Psychological Defense Mechanisms Defined (Part 2)

Following are definitions of some typical defense mechanisms, organized hierarchically from the least to the most effective.

Pathological Defense Mechanisms

Phobia formation is a means to avoid dealing with a root or primary anxiety by developing a substitute: for instance avoiding crowds (agoraphobia) instead of dealing with a fear of work meetings.

Denial is a primitive mechanism that is part of very early childhood development. Denial is the refusal to accept reality or a particular fact because it is too threatening and anxiety producing. In the face of the evidence, we fight by minimizing the issue. To give an example, in a case of physical violence, the victim insists ‘it wasn’t that bad’. Denial can mean flatly rejecting reality. This happens through suppression, repression or blocking.

There are however some situations where denial is adaptive and not pathological. For example, it might be adaptive for a person who is dying to have some denial.

Distortion involves grossly reshaping external reality to meet internal needs, such as by falsifying your memories of a situation,  to make it more acceptable or so that in your mind you become the victim rather than the culprit.

Delusional or paranoid projection involves full-blown delusions about external reality–– usually including a feeling of persecution. This causes the sufferer to become isolated from reality and create an imaginary alternative world.

Regression is reverting to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses. For  example an older child who is overwhelmed with fear, anger and growing sexual impulses,  might become clinging and begin thumb-sucking.

Splitting (also known as black and white thinking).  This means thinking in absolutes, with no middle ground, such as making judgments about a person’s character on the basis of a single event. Black and white thinking is a narcissist’s main defense mechanism.

Devaluation is viewing an object or person as having exaggerated negative qualities, being flawed.  It relates to black and white thinking.

Idealisation. The other face of the black and white thinking coin. It consists in rendering  someone or something perfect and ideal.

Immature Defense Mechanisms

Fantasy is a tendency to resolve conflicts or escape real problems by retreating from reality and living through television, daydreams, the Internet, imagination, etc.This kind of defense can be beneficial if we use our fantasies to rehearse or prepare for future success or if we fantasise about future events. Constructive fantasy might involve thinking about and imagining tomorrow’s presentation at work, or relaxing during a stressful moment by thinking about upcoming holidays. Many self-help and Cognitive Behavioural therapy methods are based on fantasy, such as rehearsal, sensitization/desensitization to a future event, empathy, etc. When applied with a goal in mind, fantasy is a mature defense mechanism.

However, fantasy can also become a problem. If you begin imagining the worst possible consequences to an event, this can lead to fear or reliving a bad situation, which in turn may lead to anger and depression.

By helping us avoid condemnation and criticism, fantasizing images of success can protect our self-esteem when we fail to meet social or other expectations.   But merely imagining solutions to problems is not actually solving them! Action must follow. When a person starts to live in the world of fantasy she or he has created instead of facing the real world and real challenges, at that point fantasy has become a pathological defense mechanism.

Projection means attributing to someone else thoughts and feelings that are actually our own but that we don’t want to admit to or that we feel are unacceptable. We are projecting parts of ourselves onto someone else. This is what happens when an angry spouse accuses his or her partner of hostility,  or when an unfaithful husband displays jealousy  of his  wife whom he always thinks is being unfaithful.  Projection is the abuser’s choice of defense mechanisms when about to abuse (“s/he is jealous, it’s his/her fault) and after the abuse has taken place (“s/he made me do it”).

This defense mechanism includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, blaming and “injustice collecting”.

He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” (Nietzsche)

Projecting our negative emotions reduces anxiety because the emotion is released and expressed, without us having to actually recognize the emotion as part of ourselves. Projection is prevalent in some personality disorders

Condensation is a form of projection that involves  a third party. The person projects onto another what someone else did . To revisit the example above, an unfaithful husband would accuse his spouse of having an affair based on his knowledge that a female acquaintance may be having an affair.

Hypochondria is another immature defense mechanism that can occur when we take negative feelings we have about others and turn them into negative feelings about ourselves—going so far as to develop actual physical symptoms such as pain, illness and anxiety.

Passive-aggressive behaviour is the expression of aggression we feel towards others through indirect or passive behaviours, rather than through overt, direct hostility.

Acting-out behaviour is the direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse to avoid being conscious of the emotion that accompanies it.

Neurotic Defense Mechanisms

Intellectualization involves separating our emotions from ideas, thinking about wishes in formal, affectively neutral terms and not acting on them, distancing, and attempting to suppress or master our emotional stress. For example, instead of dealing with the fear and sadness that naturally arises when someone is told of a life-threatening illness, some people will hide behind big words and a clinical analysis of the event, say by focusing on statistical odds of recovery.

Rationalization consists of consciously reframing our perceptions in the face of changing realities in order to protect ourselves against internal guilt or to find a logical justification for a decision that was actually arrived at through a different thought process. For example, the promotion wished for and not obtained becomes “well, I didn’t want the position anyway”.

Rationalization can be constructive—for instance when someone sees the “silver lining” in an apparently negative event, or assumes that everything happens for the best and tries to find the blessing in disguise: “So, I didn’t get into med school, but now I can really focus on finding my true vocation.” Rationalization is an after-the-fact defense mechanism connected to the self-serving purpose: failure is ascribed to outside factors, whereas success comes from oneself.

Repression blocks unacceptable feelings from rising to awareness. It is a similar to suppression, and can take form of  memory lapses, or a lack of awareness of one’s physical or mental status. There is a conscious emotion, but the idea behind it is repressed or absent.  For instance a person would suppress pleasant thoughts about someone because he or she fears reject from them.

Whatever we are trying to push away into the subconscious is not lost. The subconscious tends to empower it, and the more one tries to repress something, the more powerful it becomes.

Eventually the repressed feeling will start to manifest itself in actions, often in ways that may not be clear  to the person repressing it, but that are noticed by others.

Suppression. Unlikerepression, which is unconscious, suppression is a conscious process, a choice not to think about something. Repression can often be detrimental and manifests itself through a symptom. A repressed sexual desire, for example, might re-surface in the form of a nervous cough. The individual is not conscious of the desire and cannot express it aloud, but the body still articulates the desire through symptoms. Traumatic events are said to be “repressed,” yet it seems that they are remembered in a distorted manner and can express themselves through physical ills.

Suppression generally deals with thoughts and actions that are unpleasant but not totally despicable. Suppression can therefore be managed and generally yields more positive results than repression. Sometimes it is even useful and rational to focus on one thing at a time, suppressing other problems until that one is solved. Counting to ten before doing anything when you are angry is an example of a form of suppression that can be useful and constructive in everyday life.

Withdrawal is a strategy where you remove yourself from things that remind you of painful or stressful thoughts and emotions. Because we can’t avoid daily reminders of an event, as we talk with friends, watch TV, perform some activity, etc, the regular use of withdrawal can mean the end of social life. Unless it is acknowledged and used consciously for only a limited period, withdrawal can be one the most severe defense mechanisms, leading to or exacerbating feelings of alienation and loneliness.

Reaction Formation occurs when a behaviour perceived as dangerous is converted to the opposite of what one really wants or feels­­––for example, taking care of someone when what you really wants is for someone to take care of you; or nurturing a child when your first impulse is to scold. Basically the unwanted behaviour creates anxiety, so choosing a reverse form of behaviour appears safe. If what you really feel is hate––which is morally objectionable, you turn it into love––which is agreeable and sanctioned.

This strategy of reaction is effective in the short term but it eventually breaks down, because you lose the ability to perceive your feelings accurately.

Displacement Is about separating a strong emotion from its real object and redirecting it toward someone or something that is safer or more acceptable in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening. For instance, instead of hating your father for divorcing your mother and “abandoning” you, you displace that emotion into hating your stepmother, being angry at the boss, kicking the dog, or yelling at your spouse.


Most often, we take out our frustrations on the people we love. Sometimes displacement results in suicide or depression, when frustrations are redirected towards oneself.

Compartmentalisation involved modifying or separating parts of your self from being aware of other parts of your self and adopting a temporary and drastic modification of your character to avoid emotional distress. This occurs when an honest person cheats on their tax return or rides a train without ticket.

Dissociation usually stems from a trauma, intense pain, or a serious identity crisis. It may manifest itself in disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, memory loss, Multiple Personality Disorder, Dissociative Amnesia, as well as the more common phenomena of flashbacks. Dissociatedmemories become partial and distorted. It is as if under intense stress the ability of the consciousness to include all the thoughts and emotions fails, and some are lost. In this case, a person may remember what happened, but forget how it felt.

Everyday life disassociation involves assumptions about things and people. In this case, people tend to discard some parts of reality that contradict their beliefs.

Healthy Defense Mechanisms

Fortunately, there are also mature defense mechanisms that are common in ‘healthy’ people. Many of them in fact originate in “immature” and childhood behaviours, but have been honed over time to optimize success in life and relationships. Using these defenses gives us a sense of pleasure and feelings of mastery in our life. They can help us integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts and still be effective. Other people are likely to see us as good or virtuous when we use these strategies. Examples of Healthy Defense Mechanisms include:

Sublimation means channelling our unacceptable impulses into more acceptable outlets. This strategy transforms negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behaviours, or emotions––whether through art, sports, hobbies, charity and volunteer work, or even one’s profession. Sublimation is one of the most successful and productive defense mechanisms available. It is a beneficial form of displacement. An example would be painting artwork when you’re feeling angry at something or someone.

Altruism involves constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction.

Compensation comes into play when we psychologically counterbalance weaknesses in one area by drawing on strengths in other areas, when we strive for excellence in areas where we are weak, or when we recognize a weakness in one area, but try to excel in another. These are all healthy ways to handle the anxiety of feeling inferior or inadequate. There are, however, unhealthy ways to compensate, such as a person feeling unloved becoming promiscuous, substituting quantity for quality.

Suppression, which we discussed earlier, is the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality and  being able to later access the emotion and accept it.

Anticipation involves realistic planning for future discomfort.

Humor uses the open expression of ideas and feelings––especially ones that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about––in ways that give pleasure to others. Humor lets you call a spade a spade. However, humor is not the same as wit, which is more likely to be a form of displacement. The use of caustic and demeaning humour and sarcasm is a form a disguised criticism and can be very hurtful to others.

Identification, involves identifying with someone else, adopting their personality and character, in order to solve some emotional difficulty and avoid anxiety.

Undoing Is based on the notion that it is possible to make amends, to correct mistakes we have made, and to take back behaviour and thoughts that are unacceptable. In essence, it involves feeling guilty and trying to do something to undo the harm that may have been inflicted: we are trying to reverse or undo a feeling by acting in an opposite or compensatory manner. The simplest example of this is an apology. A negative form of undoing would be to praise someone excessively after having insulted them.

Author: Pascale Aline

Psychotherapist & Performance Coach, I specialize working with tools for self enhancement, growth, productivity and healing (Biofeedback, EMDR, Mindfulness training)

2 thoughts on “Psychological Defense Mechanisms Defined (Part 2)”

    1. Thank you. The article was researched from several academic and professional sources. If you need academic references for your own purposes you are welcome to email me! Pascale


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