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Top 10 Defense Mechanisms and Why We Use Them

  • Dr.Deepanwita. mfine Deepanwita Roy
  • 6 Min Read
  • Fact Checked

Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies primarily developed by Sigmund Freud in his early theories which were further studied and developed by his daughter Anna Freud. Defense mechanisms are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings. As mentioned, defense mechanisms operate at an unconscious level and help ward off unpleasant feelings (for example, anxiety) or make good things feel better for the individual. Defense mechanisms are natural and normal.  There is a wide range of defense mechanisms that are observed which psychologists have categorized into 3 categories:

  • Primitive defense mechanisms
  • Less primitive defense mechanisms, and 
  • Mature defense mechanisms. 

Primitive defense mechanisms are usually effective short-term and hence favored by most 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.

Less primitive defense mechanisms are a step up from the primitive defense mechanisms. Many people employ these defenses as adults, and while they work okay for many, they are not ideal ways of dealing with our feelings, stress, and anxiety. 

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.

In this article, we will be discussing the:10 most commonly discussed defense mechanisms: what are they and why do we use them?

10 most commonly discussed defense mechanisms

1. Denial

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 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 example, 

  • A student may refuse to recognize their obvious lack of preparedness for an exam and probably try justifying their results by blaming the external sources. 
  • In marriage, one of the partners refuses to recognize obvious signs of their partner’s infidelity in the fear of having their marriage torn apart. 
  • A person who is a functioning alcoholic will simply deny they have a drinking habit, pointing to how well they function in their job and relationships. 

2. Repression

Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and impulses. This is considered to be a less primitive defense mechanism as they often have very little control over it. ‘Repressed memories are memories that have been unconsciously blocked from access or view. Anna Freud has also called this defense ‘motivated forgetting’ as the thoughts that are repressed are often the results of their guilt from the superego. 

For example, 

  • A child, who faced abuse by a parent, later has no memory of the events but has trouble forming relationships in their adult life. 
  • Phobia: a man got a nasty spider bite in childhood and may develop an intense phobia of spiders but doesn’t have any recollection of the incident from childhood as it has been long repressed.  

3. Projection

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. It is again another primitive defense mechanism that is used specially 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.
  • A person might hate someone, but their superego tells them that such hatred is unacceptable. Hence, they try justifying their superego by believing that they hate the person instead.

4. Displacement 

Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts, feelings, and impulses directed at one person or object, but taken out 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. This is a less primitive defense mechanism as it’s mostly ineffective in nature and causes additional problems for most people. 

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 the dog or starts an argument with his wife. The man is redirecting his anger from his boss to his dog or wife. 

5. Regression 

Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses. This is a primitive defense mechanism because it is characteristic of early childhood development. 

For example, 

  • An adolescent overwhelmed by fear, anger, and their growing sexual impulses might start exhibiting earlier childhood behaviors which they have long overcome, such as bedwetting. 
  • An adult under a lot of stress from their personal job and relationship may refuse to leave their bed and engage in normal, everyday activities in the hope of not dealing with the matter at all. 

6. Rationalization

Rationalization is putting something into a different light or offering a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviors in the face of changing reality. This is again another less primitive defense mechanism. 

For example, 

  • When a person finds a situation difficult to accept, they will make up a logical reason why it has happened and justify it by saying something unrelated. For example, a person may explain a natural disaster as ‘God’s will’.
  • A person who starts dating someone who they really liked but got dumped for no reason can justify by saying “s/he was a loser all along.”

7. Sublimation 

Sublimation is simply the channeling of unacceptable impulses, thoughts, and emotions into more acceptable ones. Due to its characteristic nature, sublimation is considered to be a mature defense mechanism. Sublimation is often seen in humor or fantasy. 

For example, 

  • A person who has sexual impulses that they would not want to act upon may instead focus on rigorous exercises. Refocusing their impulses which are unacceptable or harmful for them 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.

8. Reaction formation 

Reaction Formation is the converting of unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings, or impulses into their opposites. Due to its characteristic nature of trying to keep their ego satisfied and anxiety-free, it is considered a primitive defense mechanism. 

For example, 

  • A person who is very angry with their boss and would like to quit their job may instead be overly kind, generous towards their boss and expresses their desire to keep working there forever. The person incapable of expressing their negative feelings becomes overly kind to their public demonstration. 

9. Compartmentalization 

Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism is a lesser form of dissociation, wherein parts of oneself are separated from awareness of other parts and behave as if one had separate sets of values. Separating your life into independent sectors may feel like a way to protect many elements of it.

For example, 

  • When someone chooses to not discuss personal life issues at work, block off, or compartmentalize, that element of their life. This allows them to carry on without facing the anxieties or challenges while they are in that setting or mindset.

10. Intellectualization 

Intellectualization is the overemphasis on thinking when confronted with an unacceptable impulse, situation or behavior. In other words, rather than to deal with the pain-associated emotions, employing intellectualization as a less primitive defense mechanism to distance themselves from the impulse, event, or behavior. 

For example, 

  • A person who has just been diagnosed with a terminal medical condition focuses on the details of all possible medical procedures and expenses instead of expressing their sadness or grief. In a way, being in a trying situation, one may remove all emotion from their responses and instead focus on quantitative facts. 

The bottom line

Defense mechanisms are normal and natural, most of which are learned behaviors from our 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. In psychotherapy, many psychologists will help you to work on the defenses if you would like. But even becoming more aware of when you’re using one of the less primitive types of defense mechanisms above can be helpful in identifying behaviors you’d like to reduce.

If you still have doubts and would like to understand better, speaking to a professional therapist can help. Connect with an expert online today through MFine!

Also, read Why am I Sad for No Reason?

  • Dr.Deepanwita. mfine
  • Written by

    Deepanwita Roy

She is a Clinical Psychologist (RCI) at MFine. She has 5+ years of clinical experience and has worked for Government hospitals in Kolkata, West Bengal, and NGOs &; private clinics in Bangalore, Karnataka. She prefers a holistic approach in therapeutic practices using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based interventions. Her interest areas lie in managing stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems &; providing care &; support to the LGBTQIA+ community. Additionally, she conducts workshops and webinars for corporates & aims at promoting mental wellbeing to a larger audience.

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