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Defense Mechanisms

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies whereby people protect themselves from anxious thoughts or feelings.

Defense mechanisms aren’t inherently bad—they can allow people to navigate painful experiences or channel their energy more productively. They become problematic, however, when applied too frequently or for too long.

The concept arose from the work of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. Freud’s framework has proven nearly impossible to empirically validate, and his methods are no longer widely used in therapy. Still, his theories spurred the growth of psychology, and some of his ideas—like defense mechanisms—still stand today. Identifying when a patient employs a defense mechanism, such as projection, for instance, can be a helpful catalyst in the therapeutic process.

Schools of therapy other than Freud's psychoanalytic approach, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, observe similar tendencies and behaviors but attribute them to irrational beliefs rather than the unconscious. The overarching idea that people act out inner conflicts in specific ways still seems to be valid.

Defense mechanisms are rooted in Freud’s theory of personality. According to his model, the mind has three dueling forces: the id (unconscious and primitive urges for food, comfort, and sex), the superego (a partly conscious drive toward moral and social values), and the ego (a partly conscious force that moderates the id and superego).

Anxiety, in this paradigm, emerges when the needs of the id clash with the needs of the superego. To mitigate the tension, the ego deploys strategies of self-deception to avoid the discomfort. The unacceptable thought or emotion may be denied, for example, or rationalized or projected onto someone else.

8 Major Defense Mechanisms

Projection: Attributing one’s unacceptable feelings or desires to someone else.

Denial: Refusing to recognize or acknowledge real facts or experiences that would lead to anxiety. For example, if someone with substance use disorder doesn't see his problem.

Repression: Blocking difficult thoughts from entering into consciousness, such as a trauma survivor shutting out a tragic experience.

Regression: Reverting to the behavior or emotions of an earlier developmental stage, which might occur when a person is stressed or anxious.

Rationalization: Justifying a mistake or problematic feeling with seemingly logical reasons or explanations.

Displacement: Redirecting an emotional reaction from the rightful recipient to another person altogether. For example, if a manager screams at an employee, the employee doesn't scream back—but the employee may yell at her partner later that night.

Reaction Formation: Behaving or expressing the opposite of one’s true feelings. For instance, a man who feels insecure about his masculinity might act overly aggressive.

Sublimation: Channeling sexual or unacceptable urges into a productive outlet.

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