Defense mechanism

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Defense mechanism

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Defense mechanisms are psychological mechanisms aimed at reducing anxiety. They were first discussed by Sigmund Freud as part of his psychoanalytic theory and further developed by his daughter, Anna Freud. Alfred Adler and others also identified additional mechanisms. Often unconscious, defense mechanisms are used to protect an individual from psychological pain or anxiety.


While such mechanisms may be helpful in the short term, alleviating suffering that might otherwise incapacitate the individual, they can easily become a substitute for addressing the underlying cause and so lead to additional problems. The solution, therefore, is to address the underlying causes of the pain these mechanisms are used to defray. The ideal, however, would be for individuals to grow and live in a healthy psychological environment, in a society that cares for and nurtures each person, so that the use of these defense mechanisms is not necessary.


Defense mechanisms are unconscious mechanisms aimed at reducing anxiety that arises from three different scenarios:

  • When the id impulses are in conflict with each other;
  • When the id impulses conflict with superego values and beliefs;
  • When an external threat is posed to the ego.

The concept of these biological "id" impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the mind. Id impulses are based on the "pleasure principle": instant gratification of one’s own desires and needs. Freud believed that the id represents the instinctual impulses in ourselves, which are aggression, and sexual. The sex drive is our drive to live, to thrive, and to grow. The aggression drive is our drive for safety and the protection of our lives. According to Freud, these two impulsive drives are what motivate our actions.

In the ego, there are two processes operating. First, there is the unconscious primary process, where thoughts are not organized in a coherent way, feelings can shift, contradictions are not in conflict or are just not perceived that way, and condensations arise. There is no logic and no time-line. In opposition to this, there is the conscious secondary process, where strong boundaries are set, and in which thoughts must be organized in a coherent way. Cognitions generally arise here.

For the individual to function in society, the impulses from the id cannot be focused on satisfaction, they must respect the reality of the world and the superego. The superego represents the learned (in the process of growing up) and internalized set of values and ethics, which gives the individual the sense of what is right and what is wrong to think, feel, and do. Thus, for example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sex with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), then feelings of anxiety come to the surface, often accompanied by feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and shame. When anxiety becomes too overwhelming it is then the place of the ego to employ defense mechanisms to protect the individual.

Anna Freud described in her book Ego and mechanisms of defense (1936) the concept of signal anxiety, stating that it is "not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension." The signaling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. Anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defensive action towards the perceived danger. Defense mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious blockage of these impulses.

Main Defense Mechanisms

Did you know?
Defense mechanisms work by changing unacceptable impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconsciously blocking such impulses, and thus reducing anxiety.

Sigmund Freud was the first person to develop the concept of defense mechanisms, however it was his daughter, Anna Freud, who clarified and conceptualized them. She described ten different defense mechanisms: denial, displacement, intellectualization, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, and suppression. Later researchers have added some more defense mechanisms to the list: compensation (first described by Alfred Adler), dissociation, fantasy, identification, undoing, and withdrawal.

There is no theoretical consensus on the number of defense mechanisms. Classifying defense mechanisms according to some of their properties (i.e. underlying mechanisms, similarities or connections with personality) has been attempted.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association (1994) includes a tentative diagnostic axis for defense mechanisms largely based on George Eman Vaillant's (1977) hierarchical view of defenses. In Vaillant's categorization, defenses form a continuum related to their psychoanalytical developmental level:

  • Level I - pathological defenses (psychotic denial, delusional projection)
  • Level II - immature defenses (fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out)
  • Level III - neurotic defenses (intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression)
  • Level IV - mature defenses (humor, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation)


Denial is an ego defense mechanism that operates unconsciously to resolve emotional conflict, and to reduce anxiety by refusing to perceive the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.

Denial is being used in a situation in which a person faced with a fact that is uncomfortable or painful to accept rejects it, instead insisting that it is not true, despite what may be overwhelming evidence. The subject may deny the reality of the unpleasant fact altogether (simple denial), admit the fact but deny its seriousness (minimization), or admit both the fact and seriousness but deny responsibility (transference). The concept of denial is particularly important to the study of addiction.

The theory of denial was first researched seriously by Anna Freud. She classified denial as a mechanism of the immature mind, because it conflicts with the ability to learn from and cope with reality. Where denial occurs in mature people, it is most often associated with death and dying. Research in this area has significantly expanded the scope and utility of the concept. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross used denial as the first of five stages in the psychology of a dying patient, and the idea has been extended to include the reactions of survivors to news of a death. Thus, when parents are informed of the death of a child, their first reaction is often of the form, "No! You must have the wrong house, you can't mean our child!"

Unlike some defense mechanisms postulated by psychoanalytic theory (for instance, repression), the general existence of denial is fairly easy to verify, even for non-specialists. On the other hand, denial is one of the most controversial defense mechanisms, since it can be easily used to create unfalsifiable theories: anything the subject says or does that appears to disprove the interpreter's theory is explained, not as evidence that the interpreter's theory is wrong, but as evidence of the subject's being "in denial."

The concept of denial is important in "twelve-step" programs, where the abandonment or reversal of denial forms the basis of the first, fourth, fifth, eighth and tenth steps. The ability to deny or minimize is an essential part of what enables an addict to continue his or her behavior in the face of evidence that, to an outsider, appears overwhelming. This is cited as one of the reasons that compulsion is seldom effective in treating addiction—the habit of denial remains.

Understanding and avoiding denial is also important in the treatment of various diseases. The American Heart Association cites denial as a principal reason that treatment of a heart attack is delayed. Because the symptoms are so varied, and often have other potential explanations, the opportunity exists for the patient to deny the emergency, often with fatal consequences. It is common for patients to delay mammograms or other tests because of a fear of cancer, even though this is clearly maladaptive. It is the responsibility of the care team, and of the nursing staff in particular, to train at-risk patients to avoid such behavior.


Displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism, whereby the mind redirects emotion from a "dangerous" object to a "safe" object. In psychoanalytic theory, displacement is a defense mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable, or less threatening, target that can serve as an emotional substitute. The most classic example is a worker, angry at his boss, obviously unable to direct his anger and hostility to his intended target, comes home and yells at his wife. She, now also angry and upset, displaces her anger on the child, who then further displaces it on their pet dog. Most often, we take out our frustrations on the people we love.

Another, far more destructive form of displacement is what Anna Freud called "turning-against-self." This happens when the anger and/or other negative emotions (such as hatred) are redirected towards oneself, instead of another object. This dynamic is commonly associated with depression and suicide.


Intellectualization is a defense mechanism in which reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress. This involves concentrating on the intellectual components of the situation so as to distance oneself from the anxiety-provoking emotions associated with such situations. Thus, it effectively removes one's self, emotionally, from a stressful event.

Intellectualization helps to protect us against anxiety by separation from the painful or stressful events, hiding the emotions it provokes behind big words, almost a scientific focus on the facts. This is accomplished by thinking about the event in cold, rational terms, clinically analyzing it. For example, a wife whose husband is dying may try to learn everything about his disease, its prognosis, and treatment options. She may talk about it in scientific terms, analyzing and describing the medical facts about his condition. Doing so may help her not to feel all the pain, anger, and onslaught of other emotions provoked by the imminent death of her beloved.


Projection can be defined as attributing to others one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts and/or emotions. Projection reduces anxiety in the way that it allows the expression of the impulse or desire, without letting the ego recognize it.

This defense mechanism "projects" one's own undesirable thoughts, motivations, desires, feelings—basically parts of oneself—onto someone else (usually another person, but psychological projection onto animals and inanimate objects also occurs).

To understand the process, imagine an individual (Alice, for example) who feels dislike for another person (let's say Bob), but whose unconscious mind will not allow her to become aware of this negative emotion. Instead of admitting to herself that she feels dislike for Bob, she projects her dislike onto Bob, so that her conscious thought is not "I don't like Bob," but rather "Bob doesn't like me." In this way one can see that projection is related to denial, the only defense mechanism that is considered more primitive than projection. Alice has denied a part of herself that is desperate to come to the surface. She cannot flatly deny that she dislikes Bob, so instead she projects the dislike, thinking that it is Bob who dislikes her.

This concept was anticipated by Friedrich Nietzsche: "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." (Beyond Good and Evil)

When addressing psychological trauma, this defense mechanism sometimes becomes "counter projection," including an obsession to continue and remain in a recurring trauma-causing situation and the compulsive obsession with the perceived perpetrator of the trauma or its projection. In this context, Carl Jung wrote, "All projections provoke counter-projection when the object is unconscious of the quality projected upon it by the subject."


In psychology, rationalization is the process of constructing a logical justification for a decision that was originally arrived at through a different mental process. This process can range from fully conscious (e.g. to present an external defense against ridicule from others) to mostly subconscious (e.g. to create a block against internal feelings of guilt). Simply put, rationalization is making excuses for one's mistakes, and by doing so avoiding self-condemnation or condemnation by others.

There are two types of rationalization. One is "sour grapes," a term from Aesop's fable about the fox who said that the grapes too high to reach were sour anyway. For example, a person after failing to get into a law school may justify himself by saying: "I would have hated being a lawyer anyway." The second, more productive type of the rationalization is the "silver lining," an assumption that everything happens for the best, so one should try to find the blessing in disguise. "So, I didn't get into law school, but now I can really focus on finding my true vocation."

Rationalization is a post-hoc (after the fact) defense mechanism, connected to the self-serving bias: failure is ascribed to outside factors, whereas success comes from oneself.

Reaction formation

In psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defense mechanism in which anxiety-producing or unacceptable emotions are replaced by their direct opposites. For example, one who is strongly attracted to pornography, but has moral or religious obligations to avoid it, might become its staunch critic.

Anna Freud called this defense mechanism "believing the opposite." When we have an emotion or a reaction that is too threatening or too anxiety provoking, we turn it into the opposite. That way, there is no threat from that emotion, or even awareness of the emotion. Love turns into hate, and hate turns into love.

This reversed feeling, resulting from reaction formation, may become excessive: "Hell has no fury like a woman scorned." Problems may start especially when (like with denial and repression) a person starts to do this automatically, losing sight of his or her real feelings

Ken Wilber (in his book Integral Psychology), considered reaction formation a neurotic defense. Arising from issues of self-concept, he suggested that it is amenable to uncovering and interpretive therapy.


Regression involves the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses. When we are faced with anxiety, we tend to retreat, as if in a "psychological time machine," to the point in time when we last felt secure and safe—our childhood. Under stress, or in an anxiety-provoking situation, people very often can become more childish and primitive. Even an adult may want to curl up in bed in a fetal position.

Regression is an attempt to recapture some childhood satisfaction by relating to the world in a way that was formerly effective (even though no longer so), and giving up mature problem solving methods of dealing with challenges. It is as if the person is trying to "please the world" in the way he or she tried to please his or her parents in childhood. In such cases, people do not carry out consciously planned, rational actions, but rather fall back on old childhood habits that return automatically.


Repression and suppression are very similar defense mechanisms. They both involve a process of pulling thoughts into the unconscious, and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness. The difference is that repression is an unconscious force, while suppression is a conscious process, a conscious choice not to think about something.

Repression can often be detrimental. Suppression, however, is entirely conscious, and thus can be managed. Because repression is unconscious, it manifests itself through a symptom, or series of symptoms, sometimes called the "return of the repressed." A repressed sexual desire, for example, might re-surface in the form of a nervous cough or a slip of the tongue. In this way, although the subject is not conscious of the desire and so cannot speak it out loud, the subject's body can still articulate the forbidden desire through the symptom.

It has often been claimed that traumatic events are "repressed," yet it appears that it is more likely that the occurrence of these events is remembered in a distorted manner. One problem from an objective research point of view with this situation is that a "memory" is usually defined as what someone says or does. It cannot be measured or recorded objectively, since there is no way to verify the existence and/or accuracy of a memory except through its correspondence to some other, independent representation of past events (written records, photographs; reports of others, etc).

Normal repression in psychoanalytic theory is considered to have two stages, which are progressively involved in the creation of the individual's sense of "self" and "other," of "good" and "bad," and of the aspects of personality called "ego" and "superego."

In the Primary Repression phase, the infant learns that some aspects of reality are pleasant, and others are unpleasant; that some are controllable, and others not. In order to define the "self," the infant must repress the natural assumption that all things are equal. Primary repression, then, is the process of determining what is self, what is other, what is good, and what is bad. Once done, the child can then distinguish between desires, fears, self, and mother/other.

Secondary Repression begins once the child realizes that acting on some desires may evoke anxiety. For example, the child who desires the mother's breast may be denied and feel threatened with punishment, perhaps by the father. This anxiety leads to repression of the desire for the mother's breast. The threat of punishment related to this form of anxiety when internalized becomes the "superego," which intercedes against the desires of the "ego" without the need for any identifiable external threat.

Abnormal repression, or complex, neurotic behavior involving repression and the superego, occur when repression develops or continues to develop due to the internalized feelings of anxiety, in ways leading to behavior that is illogical, self-destructive, or anti-social. A psychotherapist may try to reduce this behavior by revealing and re-introducing the repressed aspects of the patient's mental process to his conscious awareness, and then teaching the patient how to reduce any anxieties felt in relation to these feelings and impulses.

Suppression generally has more positive results than does repression. First of all, it deals with unpleasant but not totally despicable actions or thoughts. It actually may be even useful and rational to focus on one thing at a time, suppressing other problems until that one is solved. Counting to ten when angry—prior to taking action—is not only an example of suppression, it is also a technique very useful in everyday life.

The problem with repression is that whatever we are trying to push away into the subconscious is not lost. The subconscious tends to empower it, and the more one tries to repress something, the more powerful and attractive it becomes. Finally, the repressed desire starts to manifest itself in actions, often in ways not noticeable to the person repressing it, but noticeable to others.


Sublimation is the refocusing of psychic energy (which Sigmund Freud believed was limited) away from negative outlets to more positive outlets. In Freud's theory, erotic energy, or libido, is only allowed limited expression due to repression, and much of the remainder of a given group's erotic energy is used to develop its culture and civilization. Sublimation, therefore, is the process of transforming libido into "socially useful" achievements, re-channeling drives which cannot find an outlet into acceptable forms of expression, such as art.

Freud considered this defense mechanism the most productive, and psychoanalysts have continued to refer to sublimation as the only truly successful defense mechanism.

Sublimation is related to displacement, another redirection of an impulse, but is considered the healthier one of the two. Many great charities were started by people who lost someone to a disease, or whose loved ones suffered from a disability.

Anna Freud's own life appears to be an example of sublimation. Anna stayed with her father all her life, never marrying, but she worked hard to advance his theory. In Freudian terms, she remained trapped in her Oedipus complex, but she sublimated this unconscious sexual desire for her father into identifying with the one thing he loved—his teachings.


Alfred Adler observed that much of human life is devoted to compensating for whatever we think are our weaknesses. Sometimes we try to improve on whatever we are weak in, the most famous example being Demosthenes becoming a great speaker.

Sometimes people recognize a weakness in one area, but try to excel in another. Some examples of this can be seen in average students becoming outstanding athletes, and students who are physically not very attractive becoming great scholars. These are healthy way to handle the anxiety of feeling inferior or inadequate. There are, however, unhealthy ways to compensate, such as a person feeling unloved becoming promiscuous, substituting quantity for quality.


Dissociation usually stems from a trauma, intense pain, or a serious identity crisis. It may manifest itself in disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, memory loss, Multiple Personality Disorder, Dissociative Amnesia, as well as the more common phenomena of flashbacks, and forgetting something embarrassing.

However, in dissociation memories are not just lost in the subconscious (as in repression) but they are splintered and distorted. It is as if under intense stress the ability of the consciousness to include all the thoughts, emotions, and somatic sensations fails, and some aspects become separated and inaccessible. Thus, a person may remember what happened, but forget how it felt. Or, a person may feel depersonalized, like a robot.

There is also an "everyday life" level of dissociation involving assumptions about things and people. In this case, people tend to discard some parts of reality that contradict a belief that they hold as true.


Fantasy (daydreams, literature, television, Internet) is a way to escape real problems. Imagining that one is successful may lead to feelings of success, especially when one's reality is the opposite of success. In some cases, this may be beneficial: fantasy acts as a rehearsal for our future success. Thinking about an upcoming vacation, or a reward for work when it gets too stressful, is a healthy use of fantasy. Many self-help methods are based on fantasy: covert rehearsal, covert sensitization/desensitization, empathy, etc.

However, just as fantasy may be part of the solution, it may become part of the problem. Imagining the worst consequences may lead to fear, or reliving a bad situation may lead to anger and depression. Also, imagining solutions to problems instead of actually solving them can have negative consequences. When a person actually starts to live in the world of fantasy they created, instead of facing the real world and real challenges, it has become pathological.


Identification (sometimes also called introjection) involves identifying with someone else, taking on their personality characteristics, in order to solve some emotional difficulty and avoid anxiety. This was originally Freud's solution to Oedipus and Electra complexes: identify with the same sex parent and try to become like him or her.


The defense mechanism of "undoing" is based on the notion that it is possible to make amends, to correct mistakes made. In essence, it involves feeling guilty and trying to do something to undo the harm that may have been inflicted. It is trying to reverse or undo a feeling by acting in some opposite or compensatory manner. The simplest example of this defense mechanism at work is an apology.

Freud used undoing to explain some obsessive-compulsive acts, such as a youth reciting the alphabet backwards to undo his sin of sexual thoughts and feelings.


Withdrawal involves the removal of oneself from anything and everything that carries reminders of painful or stressful thoughts and emotions. Since normal social life involves many situations that are connected to the painful event, and friends or colleagues may ask uncomfortable questions, the use of withdrawal means the end of one's social life. Furthermore, even television or literature may contain images or scenes that elicit painful emotions or stressful thoughts, and so many normal activities come to be avoided. Withdrawal is one the most severe defense mechanisms because it can lead to feelings of alienation and loneliness, which create more anxiety and pain. Combined with fantasy, withdrawal can paralyze one's life.

Maladaptive Use

Defense mechanisms are helpful and healthy if used in a proper manner. However, if misused or overused, the same defense mechanisms may also be unhealthy.

Maladaptive use of defense mechanisms can occur in a variety of cases, for example when they become automatic and prevent individuals from realizing their true feelings and thoughts. Frequent or continuous use of defense mechanisms disrupts reality-testing. Denial and paranoid projection are considered to be psychotic in nature, as their repeated use can cause people to lose touch with the real world and their surroundings, and consequently isolate themselves from reality and dwell in a world created of their own design.

Defense mechanisms can also be harmful if:

  • There are too few defenses that can be employed in coping with threats;
  • There is too much superego activity, which causes the use of too many defenses.


There are two main ways for a person to cope with threats:

  1. avoiding, repressing, denying, looking away, escaping from the situation, or letting someone else take the blame;
  2. approaching, learning more, and taking charge.

The first method may include the use of defense mechanisms such as denial, repression/suppression, withdrawal, or projection. The second method may involve use of the defense mechanisms of rationalization, sublimation, identification, compensation, and undoing. However, approaching and taking charge of the situation may still be done in unhealthy ways.

Generally, the first way reduces stress, while the second increases chances for coping with the situation. Thus, the first way is more effective when the situation is beyond our control, the second way works when there is something that can be done about the problem. Most people use both ways depending on the situation, but also tend to have a preferred way. Each has its own disadvantages: more stress and worry for the "approachers" and lack of awareness for the "avoiders."

Freud saw defense mechanisms as necessary, but he considered most of them negative, the only positive one being sublimation. Many researchers continued with this view, declaring that most of the defense mechanisms involve lies, and the only thing they do—especially if used continually—is to create more problems.

The main problem with defense mechanisms is that if they are used for a long time they may become automatic and separate a person from their true feelings and from reality. However, as has been seen, sublimation, suppression, undoing, and identification can be used in a healthy way to help solve problems. Other mechanisms that may be helpful in short-term adaptation to a particular situation (but not healthy in the long run) are intellectualization, repression, displacement, and dissociation.

Defense mechanisms are neither good nor bad in themselves. It all depends on how, and for how long, they are being used. Defense mechanisms are often needed, and used, to protect ones’ self from pain. However, usually this is a temporary solution, and eventually one comes to the point when they have to face the real situation. If an individual refuses to do so, they cross the very thin line between healthy and unhealthy use of this psychological "painkiller," in the same way that a patient may become addicted to medical painkillers used to treat physical pain. The ultimate solution, though, is to address the origin of the pain, and in the case of psychological pain it is to be hoped that future human societies will have the understanding and capability of caring for and nurturing all their individual members in such a way that defense mechanisms are no longer necessary.


  • American Psychiatric Association. 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. ISBN 0890420629
  • Boeree, C. George. 1998. Anna Freud. Retrieved December 1, 2010.
  • Cramer, Phebe. 2006. Protecting the Self: Defense Mechanisms in Action. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1593852983
  • Fonagy, P. and M. Target. 2003. Psychoanalytic Theories: Perspectives from Developmental Psychopathology. Routledge. ISBN 0415934885
  • Freud, A. 1993. The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Karnac Books. ISBN 0946439850
  • Gray, Paul. 2005. The Ego and Analysis of Defense. Jason Aronson. ISBN 076570336X
  • Vaillant, George E. 1977. Adaptation to life. Boston, MA: Little, Brown. ISBN 0316895202
  • Vaillant, George E. 1992. Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers. American Psychiatric Publishing. ISBN 0880484047

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All links retrieved August 5, 2013.


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