10 Defense Mechanisms We All Use and How They Work

What are your defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are ways you react when faced with negative emotions. According to the psychoanalytic approach, when you experience a stressor, the subconscious will first monitor what’s happening to see if the situation might harm you. If the subconscious believes there’s any threat of emotional harm, it may respond by activating a defense mechanism to protect you.

Generally, you’re unaware of the defense mechanisms you’re employing, though the behavior may seem odd to others around you. Many studies place these mechanisms on a continuum, with less mature ones causing harm and more mature ones improving cognitive processes.

In the long term, mature defense mechanisms may not be detrimental to your mental or emotional health. Using more mature mechanisms may help you face the situations and anxieties that might normally cause stress and emotional distress.

Other defense mechanisms, however, are not as helpful. Prolonged use of those defenses can lead to lingering issues. In fact, they may prevent you from ever tackling your anxieties and emotional issues because they block you from addressing the root cause.

Let’s see which are the most common types of defensive mechanisms and how they work!

defense mechanisms
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1. Repression

Painful memories, irrational beliefs, and unsavory thoughts can upset you, and it is often pretty uncomfortable to deal with those. Instead of facing those thoughts, people may choose to hide them in hopes of making them disappear entirely. This is something that always happens unconsciously, but through practice, you can be able to start recognizing it when you avoid experiencing painful feelings.

Through repression, you ignore uncomfortable thoughts, but they don’t disappear entirely. They may still impact future relationships, and they may influence certain behaviors. You just may not realize how this defense mechanism is affecting you.

2. Denial

Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms. It happens when you refuse to accept facts or reality. People in denial may block external circumstances or events from their minds so that they don’t face the emotional impact. To put it another way, they avoid painful feelings or events.

This coping mechanism is one of the most widely known, according to psychologists. The phrase, “They’re in denial,” is commonly said about someone who’s avoiding reality despite what may be crystal clear to people around them.

Similar to other defense mechanisms, you can only notice this when you practice awareness.

3. Displacement

You direct frustration and strong emotions toward a person or object that doesn’t feel threatening. This enables you to satisfy an impulse to react, without facing or risking significant consequences. According to experts, this is one of those defense mechanisms that happen without our being conscious of them.

A good example is getting angry at your spouse or child because you had an awful day at work. Neither of these people is the real target of your strong, distressing emotions, but your subconscious may think reacting to them is likely less damaging than reacting to your boss.

4. Projection

Some feelings or thoughts you have about another person may make you uncomfortable. When people project those thoughts or feelings, they misattribute them to the other person.

For instance, you may not like your new co-worker, but instead of accepting that, you choose to convince yourself that they don’t like you. You start to interpret their actions and words towards you in the worst way possible, creating scenarios in your head even though they don’t actually dislike you.

Keep reading to discover other common defense mechanisms!

defense mechanism
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5. Regression

Some people who feel anxious or threatened may unconsciously “escape” to an earlier stage of development. This kind of defense mechanism may be most obvious in young children. For example, if they experience loss or trauma, they may suddenly behave as if they are younger again. They may even begin sucking their thumb or wetting the bed as a form of regression.

However, adults can regress, too. Grown-up individuals who are struggling to cope with behaviors or events may return to overeating foods they find comforting, sleep with a cherished stuffed animal, or begin chewing on pencils or chain smoking. They may also avoid day-to-day activities because they feel overwhelmed.

6. Sublimation

This kind of defense mechanism is considered a mature, positive strategy. This is because people who rely on it choose to redirect strong feelings or emotions into an activity or object that is safe and appropriate.

For instance, instead of snapping at your coworkers during a stressful shift, you choose to funnel your frustration into a kickboxing class. You could also channel or redirect the feelings into art, music, or sports.

Again, this is one of those defense mechanisms that can actually help you inflict less harm on yourself and others.

7. Rationalization

Some people may attempt to use their own sets of “facts” to justify their undesirable behaviors. According to psychologists, this happens more often than we think.

Have you ever tried telling yourself that a decision you made was what needed to be done, but something was telling you that it wasn’t actually right? This is called rationalization.

Another example would be when someone who doesn’t get a promotion at work may say they didn’t want the promotion anyway.

It’s difficult to say whether this falls among the positive or negative defense mechanisms. It really depends on how often you rely on it. If you’re more of a person who feels safer within their comfort zone, you may think that possible changes are actually bad for you, and sometimes this can mean missing a better life.

8. Compartmentalization

Separating your life into independent areas may feel like a way to protect various aspects of it.

For instance, when you choose not to discuss personal stuff at work, you block off, or compartmentalize, that part of your life. This enables you to carry on without dealing with the challenges or anxieties while you’re in that mindset or setting.

Similar to other defense mechanisms, this one isn’t necessarily bad or good. If you’re working in an environment where people don’t talk about personal issues at all, you may actually abide by the unwritten rules, so it’s not actually a defense mechanism. However, if you choose to do that, you may want to ask yourself why you do that and what’s making you block off elements of your life outside of work.

defense mechanism
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9. Reaction formation

People who use this defense mechanism are aware of how they feel, but they choose to act in the opposite manner of their instincts.

For example, a person who reacts this way may feel they shouldn’t express negative emotions, such as frustration or anger. They choose to instead react in an overly positive way. Also known as the people-pleaser trait, it’s common for those who’ve been told by their parents to behave nicely and not fuss or cry in front of other people.

10. Intellectualization

When you’re hit with a challenging or distressing situation, you may choose to erase all emotion from your responses and instead focus on quantitative facts. In other words, you may do that to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Your mind is trying to shield you from distressing events or feelings.

You may see this strategy in use when someone spends their days creating spreadsheets of job leads or opportunities after they are let go of a job.

Intellectualization can sometimes be a healthy defense mechanism, but it can also be an unhealthy strategy to avoid emotions. If a person doesn’t have the space or time to process challenging feelings, intellectualization can be a good coping tactic to set the emotions aside temporarily. Later, at a more convenient time, when they have the support system they need, they can process the feelings.

However, intellectualization can become unhealthy if a person never faces the distressing emotions they’re pushing aside. These feelings can build up and lead to worsening mental health conditions like anxiety, panic disorders, or mood disorders.

Want to read more about defense mechanisms? This book explains at length each type and how they shape our lives.

If you liked our article, you may also want to read 10 Most Common Types of Trauma Explained.




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