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What are the 15 common defense mechanisms

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You may find examples of defense mechanisms in yourself or others close to you, especially if they’re dealing with stress or trauma in their lives.

We may react to stress and trauma in ways that often don’t make sense. When pushed with too much stress, some people find themselves seeking out substances or losing their tempers at the people they love.

These sorts of gut reactions to stress can be thought of as examples of defense mechanisms. Despite how unpleasant these mechanisms may be, we may find that these reactions just happen without thought. It’s as if these patterns have been ingrained in us since we were young.

These defense mechanisms protect us from harm — emotional, mental, and even physical harm. They help us move past uncomfortable feelings and get through difficult situations.

However, you may find that these defense mechanisms do their job in the moment, yet prove to be unhealthy or disruptive in the long run.

A trained psychotherapist can offer you insights and coping skills that allow you to recognize examples of your defense mechanisms, hone them into mature coping skills, and feel more resilient in times of distress throughout your life.

Why do people use defense mechanisms?

Since the beginning of psychotherapy, psychologists have been investigating why and how people use defense mechanisms in their everyday lives.

While Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of defense mechanisms, his daughter Anna Freud expanded on his list in her psychiatric practice. Sigmund and Anna Freud explained that defense mechanisms come from a conflict with your id and superego.

The id is your unconscious, which can include everything from your dreams to your hidden desires.

On the other hand, the superego refers to your moral compass that you’ve been given by authority. This could include the ethics of your society, gender and sexual expectations, or the expectations that your parents have for you.

However, your ego develops to mediate between your id and superego. But when your ego doesn’t mediate between the two, it may compel you to use defense mechanisms to restore balance.

When it comes to actually figuring out where your defense mechanisms come from, the conflict with your unconscious and your superego often comes from your family. Whether intentional or not, these defense mechanisms are psychological forms of protection that keep us from dying.

Basically, psychotherapy sees your defense mechanisms as you trying to express your desire or frustration (id) to the situation that’s causing you to feel trapped or stressed (superego).

In most cases, these psychological responses are not under a person’s conscious control. That means you don’t decide what you do when you do it.

Primitive vs. mature defense mechanisms 

While “primitive” and “mature” may seem like problematic labels for defense mechanisms, they are not meant to judge those who fall into these patterns. These terms refer to older concepts in psychoanalysis that may still prove useful.

There are different classes of defense mechanisms. The more primitive a defense mechanism, the earlier it may appear in a person’s development. Even young children often exhibit these primitive defense mechanisms.

The primitive defense mechanisms are unconscious and unintentional. They may tend to be an ideal way of handling conflicts early in life. However, these primitive defense mechanisms may be less effective for you in the long term.

On the other hand, mature defense mechanisms are conscious decisions rooted in reality, and they are often constructive. More mature defense mechanisms acknowledge stressors or traumas in a more productive way while still remaining a defense mechanism — a reaction to stressors or trauma.

Psychoanalysts identified dozens of different defense mechanisms. Some of these prove more common than others.

Primitive defense mechanisms

Now that you have a better framework of the differences between the types of defense mechanisms, consider these common types of primitive defense mechanisms.

Repression

Certain memories may be traumatizing for us, and they can cause so much anxiety and grief that the mind pushes them down into the unconscious. This protects the mind so that you can function.

This is why some people may have whole months or even years of their lives blocked out of their memory.

You can consider this inability to bring up your charged emotions as a textbook form of repression.

Denial

The denial mechanism can look like a refusal to accept the weight of reality.

Someone experiencing denial may be blind to the obvious event unfolding in their life.

For instance, a person in denial may put off medical appointments to avoid facing their cancer diagnosis, or they may pretend to not know their partner is cheating instead of confronting them.

Denial may be a common defense mechanism for people who live with:

  • trauma
  • grief
  • substance use disorders
  • personality disorders

In short, denial may be your brain’s way of protecting you from feeling completely overwhelmed, as reality may be too much of a mental and physical shock.

Like other defense mechanisms, approach denial with sensitivity and care. It may be what your body needs to keep going in the short term, but you can face reality once you leave a state of denial. It can be hard — it’s important to be patient with yourself and others.

Displacement

Displacement protects you from aggressive impulses, as you know there would be some kind of judgment or consequence for it. So, you take it out on a safer object.

This mechanism shows up when someone can’t direct their aggression in the way they want, so they take it out on a lesser threat. For instance, a kid may have a tough home life and go to school and bully a younger student.

Like other primitive defense mechanisms, we may see it more clearly in children than in adults. But of course, adults fall into displacement too.

Projection

This coping mechanism causes you to transfer your problems to someone else, treating them like a mirror of you or your mistakes. When you project, you accuse someone else of your own faults.

For instance, a husband could accuse his wife of cheating instead of facing the guilt from his own infidelity.

According to Sigmund Freud, there are common feelings that are involved in projection, including:

  • jealousy
  • need for control
  • anger
  • sexual desire

When a person projects these feelings onto you, you may feel shocked and surprised because you’ve done nothing to earn these accusations.

Splitting

Splitting looks like black-and-white thinking, most likely having an all good or all bad view of something.

If someone is splitting on you, you may become either all good or all bad in the other person’s eyes, rather than a nuanced person with flaws.

An example of splitting would be offending someone but convincing yourself that the person was bad anyway, so you really didn’t do anything wrong.

Moreover, it’s good to consider that splitting is often present in people with personality disorders like borderline personality disorder (BPD). People without BPD can also split as a defense mechanism, so one should be careful not to treat splitting as something exclusive to mental health conditions.

Mature defense mechanisms

These common mature defense mechanisms may offer you more sustainable and healthy ways to respond to your issues long term.

Suppression

We can’t always act on our feelings, so we put them away. Suppression is a conscious form of repression — one that still allows you to process how you feel.

For instance, if you’re suppressing the urge to respond to anger, you may decide to discuss your issues with a disruptive co-worker in private — rather than confronting them during a public meeting.

Someone who represses their emotions does not confront or acknowledge their emotions consciously, while someone who suppresses their emotions acknowledges what they’re feeling and decides to act on them at a better time.

Distraction

Distraction is a way of turning your focus away from something that’s distressing and onto something less stressful until you are ready to tackle what’s plaguing you.

An example of a distraction would be having a bad day and putting on a comedy movie to take your mind off of what’s bothering you.

Sublimation

This mechanism involves channeling negative emotions into something constructive.

For instance, instead of screaming at your partner, you might go for a run to calm down. Sublimation could also look like working on self-improvement after a breakup, instead of giving in to your loneliness or negative self-thoughts.

Managing your defense mechanisms

A good start for those working on turning defense mechanisms into coping mechanisms could be working to turn the primitive responses into mature ones.

Mindfulness is an important tool for recognizing your patterns so you can replace them. It’s also important because you have to be open and aware of how you cope with stress.

Working with a mental health professional can help you process the emotions that you are trying so hard to suppress in the first place. This person can also help you process what’s at the root of conflict in your psyche.

It can be difficult work to modify or change how you respond to stress. Still, you can turn unhealthy defense mechanisms into ones that are more sustainable. These techniques could help:

  • Taking accountability. Friends and family members can help you recognize how you engage in defense mechanisms. These people in your life can help you figure out when you make an unconscious or unhealthy choice. This allows you to make conscious decisions under stress and figure out what you really want to do.
  • Working on coping strategies. Therapy with a mental health expert, such as a psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychoanalyst, may help you recognize the defense mechanisms you use most often. They can then help you learn how to manage your impulses and make active and mindful decisions.

Next steps

With effort, you can overcome your reliance on primitive defense mechanisms. It’s important to be mindful and recognize your behavior patterns, especially during moments of stress. It’s OK to ask for help.

If you feel that the stresses in your life come from past traumas or toxic childhood experiences and require more than just good coping mechanisms, consider looking into different forms of psychotherapy.

While some forms of therapy may be better suited for working through past trauma, finding professional help in any capacity may offer you the tools to work through past trauma and coping skills to thrive, no matter what comes next in your life.

Learning more about your defense mechanisms can help you take control of your life and your emotional responses — and not have your automatic responses control you.

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