Self-help

Defense Mechanisms: How They Work and Why We Use Them

Feeling overwhelmed by strong emotions often triggers defense mechanisms—unconscious psychological tactics that protect us from distressing thoughts and memories. Take a deeper look at how they work and why we use them.

Author Generic Image By Grow Therapy
Woman hides her face with a hat.

Updated on May 30, 2024

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Have you ever felt overwhelmed by a strong emotion and not known how to react? You likely resorted to a defense mechanism, a psychological tactic we use to protect our conscious minds from emotions, thoughts, and memories that are too overwhelming to bear.

Defense mechanisms are often unconscious and can manifest in a variety of ways. Initially described by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms are divided into different categories based on how they work. This article discusses defense mechanisms, types, and examples of each.

What are Defense Mechanisms in Psychology?

Psychological defense mechanisms are how our minds protect us from uncomfortable or distressing thoughts, feelings, or experiences. The mechanisms are crucial to our psychological defense system, maintaining our emotional well-being and reducing anxiety.

Recent advances in psychological research have significantly enriched our understanding of defense mechanisms, and current evidence-based therapies offer a modern-day approach.

For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers a pragmatic approach by helping individuals identify and challenge distorted thinking patterns associated with mechanisms like denial, encouraging a reality-based confrontation of these thoughts.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) emphasizes mindfulness and emotional regulation, assisting people with recognizing and adaptively responding to mechanisms such as projection.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) promotes acceptance and psychological flexibility, guiding people to notice their reliance on mechanisms like intellectualization and encouraging an open, non-judgmental acceptance of their emotions. These modern therapies underscore the evolution from Freud’s theoretical constructs to practical, evidence-based strategies for enhancing mental well-being.’

Defense mechanisms often operate unconsciously, meaning we are unaware we are employing them. They serve as a psychological shield, protecting our fragile egos from harm.

Adaptive mechanisms can take many forms, each serving a unique purpose. For example, repression involves pushing unwanted memories or thoughts into the unconscious mind.

We can understand our behaviors and reactions, recognize why we respond the way we do in certain situations, and develop healthier coping strategies by looking into the various types of defense mechanisms and how they work.

How Defense Mechanisms Work

Defense mechanisms work by helping you protect yourself from uncomfortable or distressing thoughts, feelings, or experiences.

According to the Freudian theory of psychoanalysis or personality analysis, the human psyche is divided into three levels:

When faced with a challenging situation or overwhelming emotions, the resulting anxiety alerts the ego that things are wrong. The ego employs defense mechanisms to help mitigate feelings of anxiety.

Through the defense mechanisms, the ego balances the demands of our desires, our moral standards, and the constraints of the external reality. The whole process helps in maintaining our emotional well-being and reducing anxiety.

Most Common Types of Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are fascinating psychological processes that help us navigate difficult or uncomfortable situations. Sigmund Freud first identified these mechanisms in the 19th century. There are 10 types of adaptive defense mechanisms that Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, expounded upon later. The most common of these include:

Repression

This defense mechanism pushes unwanted memories, thoughts, or feelings into the unconscious mind. By repressing these distressing experiences, we can avoid dealing with them directly. For example, a person who has experienced a traumatic event may repress the memories to protect themselves from the emotional pain.

Denial

Denial is refusing to acknowledge the reality of a situation or the existence of certain unacceptable thoughts or feelings. It’s a way to protect ourselves from the discomfort of facing the truth. For instance, someone who has received a serious health diagnosis may deny it, believing it cannot be true.

Projection

Projection occurs when we attribute our unacceptable feelings, thoughts, or characteristics to others. It allows us to distance ourselves from the discomfort these thoughts or feelings may cause. For instance, an individual who struggles with jealousy may project their jealousy onto their partner, accusing them of being unfaithful.

Regression

This defense mechanism involves reverting to childlike behaviors or patterns of thinking to cope with stressful situations or unacceptable thoughts. It’s a way to seek comfort and security by escaping stressors and returning to a familiar state. For example, an adult may suck their thumb or rely heavily on their parents when faced with a difficult situation.

Rationalization

Rationalization is creating logical or socially acceptable explanations for our thoughts, negative feelings, or actions. It helps us justify our behavior and alleviate emotional conflict. For example, someone who has been rejected from a job may rationalize it by believing that the company was not the right fit for them anyway.

Intellectualization

Intellectualization involves dealing with or thinking about anxiety-provoking situations in a clinical way. A person tries to avoid thinking about stressful situations by concentrating on the intellectual aspect of the stressful situation or event.

For example, a person diagnosed with a terminal health condition might research the disease to escape from the associated distress. This way, learning about the disease helps avoid the reality and thoughts about the disease and possible death.

Other Defense Mechanisms

Besides the common mechanisms originally developed by Freud, scientists have identified other defense mechanisms people use to reduce anxiety. They include:

Acting Out

Acting out is a term used to describe a strategy of coping with emotional conflict by engaging in actions rather than accepting and bearing with the true feelings. For example, you might yell at someone or bang things against the wall instead of telling them you are unhappy with them.

Aim Inhibition

Aim inhibition involves settling for a less desirable outcome or goal. It involves a person getting satisfied with a modified form of their original target. For instance, a person with ambitions of becoming an astronaut can become a pilot as a form of modified goal.

Sublimation

Sublimation involves channeling our unacceptable urges or impulses into socially acceptable outlets. It allows us to express ourselves more healthily and productively. For instance, someone with aggressive tendencies may channel their energy into competitive sports or art, allowing them to release their aggression constructively.

Compensation

This defense mechanism manifests itself when a person does exemplary well in one area as a cover-up for failures in a different area. For example, someone who feels academically challenged might redirect all their energy into sports and become a superstar.

Dissociation

This defense mechanism involves detaching or distancing themselves from particular experiences, especially when dealing with stressful situations. For instance, a person who feels lonely may retreat into fantasy and create an elaborate romantic world with their favorite celebrity through daydreams.

Ways Defense Mechanisms Help

Psychological defense mechanisms may seem like barriers that hinder personal growth and self-awareness. However, mature defense mechanisms actually serve a purpose in our lives. Here are ways defense mechanisms can be helpful:

Anxiety Reduction

Defense mechanisms work to reduce anxiety by distorting reality or denying certain aspects of it. This distortion allows you to create a more manageable and less threatening version of a situation, alleviating the immediate anxiety and allowing you to approach the situation with a calmer mindset.

Coping in Times of Crisis

When faced with a crisis or challenging situation, defense mechanisms can provide temporary relief from internal conflict and a sense of control. Regression, for example, allows you to seek comfort and security by reverting to childlike behaviors or relying on others. This can help manage overwhelming stress and provide a short-term escape from an uncomfortable reality.

Self-Preservation

Defense mechanisms help protect your self-esteem and self-worth by creating rationalizations or explanations that justify your thoughts, negative feelings, or actions. This self-preservation allows you to maintain a positive sense of self, even in the face of challenges or mistakes.

Can Defense Mechanisms be Harmful?

While defense mechanisms can offer immediate relief from anxiety-inducing or stressful situations, unhealthy psychological defense mechanisms can hinder emotional growth and development.

Pathological and immature defense mechanisms can limit your expression of feelings to those around you and negatively impact your relationships. Studies indicate that 49.5% of adults use at least one immature defense, while 39.4% use at least one pathological defense mechanism.

Here are some ways pathological defenses negatively affect your wellness:

Hinders Personal Growth

Relying too heavily on defense mechanisms can hinder personal growth and self-awareness. By avoiding or denying uncomfortable emotions or experiences, we miss out on opportunities for growth and development.

Interferes With Relationships

Defense mechanisms can create barriers in our relationships with others. Projection, for example, can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts as we attribute our issues to others, causing strain in our interactions.

Inhibits Problem-Solving

When used as a way to escape, defense mechanisms may prevent us from addressing the root causes of our problems or challenges. By distorting reality or denying certain aspects, we may avoid taking necessary actions or seeking appropriate mental health support.

Maintains Unhealthy Patterns

Overreliance on defense mechanisms can keep us stuck in unhealthy patterns of behavior and coping. Instead of facing and addressing our negative emotions and experiences directly, we continue to rely on these mechanisms, perpetuating unhelpful habits.

How to Cope With Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms

When defense mechanisms become unhealthy and start hindering your personal growth and relationships, finding strategies to cope with them is important. Here are four strategies that can help:

Practice Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness can help you cultivate a non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Eventually, you begin to notice when you’re employing defense mechanisms and choose alternative responses.

Mindfulness techniques such as meditation and deep breathing exercises can be particularly helpful in managing the discomfort that may arise when you confront your defense mechanisms.

Cultivate Healthy Coping Mechanisms

You can develop healthier coping strategies instead of relying on unhealthy defense mechanisms. Healthy ways to process and manage your emotions can include engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, seeking support from loved ones, journaling, or talk therapy.

Increase Self-Awareness

Take some time to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Pay attention to any patterns or recurring defense mechanisms you may use. This self-awareness will allow you to recognize when you’re relying too heavily on these mechanisms and take steps to change.

Seek Therapy

Most of the time, coping with unhealthy defense mechanisms requires professional help. Through psychotherapy, a qualified and experienced therapist or psychoanalyst can guide and support you as you navigate these patterns. A psychotherapist can assist you in identifying the root causes of your unhealthy coping strategies and work with you to develop healthier ones.

Assessing Your Defenses

Defense mechanisms can be helpful or destructive. They can protect your ego from stressful situations or emotions by providing a healthy outlet. On the flip side, the same mechanisms can prevent you from facing reality and serve as a form of self-deception.

If you notice that you or a loved one is leaning too much on particular defense mechanisms, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Grow Therapy can help you find a qualified and experienced mental healthcare professional.

FAQs

  • Passive defense mechanisms, such as regression, are covert and not easily noticeable, while active defense mechanisms express themselves through overt behaviors like acting out.

  • Yes. The signs include difficulties in forming healthy relationships, communication problems, self-isolation, and feelings of anger or inadequacy, just to name a few.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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