20 Common Defense Mechanisms and How They Work

How Defense Mechanisms Help You Cope With Anxiety

common defense mechanisms

Verywell / JR Bee

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Defense Mechanism Definition

Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological responses that protect people from feelings of anxiety, threats to self-esteem, and things that they don't want to think about or deal with.

Defense mechanisms were first described by Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytic theory. According to Freud, these mechanisms protect the conscious mind from contradictions between the animalistic id and the idealistic superego, ultimately contributing to "mental homeostasis."

Here we explain the 20 most common defense mechanisms, some of which include denial, projection, dissociation, and humor. We also share how these mechanisms work and ways to cope if you tend to use any of them.

10 Key Defense Mechanisms

Freud's daughter, Anna Freud, expanded on her father's theory by describing 10 different defense mechanisms used by the ego. When reading through them, consider whether you use any in your own life.

Defense Mechanisms vs. Defence Mechanisms

In the U.S., the term "defense mechanisms" is spelled with an 's' in defense. However, in other areas of the world, it is spelled with a 'c.' If you live in the U.K., for instance, the spelling is "defence mechansms." So, you may see it spelled either way.

 Defense Mechanism Brief Description  Example
Displacement Taking feelings out on others Being angry at your boss but taking it out on your spouse instead
Denial Denying that something exists Being the victim of a violent crime, yet denying that the incident occurred
Repression Unconsciously keeping unpleasant information from your conscious mind Being abused as a child but not remembering the abuse
Suppression Consciously keeping unpleasant information from your conscious mind Being abused as a child but choosing to push it out of your mind
Sublimation Converting unacceptable impulses into more acceptable outlets Being upset with your spouse but going for a walk instead of fighting
Projection Assigning your own unacceptable feelings or qualities to others  Feeling attracted to someone other than your spouse, then fearing that your spouse is cheating on you
Intellectualization Thinking about stressful things in a clinical way Losing a close family member and staying busy with making the necessary arrangements instead of feeling sad
Rationalization Justifying an unacceptable feeling or behavior with logic Being denied a loan for your dream house, then saying it's a good thing because the house was too big anyway
Regression Reverting to earlier behaviors Hugging a teddy bear when you're stressed, like you did when you were a child
Reaction Formation Replacing an unwanted impulse with its opposite   Being sad about a recent breakup, but acting happy about it

Displacement

Have you ever had a really bad day at work, then went home and took out your frustration on family and friends? If you answered yes, you have experienced the ego defense mechanism of displacement.

Displacement involves taking out our frustrations, feelings, and impulses on people or objects that are less threatening.

Displaced aggression is a common example of this defense mechanism. Rather than express your anger in ways that could lead to negative consequences (like arguing with your boss), you instead express your anger toward a person or object that poses no threat (such as your spouse, children, or pets).

Denial

Denial is probably one of the best-known defense mechanisms. Denial functions to protect the ego from things with which the person cannot cope and is used often to describe situations in which people seem unable to face reality or admit an obvious truth (e.g., "They're in denial").

Denial is an outright refusal to admit or recognize that something has occurred or is currently occurring. People living with drug or alcohol addiction often deny that they have a problem, while victims of traumatic events may deny that the event ever occurred.

While it may temporarily shield you from anxiety or pain, denial also requires a substantial investment of energy. Because of this, other defenses are used to help keep these unacceptable feelings from conscious awareness.

In many cases, there might be overwhelming evidence that something is true, yet the person will continue to deny its existence or truth because it is too uncomfortable to face.

Recap

Denial can involve a flat-out rejection of the existence of a fact or reality. In other cases, it might involve admitting that something is true, but minimizing its importance. Sometimes people will accept reality and the seriousness of the fact, but they will deny their own responsibility and instead blame other people or other outside forces.

Repression

Repression acts to keep information out of conscious awareness. However, these memories don't just disappear; they continue to influence our behavior. For example, a person who has repressed memories of abuse suffered as a child may later have difficulty forming relationships.

Suppression

Sometimes you might repress information consciously by forcing the unwanted information out of your awareness. This is known as suppression. In most cases, however, this removal of anxiety-provoking memories from awareness is believed to occur unconsciously.

Sublimation

Sublimation is a defense mechanism that allows us to act out unacceptable impulses by converting these behaviors into a more acceptable form. For example, a person experiencing extreme anger might take up kickboxing as a means of venting frustration.

Freud believed that sublimation was a sign of maturity and allows people to function normally in socially acceptable ways.

Projection

Projection is a defense mechanism that involves taking your own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might instead believe that they do not like you.

Projection works by allowing the expression of the desire or impulse, but in a way that the ego cannot recognize, therefore reducing anxiety.

Intellectualization

Intellectualization works to reduce anxiety by thinking about events in a cold, clinical way. This defense mechanism allows us to avoid thinking about the stressful, emotional aspect of the situation and instead focus only on the intellectual component.

For example, a person who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness might focus on learning everything about the disease in order to avoid distress and remain distant from the reality of the situation and their feelings about it.

Rationalization

Rationalization is a defense mechanism that involves explaining an unacceptable behavior or feeling in a rational or logical manner, avoiding the true reasons for the behavior.

For example, a person who is turned down for a date might rationalize the situation by saying they were not attracted to the other person anyway. A student might rationalize a poor exam score by blaming the instructor rather than admitting their own lack of preparation.

Rationalization not only prevents anxiety, but it may also protect self-esteem and self-concept.

When trying to explain success or failure, people using this defense mechanism tend to attribute achievement to their own qualities and skills while failures are blamed on other people or outside forces.

Regression

When confronted by stressful events, people sometimes abandon coping strategies and revert to patterns of behavior used earlier in development. Anna Freud called this defense mechanism regression and suggested that people act out behaviors from the stage of psychosexual development in which they are fixated.

For example, an individual fixated at an earlier developmental stage might cry or sulk upon hearing unpleasant news.

According to Freud, behaviors associated with regression can vary greatly depending on the stage at which a person is fixated. For example, an individual fixated at the oral stage might begin eating or smoking excessively, or might become verbally aggressive. A fixation at the anal stage might result in excessive tidiness or messiness.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation reduces anxiety by taking up the opposite feeling, impulse, or behavior. An example of reaction formation would be treating someone you strongly dislike in an excessively friendly manner in order to hide your true feelings.

Why do people behave this way? According to Freud, they are using reaction formation as a defense mechanism to hide their true feelings by behaving in the exact opposite manner.

7 Main Defense Mechanisms

This list is sometimes shortened to provide only seven main defense mechanisms, which are denial, displacement, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, repression, and sublimation.

10 Other Common Defense Mechanisms

Since Freud first described the original defense mechanisms, other researchers have continued to describe other methods of reducing anxiety. Some of these defense mechanisms include:

  • Acting out: Coping with stress by engaging in actions rather than acknowledging and bearing certain feelings. For example, instead of telling someone that you are angry with them, you might yell at them or throw something against the wall.
  • Aim inhibition: Accepting a modified form of their original goal. An example of this would be becoming a high school basketball coach rather than a professional athlete.
  • Altruism: Satisfying internal needs through helping others. For example, someone recovering from substance use might volunteer to help others in recovery as a way to deal with drug cravings.
  • Avoidance: Refusing to deal with or encounter unpleasant objects or situations. For example, rather than discuss a problem with someone, you might simply start avoiding them altogether so you don't have to deal with the issue.
  • Compensation: Overachieving in one area to compensate for failures in another. For example, someone who feels insecure academically might compensate by excelling in athletics.
  • Dissociation: Becoming separated or removed from your experience. When dealing with something stressful, for example, you might mentally and emotionally disengage yourself from the situation.
  • Fantasy: Avoiding reality by retreating to a safe place within your mind. When something in your life is causing anxiety, you might retreat to your inner world where the cause of the stress cannot harm you.
  • Humor: Pointing out the funny or ironic aspects of a situation. An example of this might be cracking a joke in a stressful or traumatic situation.
  • Passive-aggression: Indirectly expressing anger. Instead of telling someone that you are upset, for example, you might give them the silent treatment.
  • Undoing: Trying to make up for what you feel are inappropriate thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. For example, if you hurt someone's feelings, you might offer to do something nice for them to assuage your anxiety or guilt.

While defense mechanisms are often thought of as negative reactions, we all need them to temporarily ease stress and protect self-esteem during critical times, allowing us to focus on what is necessary at the moment.

Some of these defenses can be more helpful than others. For example, utilizing humor to overcome a stressful, anxiety-provoking situation can actually be an adaptive defense mechanism.

Recap


There are many different types of defense mechanisms that can be used to protect the ego from anxiety. Some of these can be healthier and more helpful than others.

How Do Defense Mechanisms Work?

In Sigmund Freud's model of personality, the ego is the aspect of personality that deals with reality. While doing this, the ego also has to cope with the conflicting demands of the id and the superego. 

  • The id: The part of the personality that seeks to fulfill all wants, needs, and impulses. The id is the most basic, primal part of our personalities and does not consider things such as social appropriateness, morality, or even the reality of fulfilling our wants and needs.
  • The superego: The part of the personality that tries to get the ego to act in an idealistic and moral manner. The superego is made up of all the internalized morals and values we acquire from our parents, other family members, religious influences, and society.

To deal with anxiety, Freud believed that defense mechanisms helped shield the ego from the conflicts created by the id, superego, and reality. So what happens when the ego cannot deal with the demands of our desires, the constraints of reality, and our own moral standards?

According to Freud, anxiety is an unpleasant inner state that people seek to avoid. Anxiety acts as a signal to the ego that things are not going the way they should. As a result, the ego employs some sort of defense mechanism to help reduce these feelings of anxiety.

Types of Anxiety

Not all types of anxiety are created equal. Nor do these anxieties stem from the same sources. Freud identified three types of anxiety:

  • Moral anxiety: A fear of violating our own moral principles
  • Neurotic anxiety: The unconscious worry that we will lose control of the id's urges, resulting in punishment for inappropriate behavior
  • Reality anxiety: Fear of real-world events. The cause of this anxiety is usually easily identified. For example, a person might fear a dog bite when they are near a menacing dog. The most common way of reducing this anxiety is to avoid the threatening object.

Although we may knowingly use coping mechanisms to manage anxiety, in many cases, these defenses work unconsciously to distort reality.

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Anxiety

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring neuroscientist Dr. Wendy Suzuki, shares how to cope with anxiety and how you can use it to your advantage. Click below to listen now.

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Coping With Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms

While all defense mechanisms can be unhealthy, they can also be adaptive and allow us to function normally. For example, altruism, humor, sublimation, and suppression are four mature defense mechanisms that signal higher adaptiveness.

At the same time, problems can arise when defense mechanisms are overused in an attempt to avoid dealing with problems. To keep this from happening to you, here are a few ways to cope with unhealthy defenses.

  • Develop greater self-awareness. Self-awareness helps you identify when you may be using one or more defense mechanisms too often. Once you take this step, you know where you need to make changes.
  • Learn effective coping skills. If you have an unhealthy defense mechanism, learning new coping skills can help you better deal with uncomfortable emotions. Coping skills include meditation, establishing healthy boundaries, and asking for support.
  • Seek mental health therapy. Psychoanalytic therapy can help you uncover your unconscious defense mechanisms and find better, healthier ways of coping with anxiety and distress.

A Word From Verywell

Some of the best-known defense mechanisms have become a common part of everyday language. For example, you might describe someone as being "in denial" of a problem they face. When someone falls back into old ways of doing things, you might term them as "regressing" into an earlier point of development.

Remember, defense mechanisms can be both good and bad. They can serve a helpful role by protecting your ego from stress and providing a healthy outlet. In other instances, these defense mechanisms might hold you back from facing reality and can act as a form of self-deception.

If you notice that the overuse of certain defense mechanisms is having a negative impact on your life, consider consulting with a mental health professional. Psychotherapy may help whether you pursue a traditional face-to-face treatment or an online therapy option.

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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.