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Defence Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are behaviours people use to separate themselves from unpleasant events, actions, or thoughts. These psychological strategies may help people put distance between themselves and threats or unwanted feelings, such as guilt or shame.

The idea of defence mechanisms comes from psychoanalytic theory, a psychological perspective of personality that sees personality as the interaction between three components: id, ego, and superego.

First proposed by Sigmund Freud, this theory has evolved and contends that behaviours, like defence mechanisms, are not under a person’s conscious control. In fact, most people do them without realizing the strategy they’re using.


Denial is one of the most common defence mechanisms. It occurs when you refuse to accept reality or facts. You block external events or circumstances from your mind so that you don’t have to deal with the emotional impact. In other words, you avoid painful feelings or events.

This defence mechanism is one of the most widely known, too. The phrase, “They’re in denial” is commonly understood to mean a person is avoiding reality despite what may be obvious to people around them.

  1. Repression

Unsavoury thoughts, painful memories, or irrational beliefs can upset you. Instead of facing them, you may unconsciously choose to hide them in hopes of forgetting about them entirely.

That does not mean, however, that the memories disappear entirely. They may influence behaviours, and they may impact future relationships. You just may not realize the impact this defence mechanism is having.

  1. Projection

Some thoughts or feelings you have about another person may make you uncomfortable. If you project those feelings, you’re misattributing them to the other person.

For example, you may dislike your new co-worker, but instead of accepting that, you choose to tell yourself that they dislike you. You see in their actions the things you wish you could do or say.

  1. Displacement

You direct strong emotions and frustrations toward a person or object that doesn’t feel threatening. This allows you to satisfy an impulse to react, but you don’t risk significant consequences.

A good example of this defence mechanism is getting angry at your child or spouse because you had a bad day at work. Neither of these people is the target of your strong emotions, but reacting to them is likely less problematic than reacting to your boss.

  1. Regression

Some people who feel threatened or anxious may unconsciously “escape” to an earlier stage of development.

This type of defence mechanism may be most obvious in young children. If they experience trauma or loss, they may suddenly act as if they’re younger again. They may even begin wetting the bed or sucking their thumb.

Adults can regress, too. Adults who are struggling to cope with events or behaviours may return to sleeping with a cherished stuffed animal, overeat foods they find comforting, or begin chain-smoking or chewing on pencils or pens. They may also avoid everyday activities because they feel overwhelmed.

  1. Rationalization

Some people may attempt to explain undesirable behaviours with their own set of “facts.” This allows you to feel comfortable with the choice you made, even if you know on another level it’s not right.

For example, people who might be angry at co-workers for not completing work on time could be ignoring the fact that they’re typically late, too.

  1. Sublimation

This type of defence mechanism is considered a positive strategy. That’s because people who rely on it choose to redirect strong emotions or feelings into an object or activity that is appropriate and safe.

For example, instead of lashing out at your employees, you choose to channel your frustration into kickboxing or exercise. You could also funnel or redirect the feelings into music, art, or sports.

  1. Reaction formation

People who use this defence mechanism recognize how they feel, but they choose to behave in the opposite manner of their instincts.

A person who reacts this way, for example, may feel they should not express negative emotions, such as anger or frustration. They choose to instead react in an overly positive way.

  1. Compartmentalization

Separating your life into independent sectors may feel like a way to protect many elements of it.

For example, when you choose to not discuss personal life issues at work, you block off or compartmentalize, that element of your life. This allows you to carry on without facing the anxieties or challenges while you’re in that setting or mindset.

  1. Intellectualization

When you’re hit with a trying situation, you may choose to remove all emotion from your responses and instead focus on quantitative facts. You may see this strategy in use when a person who is let go from a job chooses to spend their days creating spreadsheets of job opportunities and leads.


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