Defense mechanisms are behaviors people use to separate themselves from unpleasant events, actions, or thoughts. These psychological strategies may help people put distance between themselves and threats or unwanted feelings, such as guilt or shame.
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.
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 the strategy they’re using.
Defense mechanisms are a normal, natural part of psychological development. Identifying which type you, your loved ones, even your co-workers use can help you in future conversations and encounters.
Dozens of different defense mechanisms have been identified. Some are used more commonly than others.
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. 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. You block external events or circumstances from your mind so that you don’t have to deal with the emotional impact. In other words, you avoid the 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 them, you may unconsciously choose to hide them in hopes of forgetting about 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. If you project those feelings, you’re misattributing 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 see in their actions the things you wish you could do or say.
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 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.
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 overwhelming.
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, people who might be angry at co-workers for not completing work on time could be ignoring the fact that they’re typically late, too.
This type of defense mechanism is considered a 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 employees, you choose to channel your frustration into kickboxing or exercise. 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 who is let go from a job choose to spend their days creating spreadsheets of job opportunities and leads.
Defense mechanisms can be viewed as a type of self-deception. You might be using them to hide emotional responses that you don’t want to deal with from yourself. However, it’s done mostly on an unconscious level. You’re not always aware of the way your mind or ego will respond.
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t modify or change the behaviors. Indeed, you can transform unhealthy defense mechanisms into ones that are more sustainable. These techniques could help:
- Find accountability: Friends and family members can help you recognize the mechanisms. By drawing attention to the self-deception, they can help you identify the moment you unconsciously make an unhealthy choice. That allows you to then decide in the conscious state what you really want to do.
- Learn 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 active responses to make choices on a more mindful level.
Some defense mechanisms are considered more “mature.” That means using them may be more sustainable. Even in the long term, they may not be particularly detrimental to your emotional or mental health. Two such “mature” strategies are sublimation and intellectualization.
Other defense mechanisms, however, are not so mature. Prolonged use of them can lead to lingering problems. In fact, they may prevent you from ever facing emotional issues or anxieties.
In time, this could crop up in unexpected ways. For example, defense mechanisms may make forming relationships more difficult. They can also contribute to some mental health issues.
If you find yourself feeling depressed or sad, unable to get out of bed, or avoiding the usual daily activities of your life or things and people that once made you happy, consider talking to a mental health professional. These are also signs of depression, and therapy can help.
Through therapy like psychoanalysis or counseling, you can become more aware of the defense mechanisms you use most often, and you can even work to shift the responses you use from immature or less productive to ones that are more mature, sustainable, and beneficial.
Using more mature mechanisms may help you face the anxieties and situations that might normally cause you stress and emotional duress.
Defense mechanisms are normal and natural. They are often used without any long-term complications or issues.
However, some people do develop emotional difficulties if they continue to use these mechanisms without coping with the underlying threat or anxiety. Treatment focuses on helping you address issues from a mindful place, not an unconscious one.