20 Defense Mechanisms We Use to Protect Ourselves

Defense mechanisms, which are unconscious psychological strategies that protect individuals from anxiety, threats to self-esteem, and uncomfortable thoughts or situations, have become embedded in everyday language. For instance, you might describe someone as being “in denial” about a problem they face, or say they are “regressing” to an earlier stage of development when they revert to old behaviors. These terms reflect how common and recognizable these defense mechanisms have become in our daily conversations.

Defense Mechanisms vs. Defence Mechanisms

In the U.S., the term “defense mechanisms” is spelled with an ‘s’ in defense. However, in other areas of the world, it is spelled with a ‘c.’ If you live in the U.K., for instance, the spelling is “defence mechansms.” So, you may see it spelled either way.

Verywell Mind

10 Key Defense Mechanisms

 Defense Mechanism Brief Description  Example
Displacement Taking feelings out on others Being angry at your boss but taking it out on your spouse instead
Denial Denying that something exists Being the victim of a violent crime, yet denying that the incident occurred
Repression Unconsciously keeping unpleasant information from your conscious mind Being abused as a child but not remembering the abuse
Suppression Consciously keeping unpleasant information from your conscious mind Being abused as a child but choosing to push it out of your mind
Sublimation Converting unacceptable impulses into more acceptable outlets Being upset with your spouse but going for a walk instead of fighting
Projection Assigning your own unacceptable feelings or qualities to others Feeling attracted to someone other than your spouse, then fearing that your spouse is cheating on you
Intellectualization Thinking about stressful things in a clinical way Losing a close family member and staying busy with making the necessary arrangements instead of feeling sad
Rationalization Justifying an unacceptable feeling or behavior with logic Being denied a loan for your dream house, then saying it’s a good thing because the house was too big anyway
Regression Reverting to earlier behaviors Hugging a teddy bear when you’re stressed, like you did when you were a child
Reaction Formation Replacing an unwanted impulse with its opposite Being sad about a recent breakup, but acting happy about it
Sigmund and Ann Freud

10 Other Common Defense Mechanisms

Since Freud first identified the initial defense mechanisms, other researchers have continued to uncover additional methods for reducing anxiety. Some of these defense mechanisms include:

  • Acting out: Coping with stress by engaging in actions rather than acknowledging and bearing certain feelings. For example, instead of telling someone that you are angry with them, you might yell at them or throw something against the wall.
  • Aim inhibition: Accepting a modified form of their original goal. An example of this would be becoming a high school basketball coach rather than a professional athlete.
  • Altruism: Satisfying internal needs through helping others. For example, someone recovering from substance use might volunteer to help others in recovery as a way to deal with drug cravings.
  • Avoidance: Refusing to deal with or encounter unpleasant objects or situations. For example, rather than discuss a problem with someone, you might simply start avoiding them altogether so you don’t have to deal with the issue.
  • Compensation: Overachieving in one area to compensate for failures in another. For example, someone who feels insecure academically might compensate by excelling in athletics.
  • Dissociation: Becoming separated or removed from your experience. When dealing with something stressful, for example, you might mentally and emotionally disengage yourself from the situation.
  • Fantasy: Avoiding reality by retreating to a safe place within your mind. When something in your life is causing anxiety, you might retreat to your inner world where the cause of the stress cannot harm you.
  • Humor: Pointing out the funny or ironic aspects of a situation. An example of this might be cracking a joke in a stressful or traumatic situation.
  • Passive-aggression: Indirectly expressing anger. Instead of telling someone that you are upset, for example, you might give them the silent treatment.
  • Undoing: Trying to make up for what you feel are inappropriate thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. For example, if you hurt someone’s feelings, you might offer to do something nice for them to assuage your anxiety or guilt.

Keep in mind that defense mechanisms can have both positive and negative effects. They can be beneficial by shielding your ego from stress and offering a healthy outlet. However, they can also hinder your ability to confront reality and may lead to self-deception. If you find that overusing certain defense mechanisms is negatively affecting your life, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Psychotherapy, whether through traditional face-to-face sessions or online therapy, can be valuable in addressing these issues.

专注于健康生活,提升心理健康。Focus on healthy living, and improving mental health.



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