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Defense Mechanisms

How Healthy Are Your Defense Mechanisms?

Research into how mature or immature responses to life affect the mind and body.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Freud may not have been right about everything but he certainly knew his defense mechanisms. His belief that we need defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from knowing just how much we are possessed by sexual and aggressive drives is now generally refuted. However, there is still relatively widespread acceptance that defense mechanisms serve an adaptive purpose. Having a healthy set of defense mechanisms can help you keep in check your anxiety, frustration, low self-esteem, and despair over the losses that life occasionally deals you.

One research team in particular seeks to discover the hidden truth behind our tendencies to hide the truth from ourselves. Psychiatrist George Vaillant, who heads up the Study of Adult Development at Harvard University, discovered a number of years ago that the key to psychological health in adulthood is the use of what he calls “mature” defense mechanisms. His taxonomy of defense mechanisms became the basis for American psychiatry’s classification of personality disorders ranging from the “acting out” and dramatic cluster (antisocial and borderline personality disorders) to the more restrained cluster in which people’s pathology is less overtly expressed (schizoid and paranoid).

The most recent findings from the Vaillant lab show more convincingly than ever that having a well-oiled defense mechanism machine can help maintain your physical as well as mental health. Johanna Malone, at the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry (2013), working with a team of researchers that included Vaillant, analyzed the data from the original sample of 268 men tested by Vaillant’s predecessors in the 1930s and 1940s. The 90 survivors formed the basis for the Malone et al. analysis of long-term health outcomes (including mortality) associated with the use of the entire range of defense mechanisms. Additionally, the MGH team measured the extent to which the men in the study received support from families, friends, and relatives.

Over the course of this remarkable study, the Malone et al. team were able to show predictive effects of defense maturity between the ages of 47-63 onto health (and mortality) at ages 70, 75, and 80 years. Defense maturity predicted these long-term health outcomes, but in an indirect fashion. Men using more mature defenses had better social support which, in turn, predicted more favorable health in life’s later decades. This pattern of findings is referred to as mediation, and given the longitudinal nature of the study, avoids the usual “correlation does not equal causation” criticism of one-shot investigations.

We can interpret the findings to mean that, at least for midlife men, being able to keep your emotions in check may set the stage for you to have more people who like to be around you. The support you receive from these people, in turn, can help you stay healthier, both mentally and physically, and even add years to your life.

Now that we’ve established the value of having mature defense mechanisms, the next question is how can you manage to develop these adaptive qualities? To answer, let’s turn to the defense mechanisms in the Vaillant framework, and see how you measure up.

In the Malone and colleagues investigation, two independent raters evaluated interviews and questionnaires completed by participants when they were between the ages of 47 and 63 among three domains—mature, intermediate, and immature. Within each category, the raters divided 8 possible points, with each domain rated from 1 to 5. You could, therefore, have a ratio of 5:2:1 if you used mature defenses most often and immature the least. Conversely, if the scale tips to 1:2:5, it means you’re primarily immature in your approach to life’s stresses.

Try to be objective, then, as you score yourself on these three categories of defense mechanisms, using that same 1 to 5 rating:

Mature Defenses

  • Sublimation: When you’re feeling anxious, you do something constructive such as cooking or woodworking.
  • Suppression: If you’re bothered by something or someone, you keep the lid on your feelings if letting them show would interfere with your goals.
  • Anticipation: When you know you’ll be faced with a challenging situation, you try to plan ahead so you won’t be overwhelmed.
  • Altruism: You derive true pleasure from helping other people—and if you couldn’t, you’d get depressed.
  • Humor: You try to see the funny side of situations, even when they’re stressful or potentially upsetting.

Intermediate Defenses

  • Displacement: Instead of showing you’re angry at a person who can get you into trouble, you shift your annoyance to something or someone less threatening.
  • Repression: You are sometimes unable to remember unpleasant experiences that you’ve had in the past.
  • Reaction formation: Rather than showing how you really feel toward someone, you show the opposite behavior.

Immature Defenses:

  • Projection: You feel that people tend to be mean or negative to you.
  • Passive aggression: When someone bothers you, such as your spouse, you deliberately do something such as shrink their favorite shirt in the wash.
  • Acting out: When you’re annoyed, you go out and do something impulsive such as going on a shopping spree.
  • Denial: You constantly are told by people that you just can’t see the reality of bad situations.

Using this scale, you can judge not only your own defense mechanisms but those of the people you know. I would not recommend using this scale to confront people who, in your mind are immature, but to gain greater insight into what makes them tick. (If you wish to see the entire scale, you can find it here.)

Fulfillment requires not only that we stay mentally healthy, but physically healthy as well. If you want to keep the social support that we know is so critical to health throughout life, the key may just be to moderate your own defense mechanisms so that you become the type of person to whom others will offer their love and support.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Malone, J. C., Cohen, S., Liu, S. R., Vaillant, G. E., & Waldinger, R. J. (2013). Adaptive midlife defense mechanisms and late-life health. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(2), 85-89. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.01.025

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