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.