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Defense Mechanisms

Your 9 Top Defense Mechanisms, Revisited

New research suggests we reconsider knee-jerk reactions and focus on change.

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When you think of defense mechanisms, you probably think back to what you learned about Freud, and you can likely list many of them off the top of your head. Terms such as “repression,” “denial,” and even “reaction formation” are now part of the popular vernacular. The traditional psychoanalytic view is that these defense mechanisms spring up from your grown-up ego as it tries to protect you from your infantile id. According to a new paper by Villanova’s Daniel Ziegler (2016), you can understand these classic defense mechanisms even after you strip away their psychoanalytic roots, using Rational Emotive Cognitive Behavior Therapy (RECBT).

The basic assumption of RECBT, developed by legendary psychologist Albert Ellis, is that positive emotional states arise when we interpret our experiences in ways that allow us to feel good about ourselves. We're not trying to protect ourselves from naughty desires, but from low self-esteem and feelings of disappointment in ourselves. The negative emotions we experience, such as anxiety and depression, arise from so-called irrational beliefs that we must be perfect, above reproach, and above all, loved.

For example, you may correctly perceive that someone doesn’t like you. This will lead you to feel sad, so the theory goes, when you also hold the irrational belief that you must be loved by everyone. You reason that “X doesn’t love me; I must be loved; and therefore I am no good and miserable.” The core of RECBT is that if we are able to develop more rational interpretations of our experiences, then we will not needlessly punish ourselves over imagined failures or losses.

Defense mechanisms, Ziegler argues, also “distort, deny, or falsify perceptions of reality” (p. 138). In contrast to psychoanalysis, RECBT argues that defense mechanisms aren’t buried in the unconscious. Further, Freudian theory believes that even under the best of circumstances, we'll always need our defense mechanisms, especially the "good," or psychologically healthy, ones. RECBT proposes, in contrast, that your defense mechanisms get in the way of your happiness and should be discarded if you are to live your life to the fullest. This is the good news: If they’re not long-buried in the unconscious, then you should be able to articulate and then rid yourself of the defense mechanisms that keep you trapped by negative emotions, insecurity, and self-doubt.

This is how RECBT works with each of these defense mechanisms:

1. Repression

This is the fundamental defense mechanism in Freudian theory: What you forget can’t hurt you. In RECBT, the repression involves not your ugly impulses, but the irrational beliefs (“everyone must love me”) that operate below your conscious awareness. RECBT targets the so-called "automatic thoughts" that make you feel miserable because they stem from irrational beliefs that you are unable to articulate. Once these irrational beliefs make it into your consciousness, you (or your therapist) can challenge and change your thoughts.

2. Projection

In projection, you take what you think are unacceptable impulses and literally “project” (or attribute) them to others. In Freudian theory, these are illicit desires, and in RECBT, they are ideas about ourselves that we can’t accept. The reason they are unacceptable is that they negatively reflect how you feel you “should” be. Perhaps you’re plagued by the belief that sexuality is bad because of an overly harsh upbringing. If you have lustful thoughts, it means that you are a “terrible” person. For example: “I must never have any lustful thoughts or feelings toward any woman other than my wife (irrational belief) and, if I do, it is terrible, horrible, awful, and catastrophic!’’ (p. 140). So you protect yourself from the anxiety of admitting that you occasionally have lustful thoughts by shifting them to others. It's other people—not you—who are unholy. In RECBT, you can overcome the results of this projection by swapping your irrational belief (all sexuality is bad) with a rational belief (it’s OK to have sexual feelings).

3. Displacement

Transferring your unacceptable feelings toward someone you’re supposed to love (or perhaps fear) onto a safer target is the hallmark of displacement. The classic example is that you’re treated badly by your boss, so you go home and express your anger by yelling at someone in your family. The RECBT analysis of this situation is that you use displacement because you feel your treatment was unfair. To be treated unfairly is not right. In fact, it is the worst thing that can happen to you. Because it is the worst thing that can happen and because it is unfair (even if it isn’t), then, of course, displacement will occur. This reaction only makes things worse and does nothing to change the situation at work. REBCT says that you can overcome the need for displacement by challenging the belief that you must always be treated fairly. You can also change your reaction by defining it not as anger, but as frustration or disappointment. If you can do this, you won't get mad at people who have nothing to do with your situation at work.

4. Rationalization

In this defense mechanism, you use an excuse to justify an experience that reflects negatively on you. Although you know you're using an excuse, you don't realize that you're doing it. According to RECBT, you can overcome the need for this defense mechanism by not needing excuses, or being able to “handle the truth.” You may have failed at something, forgotten an important task, or been late, but rather than make up endless reasons to exonerate yourself, accept the fact that once in a while, even good people do something bad.

5. Reaction Formation

The basic idea behind this rather circuitous defense mechanism is that you turn your unacceptable impulses into their opposite: The sex-obsessed individual becomes the prude. Of course, the best example of this is Dana Carvey’s "Church Lady" skit on Saturday Night Live. In RECBT, it’s not negative sexual impulses that drive you into reverse, but the irrational belief that even your normal feelings of anger or worry are completely unacceptable. Reaction formation becomes a way to protect your own self-respect and self-esteem, but not a very productive one. You can’t possibly express anger toward your child, for example, when you become frustrated about something the child does—that would make you a terrible mother. Instead, you become overly indulgent and loving to a fault. Once you leave reaction formation behind, Ziegler maintains, you can have a non-conflicted relationship with your children, and other loved ones, who occasionally annoy you or make you angry.

6. Denial

Classic denial means that you deny having negative or harmful impulses; if you did, you'd be overwhelmed with anxiety. In RECBT, it’s not sexual or aggressive impulses, it's awareness of experiences or events that would challenge your favorable view of yourself or the world. Being protected from reality might allow you to feel better, but RECBT states that you are better off accepting the truth. You may need help to do this, and Ziegler believes the best way is to bring a person’s awareness gradually in line with reality. Confronting someone with news that they've already classified as threatening won't help the situation. Easing into the truth in measurable doses is far more productive.

7. Regression

The Freudian view of regression is that when you're stressed, you revert to an earlier psychosexual stage when you felt happier and more secure (think of a thumb-sucking preschooler). In contrast, according to RECBT, you begin to act like a child when your frustration level builds up so much that you actually feel like a child: “I can’t stand this!” The way out of this defense mechanism is to understand that you’re only blocking yourself more when you behave in a childish way. Acknowledging that situations can be frustrating, and then giving yourself permission to feel frustrated, will allow you to manage those negative feelings without having to grab the nearest security blanket.

8. Intellectualization

Like rationalization, in intellectualization, you come up with a reason to explain away the negative results of an event or encounter. Consider this situation: You break your favorite butter dish. However, instead of allowing yourself to become even temporarily annoyed, you distance yourself entirely and just go on to put the butter in something else. RECBT proposes that experiencing anger, when appropriate, is a healthy response to this situation.

9. Sublimation

In the Freudian view, sublimation is perhaps the healthiest of all defense mechanisms. You take unacceptable impulses—the classic one being sexual desire directed at an inappropriate target—and turn them into behaviors that will not cause problems, and may even do some good. RECBT doesn’t find sublimation to be a harmful defense mechanism because it allows us to be productive contributors to society. We write poetry, play music, and pursue our career exploits because we’re making our sexual energy useful. In my opinion, this view misses an opportunity to maintain RECBT's cognitive focus, instead regarding sublimation in terms similar to those of classic Freudian theory (without sex, we'd do nothing useful with our lives). Ziegler believes that this defense mechanism characterized Ellis, the hero of RECBT himself, who wrote about how he turned his own sex drive and obsession with the woman he eventually married into creative outlets. I argue that creative expression can simply emerge from the desire to create, not procreate.

In summary, RECBT shows how our defense mechanisms don’t have to be psychological albatrosses we bear our entire lives. Dispensing with irrational beliefs can help you achieve fulfillment by allowing you to express, and accept, yourself as you are—even if you're not perfect.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Ziegler, D. J. (2016). Defense mechanisms in rational emotive cognitive behavior therapy personality theory. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 34(2), 135-148. doi:10.1007/s10942-016-0234-2