Psychological Defense Mechanisms You May See In Therapy

By: Danni Peck

Updated February 11, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Kristen Hardin

When individuals enter therapy, most intend to be forthcoming with important information. After all, how can you get help if you are not honest about your situation? In fact, even with every intention to be open and honest, human beings have defense mechanisms in place that shield them from unpleasant feelings like pain or shame. First identified by Sigmund Freud, defense mechanisms are unconscious behaviors that are thought to reduce feelings of anxiety. As a therapist, it is important to recognize defense mechanisms and understand how best to work through them to get to the root of an issue. As a client, it can also be helpful to understand what defense mechanisms look like and why you might be using them. In this article, we will discuss some of the most common defense mechanisms seen in therapy.

  1. Denial

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Denial is one of the most widely used defense mechanisms. It is also one of the easiest to spot. When someone is in denial, they will ignore glaring (and often unpleasant) truths about their situation and search for evidence pointing to the exact opposite.

For example, let's imagine that Cindy's daughter is experiencing depression and has constantly reached out for help, but Cindy will not accept that this is happening. Instead, she uses her daughter's high grades and good behavior as evidence against the truth in front of her. Denial often stems from a deep desire to push away the truth so that one will not have to experience the pain of sad or frightening situations.

2. Displacement

Displacement means that a person redirects a negative emotion away from its actual target and toward one that is less threatening. For example, Jorge may be angry at his boss, but because he worries about losing his job, he remains polite to her at work. However, when he comes home, he yells at his partner for no reason. Because therapists are viewed as authority figures, a client might displace anger toward their therapist onto a family member. It is therefore important for therapists to check in with clients about their real emotions.

3. Repression

Repression is well known in the therapy world, and it can be difficult to work through. Repression occurs when someone has a traumatic experience that is too painful to remember. To protect the person, their mind pushes the memory away and prevents them from remembering it. However, because it is hard work for the mind to keep important memories hidden, glimpses of these events will push through, for example in dreams, until the event is remembered and processed.

4. Rationalization

Rationalization occurs when someone tries to explain away a situation in which they mightlook bad or risk losing social approval to avoid uncomfortable feelings. For example, a client might state in a therapy session that they did not get a job they applied for, and follow that by claiming, “I didn’t want it anyway.” Or they might admit that they stole a small item at a store and then add, “But the store steals from me with those high prices.”




5. Intellectualization

Intellectualization is similar to rationalization except the patient will take it one step further in the way that they try to explain the situation using logic. With intellectualization, someone will avoid emotions by using logic and focusing on another aspect of a situation. For example, let's say you have a patient who has recently lost her husband. Instead of going through the grieving process and mourning her loss, she instead spends her time thinking about the cost and the logistics of having a funeral for him. This type of logic keeps her mind off of the real problem at hand.

6. Projection

Projection means attributing to another person an impulse or trait that you are not comfortable acknowledging or owning. We often think of projection as a way of disowning negative qualities, such as greediness or callousness. However, it is also possible to project positive traits that we are not comfortable with as well, such as sensitivity. As an example of projection in therapy, if a client tells their therapist that they are worried their spouse is cheating on them, the therapist might question whether the client has the urge to cheat.

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7. Sublimation

Sublimation occurs when someone takes inappropriate emotions or thoughts and directs them towards an activity that is considered to be more socially acceptable. One example might be someone who suffers from a sexual addiction deciding to work out instead to avoid these issues. Sublimation can be helpful in that it results in constructive behavior. However, it can also be harmful in that it doesn’t resolve the underlying issue.


8. Compensation

Those who feel like they are not succeeding in certain areas of their life may use compensation to make up for these lacking areas. For example, someone who cannot hold a steady job might go out of their way to help people in the community.

This type of defense mechanism can be harmful if the compensation goes too far and an individual bases their entire self-image on one area of their lives.

The above is not an exhaustive list of psychological defense mechanisms, and further research will help you identify other defense mechanisms.

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Further Help

Can you identify any of these issues in your own life? Are you struggling with your own emotional issues that you are trying to block out with defense mechanisms? If so, you can consider visiting BetterHelp is an online counseling platform dedicated to providing affordable and convenient online counseling to those who need it. Interested? If so, click on the link above and you will be directed to a page that will help you find the right counselor for you!

Psychodynamic Therapy Online

The type of therapy that addresses defense mechanisms is called psychodynamic therapy (PDT). Research indicates that online PDT (IPDT) is a viable treatment option for social anxiety disorder (SAD). For clients with SAD, findings showed a large treatment effect for a 10-week course of IPDT, as compared to clients who were waitlisted but did not receive treatment. Moreover, improvement continued between termination of therapy and follow-up two years later.

The Benefits of Online Therapy

As discussed above, psychodynamic therapy, which includes exploring defense mechanisms, can help with symptoms of social anxiety disorder. But when you are feeling anxious, it can be difficult to attend in-person sessions. This is where online therapy comes in. You can access BetterHelp’s platform from the comfort and privacy of your own home. In addition, online therapy offers lower pricing than in-person therapy because online therapists don’t have to pay for costs like renting an office. BetterHelp’s licensed therapists have helped people with anxiety. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp therapists from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“Alexis has been a huge help to me in identifying coping methods and tools to manage my chronic anxiety. She is genuine and down-to-earth and a great listener, and regularly checks in to make sure we are focusing on the issues I want to focus on and setting goals that are important to me. I always feel both comforted and strengthened after our conversations. I am grateful for her insights and for the positive impact she has made on my mental and emotional health.”

“Instead of finding my defense mechanism of humor deflection funny, she acknowledges that it can be humorous but what is the real underlining message. It makes me break the habit of thinking humor is an aid to hide my feelings or thoughts about myself when I’m hurting”


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