Do you ever ignore your problems, pretending the worst is not occurring? Have you isolated yourself during times of inner-conflict, or have you put on an overly brave face to feign confidence and courage? Denial, isolation, courage—all of these behaviors and more are defense mechanisms. We unconsciously apply defense mechanisms to make ourselves feel better about anxiety-inducing events in our lives.
What Are Defense Mechanisms?
Defense mechanisms are coping strategies that unconsciously protect us from anxiety and threatening impulses. Reality is manipulated, denied, or distorted to prevent undesired thoughts and feelings from harming the conscious personality. The use of defense mechanisms is natural and psychologically healthy individuals apply them regularly to overcome situations that are taxing on the mind.
The History of Defense Mechanisms
The concept of defense mechanisms stems from Sigmund Freud’s ego defenses. According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, three elements of the psyche or personality interact to gratify one’s needs and desires:
Id: The id is the unconscious part of the personality present from birth. It comprises primitive and instinctive behaviors (i.e. the desire for food and sex) and seeks immediate gratification for those desires. As an example, a baby crying until fed is a behavior facilitated by the id.
Ego: Expressed in consciousness and unconsciousness, the ego manages reality. The goal of the ego is to satisfy the impulses of the id when it is socially acceptable to do so. This may necessitate delaying gratification.
Superego: The superego includes moral standards acquired from parents and society. It gives guidelines for right and wrong.
When the elements of personality experience conflict, neuroses is the result. The personality feels anxiety, depression, obsessions, phobias, or hysteria. To relieve the burden of negative emotions, the ego creates defense mechanisms.
Many other psychoanalytic psychologists have built on Freud’s foundation since the year 1894, which brought us the definition of defense mechanisms common today.
How Defense Mechanisms Become Counterproductive
Although defense mechanisms are designed to protect the psyche from negative situations, they can impede a person’s ability to cope effectively. A defense mechanism becomes pathological if its over-use promotes maladaptive behaviors. Certain defense mechanisms pose the risk of pathologies such as the inability to cope and mental disorders like psychosis, depression, and phobic disorders. The mental impact of a defense mechanism, along with the age in which the mechanism is normally applied, is why defense mechanisms are categorized as pathological, immature, neurotic, and mature as proposed in 1977 by psychiatrist George Vaillant.
Pathological Defense Mechanisms
Pathological defense mechanisms distort experiences to eliminate a need to cope with reality. These mechanisms are pathologic when they are frequently applied. Users of pathological defense mechanisms appear insane and irrational. Pathological defense mechanisms are depicted in overt psychosis, but healthy individuals display them in dreams and childhood.
Denial is the refusal to consciously acknowledge unpleasant or uncomfortable experiences. It blocks threatening stimuli from awareness because the individual does not admit the problems exist. Alcoholics denying they have a problem so they can continue drinking portrays denial in a real-life situation.
Distortion is the reshaping of reality to fit inner needs. This involves hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there) and delusions (a persistently held belief despite evidence it is untrue).
Delusional projection is attributing undesired thoughts, feelings, or impulses onto another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings, or impulses. Projection is deflecting the blame elsewhere, but in delusional projection, the subject has the unfounded belief that others are out to harm them.
Conversion is also called hysteria. In conversion, conflict within the personality is subconsciously converted into physical symptoms. Common symptoms include blindness, deafness, paralysis, numbness, or seizures. Conversion may present with less extreme symptoms too, like fatigue, muscle twitches, and headaches.
Splitting is the defense mechanism in which the subject focuses solely on the positive or negative qualities of a person, object, belief, or action. Failing to integrate good and bad rids of the hypothetical ‘gray area,’ causing thinking to become completely black-and-white. Religion and politics contain instances of splitting. For example, members of the Democratic Party viewing republicans as selfish.
Immature Defense Mechanisms
Immature defense mechanisms impair emotional awareness. Processes categorized as immature defenses are childish and out of touch with reality. They are frequently practiced by adolescents, but adults use them as well. Relying primarily on immature defense mechanism is unsustainable without causing severe problems in coping, which is why immature defense mechanisms are associated with major depression and personality disorders.
Acting out is described as displaying or acting out behavior in attempts to express unconscious thoughts, feelings, and impulses. Violence is a form of acting out, whether it is a child’s temper tantrum when they do not get their way or punching a wall instead of an individual admitting they are angry. Self-injury is also a form of acting out because it denotes physically harming oneself to relieve emotional pain.
Projection is the act of attributing socially unacceptable impulses onto other people. The unconscious impulse is falsely seen in others, like if someone were to accuse their spouse of infidelity when they are the unfaithful partner.
Introjection is identifying with an idea, object, behavior, or attribute so strongly that it becomes part of that person. The internalizing process is the opposite of the defense mechanism projection. Introjection occurs almost automatically with little thought. An instance of introjection is a child adopting the political ideology of their parents.
Exaggerating the positive attributes possessed by oneself or another individual is using the defense mechanism idealization. The subject perceives an individual as possessing more desirable qualities than they actually have.
Somatization is transforming negative feelings felt towards others into pain, illness, anxiety, or negative feelings about self.
Passive-aggression is an indirect expression of anger in which the person is not visibly angry, but wants others to notice they are upset. Passive-aggression often occurs through procrastination. For example, making excuses to avoid unpleasant tasks or confrontations.
Neurotic Defense Mechanisms
Neurotic defense mechanisms are prevalent in adulthood. In general, they do help to cope with anxiety and absolve guilt. However, neurotic defense mechanisms received their name because they have the capability of negatively impacting one’s mentality. They cannot be used long-term without consequences in work, relationships, and life satisfaction.
Reaction Formation – Defense Mechanisms
Reaction formation is the process of converting a thought, feeling, or behavior into its opposite. When the truth produces anxiety, taking a contradictory stance relieves those undesired emotions. For example, a man transforming his love for a married woman to hate is reaction formation.
Dissociation – Defense Mechanisms
Dissociation involves emotionally removing oneself from an anxiety-inducing situation. As a defense mechanism, dissociation is temporarily disconnecting from the outside world—similar to a state of daydreaming.
Regression – Defense Mechanisms
Reverting to an earlier state of mental development is known as regression. It provides safety from unwanted thoughts, as the emotions during that stage were not as demanding as the time in life the subject is currently experiencing stress. Regression is exhibited in many ways: crying hysterically after arguing, an older child reverting to thumb-sucking when anxious, or a college student finding comfort in their favorite childhood toy.
Repression – Defense Mechanisms
The process of repression is when an individual, without conscious awareness, moves socially unacceptable feelings and impulses to the unconscious to prevent the suffering of them entering consciousness. Repression is significant because repressed impulses introduce the use of alternative defense mechanisms.
Displacement – Defense Mechanisms
To avoid directly confronting a threat, displacement represses socially unacceptable feelings towards a person or object and shifts them to a less threatening target. For example, a mother who yells at her child unprovoked because of a difficult day at work is exhibiting displacement.
Undoing – Defense Mechanisms
Undoing nullifies or “takes back” a shameful thought or action to protect the ego from guilt. Apologizing is an act of undoing.
Isolation and Intellectualization – Defense Mechanisms
Isolation is separating emotions from events and ideas, whereas intellectualization is a form of isolation that focuses on the intellectual aspects of an issue—meaning facts and logic. It separates the individual from the anxiety-inducing stimulus. Intellectualization is a prevalent coping mechanism for when a person is emotionally attached to a situation and removes themselves from the stressful event.
Rationalization – Defense Mechanisms
Through false reasoning, an individual using rationalization denies the true cause for an action or an event. They create excuses to convince themselves there is no problem. Rationalization is used when a student fails a test but attributes their poor grade to not having enough time to study before the exam.
Compensation – Defense Mechanisms
Compensation averts feelings of inferiority by counteracting them with superiority. It highlights strengths in the face of weaknesses. Statements such as, “…but I am good at…” showcase instances of compensation.
Mature Defense Mechanisms
Mature defense mechanisms in the healthy adult population increase control and feelings of pleasure. They have been adapted for successful functioning in society, personal relationships, and self-fulfillment. All of the mature defense mechanisms integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts leading to anxiety.
In sublimation, negative emotions and urges are adaptively transformed into positive actions. The benefit of sublimation is it may result in a long-term conversion of the original impulse. Cleaning the house when stressed is a prime example of sublimation, as is playing competitive sports.
Suppression differs from denial in that it is the conscious decision to delay attending to threatening stimuli. The conscious action of suppression keeps unwanted information out of awareness until later when the emotions are easier to accept.
The saying, “Laughter is the best medicine,” encompasses humor as a defense mechanism. Humor is overtly calling attention to humorous aspects of the environment to cope with unpleasant impulses. It is done in a manner pleasing to others.
Altruism is a selfless concern for the well-being of others. Altruistic behavior can serve as a defense mechanism. Engaging in altruism satisfy internal needs by helping other people.
Anticipation is a mature defense mechanism in which the subject plans for future stress. Realistically anticipating an unpleasant situation makes the outcome less threatening. This is accomplished by rehearsing possible scenarios.
Recognizing uncomfortable stimuli without resistance or attempt to change it is the defense mechanism acceptance. By meeting a threat with acceptance, one can live productively as they accept their undesirable circumstances.
A humble individual does not think too highly of oneself. Thus, humility as a defense mechanism is maintaining a modest self-opinion. By preventing an over-inflated, prideful sense of self-importance, using humility reduces distortions of the ego.
Tolerance is consciously permitting a disapproved thought, belief, person or object. For example, being polite to someone rude without responding with anger is tolerating their hurtful behavior.
Identification is the process of unconsciously emulating aspects of a threat. This includes mannerisms, character traits, or language patterns to gain approval from the individual they are imitating.
Cheyanne is currently studying psychology at North Greenville University. As an avid patient advocate living with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, she is interested in the biological processes that connect physical illness and mental health. In her spare time, she enjoys immersing herself in a good book, creating for her Etsy shop, or writing for her own blog.