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Defense Mechanisms

Defense Mechanisms in Therapy and Parenting

We often hide from ourselves unpleasant or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings.

Why is Sigmund Freud, who was born 163 years ago on May 6, 1856 in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and died on September 23, 1939 in England as World War II began) still relevant in the 21st century?

Nicolaus Copernicus uncovered that the Earth was not the center of the universe and Charles Darwin proposed that humankind was not a unique creation. Freud revolutionized our conception of ourselves: We are not totally in conscious control of our thoughts and actions. Freud understood the ubiquity of unconscious mental activity as well as the importance of our past experiences in affecting our present actions. Both ideas have been confirmed in recent decades.

Most importantly, he discovered that we often hide from ourselves unpleasant or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. These psychological maneuvers are called defense mechanisms, a psychoanalytic construct that has been empirically studied and validated and, likely, one of Freud’s most original contributions to the understanding of human behavior. In recent years, it has become clear that the psychological construct of defense mechanisms is very similar to the neuroscientific construct of Implicit Emotion Regulation, which is defined as any process which occurs without conscious intent in order to modify an emotional response.

Examples of defense mechanisms include denial, which is normally utilized by young children, projection, used by school-aged children, and identification, predominantly used by adolescents. Some defense mechanisms are highly adaptive, self-observation, sublimation, and humor, while others are not terribly adaptive, such as acting out and passive aggression as well as psychotic distortion and delusional projection.

From the beginning of his career, Freud was aware of the centrality of defense in mental life. Yet, in his early formulations, defense and pathology were equivalent. At first, Freud thought that in order to bring about therapeutic change, the analyst’s job was to attempt to forcibly overcome the patient’s defenses in order to allow for free awareness and expression from the patient’s unconscious.

Freud came to appreciate that defensive reactions were ubiquitous and automatically expressed in order to guard against problematic or unpleasant thoughts and feelings. He came to see that in psychotherapy or psychoanalysis these defenses had to be respected and addressed in a therapeutic manner rather than forcibly overcome.

A valuable method for trying to understand the way a person is dealing with inner conflict in a maladaptive way involves utilizing The Conflict of Defense Triangle, first proposed by David Malan. In this conceptualization there are three poles:

  1. The manifest maladaptive behavior or symptom is considered to be a defensive maneuver protecting the person from a painful emotion that needs to be avoided.
  2. Situations that trigger the painful emotion.
  3. Conscious awareness of that emotion needs to be vigorously avoided, thus leading to the maladaptive manifest behavior or symptom.

Understanding these dynamics enables the clinician to formulate a sensitive approach to the patient, regardless of the person’s psychopathology.

This approach can not only help therapists but also parents. For example, when children are disruptive, rather than simply attribute the misbehavior to naughtiness, parents can learn to observe what occurs prior to the disruption. They can learn which situations, in particular, cause the child to mask or to transform his or her unbearable emotions. With particular painful states, the child may find it easier to act up rather than feel the pain.

Some children are over-responsive to negative emotions. For example, 6-year-old Tommy had difficulty tolerating the presence of his 2-year-old brother. When the little brother was born, Tommy often told his parents to bring the baby back to the hospital. He seemed sad when that did not happen. The overt sadness subsided and instead Tommy started to become aggressive, refusing to let the brother touch his toys. The parents felt that Tommy needed more severe discipline. Instead of improvement, the increased discipline led Tommy to become more upset with his brother and parents; his angry outbursts increased. In discussion with a consultant, the parents began to understand that Tommy’s aggression was a defensive response in order to avoid his painful sadness at feeling displaced by the new child in the family.

They gradually understood that he was not simply attacking. They appreciated that the aggressive action served as a defensive maneuver on Tommy’s part to mask sad feelings. This allowed the parents to approach Tommy in a more effective way. They gradually could balance understanding him with more appropriate limit-setting.

In other words, by accepting the power of a child’s dynamics, parents can uncover more effective ways to help their children bear painful emotions. This is crucial because the capacity to accept and master painful feelings strengthens a person’s ability to function in an adaptive manner, improving the person’s sense of mastery and confidence.


For further reading see Chapter 3 in Hoffman, L., Rice, T. R., with Prout, T. A. (2016). Manual of regulation-focused psychotherapy for children (RFP-C) with externalizing behaviors: A psychodynamic approach. New York, NY: Routledge.