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Defence Mechanisms Theories of Defense Mechanisms

Defence mechanisms are unconscious strategies whereby people protect themselves from anxious thoughts or feelings.

Defence 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 defence mechanisms—still stand today. Identifying when a patient employs a defence 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-behavioural therapy, observe similar tendencies and behaviours but attribute them to irrational beliefs rather than to the unconscious. The overarching idea that people act out inner conflicts in specific ways is widely accepted.

10 Major Defense Mechanisms

Projection: Attributing one’s unacceptable feelings or desires to someone else. For example, if a bully constantly ridicules a peer about insecurities, the bully might be projecting his struggle with self-esteem onto the other person.

Denial: Refusing to recognize or acknowledge real facts or experiences that would lead to anxiety. For instance, someone with substance use disorder might not be able to clearly see his problem.

Repression: Blocking difficult thoughts from entering into consciousness, such as a trauma survivor shutting out a tragic experience.

Regression: Reverting to the behaviour or emotions of an earlier developmental stage.

Rationalization: Justifying a mistake or problematic feeling with seemingly logical reasons or explanations.

Displacement: Redirecting an emotional reaction from the rightful recipient to another person altogether. For example, if a manager screams at an employee, the employee doesn't scream back—but the employee may yell at her partner later that night.

Reaction Formation: Behaving or expressing the opposite of one’s true feelings. For instance, a man who feels insecure about his masculinity might act overly aggressive.

Sublimation: Channeling sexual or unacceptable urges into a productive outlet, such as work or a hobby.

Intellectualization: Focusing on the intellectual rather than emotional consequences of a situation. For example, if a roommate unexpectedly moved out, the other person might conduct a detailed financial analysis rather than discussing their hurt feelings.

Compartmentalization: Separating components of one’s life into different categories to prevent conflicting emotions.

Theories of Defense Mechanisms

Defence mechanisms are rooted in Freud’s theory of personality. According to his model, the mind has three duelling 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 discomfort. The unacceptable thought or emotion may be denied, for example, or rationalized or projected onto someone else.

Many of Freud’s ideas have not stood up to modern scientific scrutiny. But psychological defences have proven to be an enduring concept, one that researchers and clinicians continue to explore today.

In a testament to the intuitive appeal and potential utility of the idea of psychological defences, multiple post-Freudian theorists and researchers independently converged on the same concept. Alfred Adler developed a similar idea of “safeguarding strategies,” while Karen Horney described protective strategies used by children of abusive or neglectful parents. Leon Festinger developed the well-known concept of “cognitive dissonance,” Carl Rogers discussed the process of defence as denial and perceptual distortion, and Albert Bandura conceptualized defences as “self-exoneration mechanisms.”

The influential psychiatrist George Vaillant organized defences on a scale of immature to mature, defining them as “unconscious homeostatic mechanisms that reduce the disorganizing effects of sudden stress.” Current discussions of coping mechanisms and emotion regulation embody the idea of defences as well.

Why did defence mechanisms evolve?

Like all living systems, human beings have evolved multiple strategies for defending against threats to our survival and physical integrity. The immune system is one example; the fight-or-flight mechanism embedded in our nervous system another. Similar defensive mechanisms have likely evolved to protect and promote the integrity of our psychological architecture—our sense of self, identity, and esteem. Are our defence mechanisms unhealthy?

Defence Mechanisms in Everyday Life

Life is full of unexpected or challenging situations, and defence mechanisms can potentially alleviate that discomfort. They can manifest, for example, in passive-aggressive behaviour when two friends can’t confront conflict or when an employee displaces anger toward her boss onto her daughter that night at dinner. Defence mechanisms can reflect isolated incidents, both beneficial and maladaptive, or a consistent pattern of behaviour that can be explored with the help of a therapist.

When do individuals develop defence mechanisms?

Defence mechanisms might emerge more severely and consistently in some people due to insecurities in childhood, some psychologists believe. Children may not know how to grapple with or overcome certain challenges, which leads them to question themselves and enact defences against those challenges. Adults can address those challenges, but obsolete defence mechanisms might occasionally reappear to alleviate the stress.

Which defence mechanisms can hurt relationships?

Close relationships often arouse our deepest emotions, and sometimes we turn to defences to manage those emotions. Yet this can lead to more anxiety by driving a wedge into the relationship, so it’s valuable to reflect on whether you or your partner use certain defences. These include:

• Projection: Do you blame your partner for your flaws? Rather than admit it, do you accuse your partner of being messy or careless?

• Denial: Do you pretend that negative experiences haven’t occurred? Do you close your eyes and think that everything is going to be fine, even when your partner seems upset?


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