Defense mechanisms refer to psychological strategies or behaviors that people may use to cope with difficult feelings, thoughts, or events.
According to these theories, defense mechanisms are a natural part of psychological development. Identifying which type you, your loved ones, and even your co-workers use may help you in future conversations and encounters.
First proposed by Sigmund Freud, this theory has evolved over time and contends that behaviors, like defense mechanisms, are not under a person’s conscious control. In fact, most people do them without realizing it.
The idea of defense mechanisms comes from psychoanalytic theory, a psychological perspective of personality that sees personality as the interaction between three components: id, ego, and super-ego. These psychological strategies may help people put distance between themselves and threats or unwanted feelings, such as guilt or shame.
Defense mechanisms are behaviors that people use to separate themselves from unpleasant events, actions, or thoughts.
Some signs that defense mechanisms are getting in the way of your everyday life and mental health may include:
Other defense mechanisms, however, are not as mature and helpful. Prolonged use of these defenses can lead to lingering problems. In fact, they may prevent you from ever facing emotional issues or anxieties because they block you from seeing the root cause.
In the long term, mature defense mechanisms may not be particularly detrimental to your emotional or mental health. Using more mature mechanisms may help you face the anxieties and situations that might normally cause stress and emotional duress.
Many researchers place defense mechanisms on a continuum, with more mature defenses improving cognitive processes and less mature ones causing harm.
Usually, you are unaware of the defense mechanism, though the behavior may appear odd to others around you.
Defense mechanisms are ways you react to situations that bring up negative emotions. According to psychoanalytic theory , when you experience a stressor, the subconscious will first monitor the situation to see if it might harm you. If the subconscious believes the situation might lead to emotional harm, it may react with a defense mechanism to protect you.
Dozens of different defense mechanisms have been identified. Some are used more commonly than others. Here are a few common defense mechanisms:
Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms. It occurs when you refuse to accept reality or facts. People in denial may block external events or circumstances from the mind so that they don’t have to deal with the emotional impact. In other words, they avoid painful feelings or events.
This defense mechanism is one of the most widely known, too. The phrase, “They’re in denial,” is commonly understood to mean a person is avoiding reality despite what may be obvious to people around them.
Unsavory thoughts, painful memories, or irrational beliefs can upset you. Instead of facing those thoughts, people may unconsciously choose to hide them in hopes of forgetting them entirely.
That does not mean, however, that the memories disappear entirely. They may influence behaviors, and they may impact future relationships. You just may not realize the impact this defense mechanism is having.
Some thoughts or feelings you have about another person may make you uncomfortable. When people project those feelings, they misattribute them to the other person.
For example, you may dislike your new co-worker, but instead of accepting that, you choose to tell yourself that they dislike you. You start to interpret their words and actions toward you in the worst way possible, even though they don’t actually dislike you.
You direct strong emotions and frustrations toward a person or object that doesn’t feel threatening. This allows you to satisfy an impulse to react, but you don’t risk significant consequences.
A good example of this defense mechanism is getting angry at your child or spouse because you had a bad day at work. Neither of these people is the target of your strong emotions, but your subconscious may believe reacting to them is likely less problematic than reacting to your boss.
Some people who feel threatened or anxious may unconsciously “escape” to an earlier stage of development.
This type of defense mechanism may be most obvious in young children. If they experience trauma or loss, they may suddenly act as if they’re younger again. They may even begin wetting the bed or sucking their thumb as a form of regression.
Adults can regress, too. Adults who are struggling to cope with events or behaviors may return to sleeping with a cherished stuffed animal, overeat foods they find comforting, or begin chain-smoking or chewing on pencils or pens. They may also avoid everyday activities because they feel overwhelmed.
Some people may attempt to explain undesirable behaviors with their own set of “facts.” This allows you to feel comfortable with the choice you made, even if you know on another level it’s not right.
For example, someone who didn’t get a promotion at work might say they didn’t want the promotion anyways.
This type of defense mechanism is considered a mature, positive strategy. That’s because people who rely on it choose to redirect strong emotions or feelings into an object or activity that is appropriate and safe.
For example, instead of lashing out at your coworkers during a stressful shift, you choose to channel your frustration into a kickboxing class. You could also funnel or redirect the feelings into music, art, or sports.
8. Reaction formation
People who use this defense mechanism recognize how they feel, but they choose to behave in the opposite manner of their instincts.
A person who reacts this way, for example, may feel they should not express negative emotions, such as anger or frustration. They choose to instead react in an overly positive way.
Separating your life into independent sectors may feel like a way to protect many elements of it.
For example, when you choose to not discuss personal life issues at work, you block off, or compartmentalize, that element of your life. This allows you to carry on without facing the anxieties or challenges while you’re in that setting or mindset.
When you’re hit with a trying situation, you may choose to remove all emotion from your responses and instead focus on quantitative facts.
You may see this strategy in use when a person spends their days creating spreadsheets of job opportunities and leads after they are let go from a job.
defense mechanism, in psychoanalytic theory, any of a group of mental processes that enables the mind to reach compromise solutions to conflicts that it is unable to resolve. The process is usually unconscious, and the compromise generally involves concealing from oneself internal drives or feelings that threaten to lower self-esteem or provoke anxiety. The concept derives from the psychoanalytic hypothesis that there are forces in the mind that oppose and battle against each other. The term was first used in Sigmund Freud’s paper “The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence” (1894).
Some of the major defense mechanisms described by psychoanalysts are the following:
1. Repression is the withdrawal from consciousness of an unwanted idea, affect, or desire by pushing it down, or repressing it, into the unconscious part of the mind. An example may be found in a case of hysterical amnesia, in which the victim has performed or witnessed some disturbing act and then completely forgotten the act itself and the circumstances surrounding it.
2. Reaction formation is the fixation in consciousness of an idea, affect, or desire that is opposite to a feared unconscious impulse. A mother who bears an unwanted child, for example, may react to her feelings of guilt for not wanting the child by becoming extremely solicitous and overprotective to convince both the child and herself that she is a good mother.
3. Projection is a form of defense in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world. A common form of projection occurs when an individual, threatened by his own angry feelings, accuses another of harbouring hostile thoughts.
4. Regression is a return to earlier stages of development and abandoned forms of gratification belonging to them, prompted by dangers or conflicts arising at one of the later stages. A young wife, for example, might retreat to the security of her parents’ home after her first quarrel with her husband.
5. Sublimation is the diversion or deflection of instinctual drives, usually sexual ones, into noninstinctual channels. Psychoanalytic theory holds that the energy invested in sexual impulses can be shifted to the pursuit of more acceptable and even socially valuable achievements, such as artistic or scientific endeavours.
6. Denial is the conscious refusal to perceive that painful facts exist. In denying latent feelings of homosexuality or hostility, or mental defects in one’s child, an individual can escape intolerable thoughts, feelings, or events.
7. Rationalization is the substitution of a safe and reasonable explanation for the true (but threatening) cause of behaviour.
Psychoanalysts emphasize that the use of a defense mechanism is a normal part of personality function and not in and of itself a sign of psychological disorder. Various psychological disorders, however, can be characterized by an excessive or rigid use of these defenses.