Defense Mechanisms

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated June 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

When people start therapy, most intend to be forthcoming with important information. After all, how can you get help if you are not honest about your situation? But even when people intend to be open and honest, humans have defense mechanisms that shield them from stressful situations or unpleasant feelings like pain or shame. 

First identified by Sigmund Freud, and later further developed by his daughter Anna Freud, defense mechanisms (also known as ego defense mechanisms) are unconscious behaviors that are thought to reduce feelings of anxiety and shield the mind from painful feelings. According to Freudian theory, ego defense mechanisms are designed to defend us when we feel threatened by our internal or external environment. 

As a therapist applying psychoanalytic theory to clients, it is essential to recognize defense mechanisms like deflection or denial 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.

Certain defense mechanisms may be helpful if they are mature and properly applied. However, less mature coping mechanisms can have negative consequences such as symptoms of depression, or difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships with friends and family. Here are some of the most common defense mechanisms seen in therapy.

Common defense mechanisms

iStock/fizkes
Want to learn more about how to spot defense mechanisms?
The most commonly used: Denial

Denial is one of the most widely used defense mechanisms. This common defense is also one of the easiest to spot. When someone is in denial, they ignore glaring (and often unpleasant) truths about their situation and search for evidence pointing to the exact opposite. For example, if you know someone who might be experiencing bipolar disorder, you may use their high academic performance or success at work as “proof” that they are not. Someone with a terminal illness may be in denial and choose to avoid dealing with the finality and uncomfortable reality of their diagnosis. Psychology explained that this type of self-deception often stems from a deep desire to push away the truth. People use this defensiveness as a coping skill so that they will not have to accept reality with its experience of painful, sad, or frightening situations of their external reality.

Displacement

Displacement means a person redirects a negative emotion away from its target and toward one less threatening. For example, if someone is angry at their boss, they might be afraid to express it at work for fear of losing their job, so they may take it out on their partner or family when they come home. Therefore, therapists must check in with clients about their real emotions if they feel they are demonstrating unacceptable impulses.

Repression

Repression is well-known in clinical psychology, and it can be challenging to work through. Repression occurs when someone has a traumatic experience that is too painful to remember. However, because it is hard work for the mind to keep important repressed memories hidden, glimpses of the traumatic event will push through, for example, in dreams, until the event is remembered and processed.

Rationalization

Rationalization occurs when someone tries to explain away a situation in which they might look 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.

Intellectualization

Intellectualization can be similar to rationalization, except the patient usually takes 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, someone who has just lost their spouse may spend time thinking and worrying about the cost and the logistics of having a funeral instead of going through the grieving process and mourning their loss. This type of logic keeps the person’s mind off of the real problem at hand and may delay the appropriate emotional reactions.

Projection

Projection means attributing to another person an impulse or personality trait 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. An example of projection in therapy is 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. Projection is similar to deflection since both mechanisms involve redirecting negative focus onto someone other than ourselves. However, deflection psychology is mostly a conscious process, while awareness is not present in projection.

Sublimation

Sublimation occurs when someone takes inappropriate emotions or disturbing wishes or thoughts and directs them toward a more socially acceptable activity. One example might be someone with a sexual addiction deciding to work out instead to avoid what they believe are unacceptable thoughts. Sublimation psychology can be helpful in that it results in constructive behavior. However, it can also be harmful because it doesn’t resolve the underlying issue of having unacceptable desires or unacceptable emotions.

iStock

Compensation

Those who have low self-esteem or feel like they are not succeeding in certain areas of life may use compensation to make up for what they view as negative attributes. For example, someone who cannot hold a steady job might go out of their way to help people in the community.

This 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 or certain personality characteristics.

Reaction formation

Demonstrating the ironic aspects of psychological defense, reaction formation is a defense that has an individual react in an opposite manner in reaction to their natural feelings. For example, someone may have a conscious awareness that they are angry and frustrated but may feel that they should not express negative emotions and instead become overly positive or display passive aggression toward their family members.

Aim inhibition

When an individual accepts a modified version of their original dreams, they are participating in aim inhibition. For example, someone who wants to become a professional singer may ultimately decide to perform locally for events or join a small chorus group. 

Regression

Regression occurs when a person feels threatened by a situation and handles it by escaping to an earlier stage of development, often demonstrating physical symptoms of the regression. This may be easier to spot in children. For example, if a child experiences some form of trauma, you may see their emotional aspect regress to the oral stage as they begin sucking their thumb again.

However, even adults may regress to earlier stages. After traumatic events, they can avoid activities they enjoy, start chewing on pens or other objects, overeating, or sleeping with a favorite stuffed animal.

iStock
Want to learn more about how to spot defense mechanisms?

The above is not an exhaustive list of psychological defense mechanisms; further research will help you identify others. The conversion defense mechanism (also called functional neurological symptom disorder) is one type of psychological defense mechanism not mentioned above. In this defense mechanism, unwanted emotions are diverted and manifested into physical illness.

In understanding defense mechanisms, it’s important to remember that while there are unhealthy defense mechanisms, there are also other defenses that act as healthy coping strategies in moderation. For example, humor can be used to combat the negative emotions associated with an event. Anticipation can encourage preparedness, like a job candidate practicing their answer to tough interview questions to help reduce anxiety during the actual interview. 

Using online therapy to change unhealthy defense mechanisms

Can you identify any of these different defense mechanisms in your own life? Are you struggling with your own emotional challenges that you are trying to block out with defense mechanisms? If so, therapy can help. Professional licensed therapists can help you to identify and break through less mature defense mechanisms with evidence-based psychological strategies. They can also help you identify any deeper mental health challenges you may be experiencing, such as personality disorders or bipolar disorder. You have many options when it comes to finding a therapist. Online treatment is a convenient, and effective option to address your mental health.

Online therapy has many benefits. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, attending in-person sessions can be difficult. With online counseling, you don’t have to worry about commuting to an office or being on a waiting list. When you sign up, you are matched with an available therapist that’s ready to help you right away. Plus, you can participate in sessions through online chat, email, text, phone, or video chat, right from the comfort of home. 

Research shows that online therapy is effective, too. One review of 14 studies found that online cognitive behavioral therapy led to a 50% improvement in symptoms of depression and multiple anxiety disorders and significantly reduced the impact of chronic fatigue and stress. If you want to learn more about whether online therapy is right for you, reach out to a BetterHelp therapist to get started.

Takeaway

Defense mechanisms work by providing the mind with subconscious coping strategies, helping it to deal with external events that cause anxiety. In therapy, working through these defense mechanisms is often necessary to get to the root of the problem, so we can learn to interact with the thoughts or feelings that occur in our everyday lives in healthy, socially acceptable ways.
Learn how your defenses may hold you back
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started