A large number of Freudian concepts have passed into modern everyday language. For example, people talk of either being “anally obsessive” or having “penis envy”. Some mention an “oedipal complex” but less of “splitting” or “counter-transference”. Others use more memorable phrases like “polymorphous perversity”. But about the Defence Mechanisms (DMs)?

Work in the area was encouraged by Anna Freud (1962) with her “The Ego and the mechanisms of defense” published over 75 years ago. They are seen to be crucial components of the capacity to maintain emotional homeostasis. According to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to cope with anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings. Certain DMs are used by healthy persons throughout life and only become pathological when they are constantly used—leading to abnormal behaviour where the physical or psychological health of the individual is severely affected.

DMs have six definitional characteristics:

1. They usually operate unconsciously (outside of awareness);

2. They operate to protect self-esteem by keeping unacceptable thoughts, impulses and wishes out of awareness;

3. They function to protect the person from experiencing excessive anxiety;

4. They are part of normal personality functioning;

5. They can lead to pathology if one or more is used excessively;

6. They are distinguishable from one another.

            The list of DMs is extensive and no theoretical consensus on the exact number or their classification has ever been agreed upon.  Vaillant’s (1977) taxonomy of defense styles was a welcomed breakthrough in the area, stimulating new research across disciplines, though it has been critiqued and there is limited empirical evidence for it  Working within a psychoanalytic framework, Vaillant proposed a developmental hierarchy of four defense levels ranging from pathological mechanisms (e.g. denial and distortion), which allow the individual to alter current external experiences to remove any need to deal with reality; to mature mechanisms (e.g. sublimation, humour and altruism), which have been adapted throughout an individual's life in order to cope with current circumstances, helping the individual to effectively eliminate conflicting emotions and thoughts.  Within these extremes, on reaching adulthood, individuals are also expected to display immature defences (e.g. acting out and fantasy), which reduce distress and anxiety that are caused by uncomfortable surroundings or unpleasant company; and neurotic defences (e.g. intellectualisation, displacement).  These can provide short-term benefits in coping and individuals often have problems with relationships, work and life satisfaction.

 Defence Level’s and Defence mechanisms (Vaillant, 1977)

1. Pathological

Denial: Refusal to accept unpleasant aspects of an external situation because one finds it too threatening.

Distortion: Changing and reshaping reality as one sees fit.

Projection: Lessens anxiety by expressing undesirable desires without being consciously aware; shifting these undesirable thoughts, feelings, and impulses to someone else.

2. Immature

Acting out: Unconscious expressions/impulses without being aware of the emotion behind it.

Fantasy: Tendency to escape reality to resolve internal and external conflicts e.g. excessive day dreaming.

Idealisation: Perceiving individuals to possess more positive qualities than they actually have.

Passive aggression: Expressing anger or frustration through indirect methods onto other people.

Identification: Role modelling; taking on behavioural patterns of another person

3. Neurotic

Displacement: Shifting emotions onto another target considered more acceptable or less threatening.

Hypochrondriasis: Perceptions of an unknown illness as a reaction to negative feelings toward others.

Intellectualisation: Using logic and intellectual components of a situation to distance oneself.

Isolation: Separating emotions from events i.e. talking about a situation without displaying any feelings.

Rationalisation: Convincing oneself that things are fine through false rationale e.g. “making excuses”.

Reaction formation: Behaving in a manner that is opposite of how one truly feels to avoid anxiety

Regression: Reverting to an earlier stage of development rather than handling the unpleasant situation in a way concurrent with ones current development stage

Repression: Preventing uncomfortable thoughts streaming into the conscious

4. Mature

Altruism: Behaviour that brings pleasure to others and internal satisfaction.

Anticipation: Knowing and accepting that future discomfort may occur.

Humour: Expressing unpleasant thoughts in a humorous way i.e. making fun of uncomfortable situations.

Introjection: Identifying with a person or object so much that it becomes part of the individual.

Sublimation: Turning negative emotions into more positive actions, behaviour, or emotions.

Thought suppression: Consciously pushing thoughts into the unconscious i.e. not paying attention to an emotion in order to cope with the present situation.

Classic psychoanalytic theory posits gender differences in personality, indicating that women tend to have a passive orientation and men an active one (Freud, 1933).

Gender differences have traditionally been found in DM research over the last 40 years. In line with Freud’s original theory, research findings have been categorised along an internal-external taxonomy with results generally converging to suggest that women use more internalising defense mechanisms and men more externalising defences.  Whilst the underlying processes of differential gender defense strategies is beyond the scope of the present study, previous research has implied the role of socialisation patterns, which favour the development of certain defences over others in men and women

It has been speculated that as a consequence of their greater passivity, women find it more difficult to express aggression outwardly and so are more likely to turn it on themselves and rely on defences that modify inner thoughts and feelings (e.g. denial).  In contrast, men depend more on defences that locate conflict in the external world (e.g. projection).  However, despite this broad classification, results are far from systematic and vary with sample and methodology employed.  For example, whilst men have been found to score higher on projection, displacement and aggressive forms of acting out, results for reaction formation (internalising defence mechanism) have been less consistent.

The clinical usefulness of identifying gender differences in defensive styles is twofold.  First, clinicians who are aware of gender specific defence patterns are better prepared to facilitate insight. Second, monitoring changes in defensive functioning may be a helpful tool in assessing psychotherapeutic effectiveness

There are various self-report defence mechanism measures that most notably the Defense Mechanism Inventory, the Defense Style Questionnaire  and the New Defense Style Questionnaire. Further, as noted above there is some disagreement about the full list of DMs and how they are defined. Here is another:

Acting out–expressing an emotion or urge without being aware of it

Compensation—offsetting your weaknesses by doing the opposite, counterbalancing, making up for them

Denial—refusing to accept the obvious truth in an unpleasant situation; insisting on the opposite; contradicting the evidence.

Displacement—channelling emotions onto another target rather the one that produced it; transferring feelings onto somebody more acceptable/closer/ less threatening

Distortion—substantial, grotesque alteration of events or reality

Fantasy—escaping the reality by focusing inwards, imagining revenge or your own death; excessive day dreaming

Humour—expressing otherwise unpleasant thoughts in a humorous way for pleasure; making fun of bad situation

Hypochondriasis—complaining of unknown illnesses; constantly worrying and talking about health issues as a reaction to negative feelings towards others

Idealization—refusing to see the negatives in others; praising something or someone; putting them on a pedestal

Identification—role modelling; taking on behavioural patterns of another person; moulding oneself on other

Intellectualization—objectively explaining the events; using logic to justify the situation

Introjection—relating to ideas; associating with objects or  other people so much they become part of you

Isolation—isolating the emotional and rational part of the event; talking about traumatic experiences without displaying feelings

Passive aggression-—expressing your anger and frustration indirectly to other people

Projection—imputing your own negative qualities, emotions, behavioural motivations to others

Rationalization—giving false rational or logical reasons for behavioural or situational outcomes, i.e. when you fail to get something, saying that you did not even want it that much

Reaction Formation—reacting in an opposite way to the emotion, reversing the feeling

Regression—acting childishly; throwing tantrums; reverting to an earlier stage of development

Repression—preventing unpleasant ideas or memories to reach conscious awareness; blocking them

Sublimation—channelling emotions into socially productive forms of behaviour: drawing, writing poetry, taking up sports as a release of emotions

Suppression—pushing away unpleasant feelings to the unconscious, bottling up anxiety, keeping the traumatic feelings inside in order not to think about them.

These days psychologists seem more interested in what are called coping strategies (CS)  rather the DMs. The question is what is the difference? According to Cramer, who worked extensively in the area, there are major differences. First CSs are conscious while DMs are deployed unconsciously. Second, CSs are usually used intentionally while DMs are used unintentionally. Third, CSs are often situationally determined in the sense that people use them differently in diffferent social contexts while DMs are disposition and a reflection of personality and used consistently across situations. Fourth, most CSs are associated with normality while the DMs still have a flavour of pathology.

Some of the ideas and insights from those researching the DMs are quite profound and it is a literature that all interested in coping, resilience and mental health would benefit from periodically revisiting.


Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the self: Defense mechanisms in action. New York: Guilford Press.

Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. New York: International Universities Press.

Furnham, A. (2012). Lay understandings of the defence mechanisms: The role of personality traits and gender. Psychology ,Health and Medicine, 17, 723-734.

Vaillant, G.E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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