Defence Mechanisms (A complete guide)

What are defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are mechanisms individuals employ to protect their minds from conflict and may be conscious or unconscious.

These mechanisms may be considered either healthy or unhealthy depending on the circumstances and frequency with that the mechanism is employed.

The concept of defense mechanisms arose from psychoanalytic theory in which personality is viewed as an interaction between the id, ego, and superego.

Freudian Structural Theory

In Sigmund Freud’s structural theory of the mind, the id is the primal part of the temperament that is unconscious and involves our primal, sexual and aggressive urges.

The superego is the part of the personality that is formed from all of the internalized morals and values we may form or acquire from elders, different members of the family, spiritual influences, and society.

The ego is that the side of personality that deals with reality.

Further, the ego additionally addresses any conflicts between the id and supergo, serving as a mediator between the two.

It is the ego that utilizes defense mechanisms to protect the mind.

Freud noted many types of ego defenses; his daughter, Anna Freud, later expanded on these ideas and later added other types of defenses.

Today, psychoanalysts have furthered the types of defense mechanisms even more.

Additionally, Freud proposed further theories, based on his idea of the conscious and sub-conscious mind.

One of his many theories is called the Freudian slip.

Different Types of Defense Mechanisms:

There exists multiple kinds of defense mechanisms, some are more commonly encountered than others.

Defense mechanisms may be classified as either healthy, neurotic, or immature.

Mature defenses are considered healthy mechanisms and are typically seen in adults.

Neurotic defenses, on the other hand, are commonly seen in patients with anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and adults experiencing stress.

Conversely, immature defenses are seen in children, adolescents, patients with personality disorders, and psychotic patients. 

Mature Defenses

Sublimation: Channeling socially unacceptable feelings into a socially acceptable action.

For example, a teenager with excessive feelings of anger may choose to channel these feelings in a boxing ring.

This is considered an adaptive defense mechanism in which the id’s impulses are prevented by the ego.

The supergo then produces guilt over these impulses, causing the individual to instead utilize these unaccepetable feelings towards something that is considered acceptable and positive instead.

Altruism: Satisfying internal wants through by helping others.

An example would be a father who recently lost a child may raise awareness for the disease in order to help others.

Humor: Expressing funny or ironic feelings in uncomfortable situations to ameliorate feelings of discomfort.

For example, one may crack a joke during a particularly tense work meeting.

Utilizing humor may help individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.

Suppression: Ignoring unacceptable feelings to decrease the discomfort felt.

An example would be a nurse who feels uncomfortable by the odors of a homeless patient but ignores the feelings in order to provide care.

Neurotic Defenses

Displacement: Shifting emotions from an unpleasant situation onto another who is more tolerable.

For example, a student who was scolded by his teacher may come home and talk back to his parents.

In this scenario, it is easier for the student to be angry at his parents and talk back rather than to talk back to his teacher in school.

His parents serve as a target for his emotions with less repercussion.

Controlling: Managing and manipulating external factors in order to decrease anxiety about a situation

Intellectualization: Using facts and focusing on small details excessively in order to avoid unpleasant feelings.

This unconscious process permits one to avoid considering the trying, emotional side of the case and instead focus solely on the intellectual element.

For example, someone has simply been diagnosed with a terminal unwellness may specialize in learning everything regarding the unwellness to avoid distress and stay distant from the fact of the case.

The use of this defense mechanism removes the feeling of emotions and places the focus instead on quantitative qualities and facts.

Isolation of affect: unconsciously restricting the emotions surrounding a life event to decrease anxiety.

Someone who was recently in a traumatic motor vehicle accident may speak about the event in a detached manner without emotions.

Rationalization: Explaining a situation in order to justify the behavior as seemingly acceptable. 

For instance, someone is turned down for a date may rationalize the case by oral communication they weren’t interested in the opposite person anyway.

In utilizing this defense mechanism, individuals avoid accepting or facing the true cause of situation and may avoid taking any blame.

Reaction formation: Acting the opposite of an unacceptable feeling or impulse.

An example would be treating somebody dislike in an overly friendly manner to cover your true feelings.

In this defense mechanism, the individual may recognize the negative emotion and decide to instead, act positively.

Repression: Stopping oneself from consciously thinking or feeling an emotion. In contrast to the defense mechanism of suppression, repression is an unconscious act.

For example, a teenager who has a traumatic childhood may not remember their childhood experience.

Though these traumatic feelings or memories may be blocked consciously, they are not necessarily erased completely.

The impact of these negative memories may impact how one reacts in future relationships and also affect one’s behaviors in the future.

Immature Defenses

Denial: Refusing to admit or acknowledge that one thing has occurred or is presently occurring.

Denial functions to safeguard the ego from things with that the individual cannot cope.

An example is a patient who refuses to accept their diagnosis of cancer.

This is one of the most common defense mechanisms encountered and is colloquially understood to mean that the individual may be avoiding the reality of the situation.

Acting out: Acting to fulfill an impulse in order to avoid the feelings associated with suppressing it.

An example would be a child who often speaks out of turn in class due to often being told to stay quiet at home.

This defense mechanism may occur when the impulses of the id are unable to be modulated by the ego and superego.

Regression: Acting as though back in an earlier stage of development in order to avoid unpleasant feelings associated with the current stage of development.

For example, a child may start sucking their thumb again when admitted to the hospital for a workup.

Besides children, adults may also experience regression through reverting to behaviors and habits that were comforting in the past.

Such examples may include sleeping with a childhood blanket again or chain smoking despite quitting years ago.

Projection: Attributing negative thoughts or emotions to another instead.

An example is a husband who is attracted to a coworker accuses his wife of having an affair with his friend.

Other Defense Mechanisms

Splitting: Viewing people as either good or bad. This defense mechanisms is often seen in patients with borderline personality disorder.

For example, a woman may tell her doctor that he is the only one that understands her and all other doctors are mean.

People who utilize this defense mechanism may thus view the world in either right or wrong with not middle variance.

As a result, these individuals may alienate those in their lives whom they believe do not conform to their expectations.

Undoing: Attempting to ameliorate a situation by changing a behavior.

For example, if you hurt someone’s feelings, you may try to one nice thing for them to assuage your anxiety or guilt.

Use of this defense mechanism is often to protect the ego from feeling shame or guilt over the initial action.

Treatment for Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms

Since defense mechanisms are often subconscious, people are not always able to anticipate how they will react to certain situations and emotions.

However, it is possible to manage one’s behaviors in order to modulate unhealthy defense mechanisms into mechanisms that are more amenable.

Be accountable

You can ask family members or friends to help you identify when a defense mechanism is occuring.

This way you can prevent an unhealthy decision from occurring before your mind subconsciously makes the decision.

Instead, you can now navigate the situation consciously and consider healthy alternatives for resolution.

Learn coping strategies

You can also seek help from a trained professional such as a psychotherapist or psychologist.

They can help you identify the defense mechanisms as well, and ones you employ most often that may be harmful.

Through therapy, you can learn to respond more consciously and mindfully. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Defense Mechanisms 

How are defense mechanisms harmful?

Defense mechanisms are often used in place of actually facing and resolving a conflict or problem.

Therefore the conflict remains and stressful feelings remain unresolved and may cause further distress.

However, not all defense mechanisms are necessarily harmful.

Defense mechanisms can allow an individual to process a difficult experience more productively.

Defense mechanisms become an issue when utilized too frequently and over extended periods of time.

How do you break defense mechanisms?

Sometimes, it may not be possible to completely be rid of a defense mechanism.

In this scenario, it is best to recognize it and have an understanding how it may impact one’s behavior and how to progress from there. 

Why do we use defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are often used to create distance from unpleasant situations or feelings such as of guilt and shame.

These mechanisms are in place to help the individual navigate through these situations and can provide time to process the situation.

How can therapy help with defense mechanisms?

Therapy can help one realize the defense mechanisms used, sometimes unconsciously.

Patients may then learn healthier ways of coping with difficult situations. 

Want to learn more about defense mechanisms? Check out these resources:

Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives 

Joseph Burgos authors this self help book, designed for a wide audience.

He adapts methods used in psychodynamic psychotherapy to help readers embark on a journey of self-exploration and discovery.

His book is geared towards those wishing to create a lasting impact and improve their relationships, manage their emotions, and increase their self esteem. 

Protecting the Self: Defense Mechanisms in Action

This book provides a comprehensive approach to understanding defense mechanisms, from reviewing theory and research, to going through practical applications.

The author utilizes multiple examples of how defense mechanisms are used and how they be used in an adverse manner.

Further, the author notes how defense mechanisms may be affected through psychotherapy. 

Understanding Ego Defense Mechanisms: A Guide for Educators

This book provides a more in depth understanding about defense mechanisms.

It goes in depth through each mechanism while providing examples people may encounter in day to day life.

The information is presented in a way to allow for easy understanding. This is a valuable resource for those interested in self-help.


1.    10 Defense Mechanisms: What Are They and How They Help Us Cope


3.   Psychology today

4.     Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense. (Book)

5.     Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defense. (Book)

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