care of by “someone in charge.” Your reaction could have been to dive into the data, believing that a thorough understanding of the science was the only way to make sense of what was taking place.
Each of these examples relates to one of the main types of defense mechanisms that are explored in detail below.
What is the origin of defense mechanisms within psychology and psychotherapy?
Defense mechanisms were first theorized as a key part of the unconscious mind by Sigmund Freud in 1894. Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis, a clinical method for evaluating and treating pathologies seen as originating from conflicts in the psyche, through dialogue between patient and psychoanalyst.
Freud’s work was incredibly important. His concepts continue to influence many aspects of our understanding of the human mind and the way we think about behavior today. Many of the analysts and therapists that came after Freud have taken up the baton and developed his theories further.
One of these therapists was Freud’s daughter, Anna, who also became a psychoanalyst. Anna Freud’s work built on Sigmund’s original explorations into the unconscious and its defense mechanisms.
What is the unconscious?
The unconscious is defined as:
the region of the psyche containing memories, emotional conflicts, wishes, and repressed impulses that are not directly accessible to awareness but that have dynamic effects on thought and behavior.
American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology
Freud theorized the unconscious mind houses mental processes that operate automatically and remain inaccessible. In other words, we can’t consciously access what’s happening in the unconscious.
However, not being able to access our unconscious processes doesn’t mean they are unimportant. The processes that reside beneath the conscious awareness are believed to influence conscious thinking and behavior.
As well as being difficult to access, the unconscious contains everything that has been internalized as we have experienced or interpreted it rather than how it happened. It differs from long term memory in this way. The unconscious is subjective, not objective, and is unique to each individual.
Sigmund Freud was not interested in what happened on the outside. Instead, what really matters (according to Freudian theory) is the internal digestion of experiences or how we have made sense of what has happened in our lives.
Defense mechanisms are a product of this subjective, internal process. They are a solely unconscious part of the mind but a crucial one. Without our defense mechanisms, we wouldn’t be able to function!
What are the ten main types of defense mechanisms?
According to the Freuds, there are ten main types of defense mechanisms and descriptions of each:
Unconsciously pushing disturbing or unwanted thoughts, memories, or emotions out of awareness.
Refusing to accept or acknowledge a painful reality or truth.
Attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or motives to others.
Creating logical or plausible explanations to justify or excuse one’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.
Redirecting emotions or impulses from their original source to a less threatening or more acceptable substitute target.
Channeling socially unacceptable impulses or emotions into socially acceptable or constructive activities.
Reverting to a more childlike or immature behavior or thought pattern in the face of stress or anxiety.
8. Reaction Formation
Expressing the opposite of one’s true feelings or beliefs in an exaggerated manner.
Overemphasis on abstract or intellectual thinking to avoid dealing with emotions or conflicts.
Deliberately pushing unwanted thoughts, feelings, or memories out of awareness.
What purpose do defense mechanisms serve?
Defense mechanisms protect the ego (the component of the personality that deals with the external world and its practical demands) and preserve a tolerable psychic equilibrium.
They are a means of managing conflict and disturbing expression of emotions and are a significant way to maintain emotional homeostasis.
Defense mechanisms reduce the intensity of emotional states. Without them, intense emotions like anxiety and sadness would overwhelm the conscious mind. In this sense, they can serve as temporary coping strategies in certain situations.
However, defense mechanisms can also be maladaptive or pathological, causing significant issues in a person’s life.
How has our understanding of defense mechanisms developed since the work of Freud?
The field of ego psychology is the main area of psychotherapy to take Freud’s theories and run with them. In the United States, ego psychology was the predominant psychoanalytic approach from the 1940s through the 1960s, before self psychology took over as the dominant approach in the 1970s.
One of the main scientists to study defense mechanisms in the wake of Freud’s work is psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant. Vaillant developed a classification system consisting of four levels of defense mechanisms, based on his observations during the Grant study, which began in 1937 and is still ongoing today.
The study followed a group of men from their first year at Harvard until their deaths, with the aim of examining the psychological mechanisms that have long-term effects throughout life. The hierarchy of defense mechanisms identified in the study was found to be closely related to individuals’ ability to adapt to life’s challenges.
What are the defense mechanisms according to Vaillant’s categorization?
In 1977, Vaillant published a comprehensive summary of the ongoing study. It is important to note that the focus of the study was on defining mental health rather than mental disorders.
Level 1: Pathological defenses
People who heavily rely on the following three mechanisms often appear irrational or insane to others. These defense mechanisms are considered “pathological” and are commonly observed in overt psychosis. However, they can also be present in dreams and during childhood.
(i) Delusional projection
Delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.
When someone refuses to accept the reality around them because it feels too scary or overwhelming, it’s called denial. Denial can involve arguing something that makes them anxious doesn’t actually exist. It’s a way to cope with emotional distress by ignoring or pretending the unpleasant parts of reality don’t exist or aren’t happening.
A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.
Level 2: Immature defenses
These eight defense mechanisms are commonly observed in adults. They serve to reduce distress and anxiety when faced with threatening individuals or uncomfortable realities.
However, when these mechanisms are excessively used, they are considered socially undesirable because they indicate immaturity, difficulty in handling situations, and being disconnected from reality.
These defense mechanisms are referred to as “immature” and relying on them too much can lead to significant problems in a person’s ability to cope effectively. They are often observed in conditions such as major depression and personality disorders.
Division of objects into all good or all bad. Splitting shifts from one extreme to the other.
Bestowing all good or all bad objects great power. The former is idealized and the latter devalued.
Altering of the experience to believe that unacceptable impulses and attitudes arise not from the self but from an outside object.
Psychic experiences are converted into bodily symptoms.
Symbolic negating of an unacceptable behavior by acting in reverse.
(vi) Acting out
Translating disturbing impulses into action so fast that the person escapes feeling or thinking.
(vii) Schizoid fantasy
A person retreats into a fantasy world and avoids intimacy.
Entirely negates awareness of some disturbing aspect of experience.
Level 3: Neurotic defenses
These six defense mechanisms are categorized as “neurotic” but are quite common in adults. While they can provide temporary benefits in managing difficult situations, relying on them as the primary way to deal with the world can lead to long-term issues in relationships, work, and overall enjoyment of life.
Transforms events into a non-emotional experience through the overuse of conscious thought processes.
Makes unacceptable attitudes, beliefs and behaviors more palatable by providing a socially acceptable meaning.
Expulsion or withholding of a distressing idea from consciousness but allowing the feeling to remain without realizing the object or situation related to the feeling.
Modifies the awareness of the feeling but maintains the idea.
(v) Reaction formation
Transforms an unacceptable impulse into its opposite.
Shifts feeling and the focus of the attention from an unacceptable object to a safer one.
Level 4: Mature defenses
These five defense mechanisms are frequently observed in emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature, despite their roots in earlier stages of development.
They are processes that have been adapted over time to maximize success in society and relationships. Using these defense mechanisms brings about increased pleasure and a sense of control. They assist in reconciling conflicting emotions and thoughts while maintaining effectiveness.
(i) Humor (note that when conscious, humor is a coping mechanism not a defense mechanism)
Alters the content of a potentially disturbing scenario so that it becomes lighter and tolerable.
Transforms disturbing impulses and feelings by channeling them to acceptable pursuits modifying awareness of negative states.
Shifts attention away from current experience to prepare for some perceived outcome.
Giving to others what you would actually like to receive, personal needs are satisfied vicariously.
Reduces the focus on disturbing internal states, shifting attention away from them but maintaining some awareness.
How can you familiarize yourself with your defense mechanisms?
Because the unconscious houses phenomena which we cannot ordinarily perceive, the best way to understand your defense mechanisms is to focus on how other people react to you. Ask for more feedback!
Another way to familiarize yourself with your defense mechanisms is to notice how you respond when you are faced with stressful situations. How do you define a stressful situation? Notice when your body has activated a nervous system response. In these types of scenarios, you may go on to unconsciously utilize your defense mechanisms.
While it may not be possible to notice defense mechanisms in the moment, it could be valuable to look back on stressful situations and explore what happened, looking for anything that might fit the criteria for any of the different types of defense mechanisms listed above.
Defense mechanisms have been conceptualized as occurring on a spectrum from adaptive to maladaptive. In other words, some defense mechanisms may enable an individual to adjust to the environment effectively and function optimally in various areas, such as coping with daily stressors. Others can be detrimental, counterproductive, or otherwise interfere with optimal functioning in various areas, such as successful interaction with the environment and effective coping with the challenges and stresses of daily life.
However, as you will discover, defense mechanisms are not only identifiable but reversible.
What happens when defense mechanisms become a problem?
When defense mechanisms become rigid, excessive, or impair daily functioning, they can contribute to psychological problems and may warrant therapeutic intervention.
A psychotic episode could be considered a defense mechanism that has failed to do what it should. Likewise, a personality disorder could be understood either as an over reliance on some defense mechanisms or an absence of them that can cause “symptoms.”
One of the ways therapists approach maladaptive defense mechanisms is through mentalization. Mentalization is:
The ability to understand one’s own and others’ mental states, thereby comprehending one’s own and others’ intentions and affects. It has been theorized that this ability is a component of healthy personality development and is achieved through a child’s secure attachment to the parent.
American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology
Mentalization-based treatment is a type of therapy that helps people improve their ability to understand and manage their thoughts and emotions. It focuses on addressing difficulties in mentalizing, which means understanding oneself and others. By improving mentalization, the therapy aims to reduce impulsive behavior, allowing the patient to better regulate emotions and enhancing how individuals interact with others.
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 Westen, Drew (1999). “The Scientific Status of Unconscious Processes: Is Freud Really Dead?”. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 47 (4): 1061–1106. doi:10.1177/000306519904700404.
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