Defense mechanisms are human behaviors that are used to deal with unpleasant feelings, events, thoughts, or actions. What is the first thing you do if there’s a physical threat? Naturally, you do whatever you can to defend yourself.

The same concept applies when there is an emotional or mental threat in your life. You use defense mechanisms to deal with them. We use such mechanisms to distance ourselves from unpleasant feelings like guilt or shame. 

Defense mechanisms are explained in the psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud. The theory states that behaviors like defense mechanisms are out of a person’s control or are done unconsciously. You use defense mechanisms without even realizing it. 

Defense mechanisms are a normal part of our psychological development. Whether they are used to avoid unwanted thoughts or deal with anxiety, defense mechanisms will always be a part of our everyday life. 

For some, defense mechanisms are used positively, while some use them in an unhealthy manner. What are the common defense mechanisms, and why do we use them? Read more to find out. 

Why Do People Use Defense Mechanisms?

Here are common reasons why people like you and me use defense mechanisms:

  • As psychological strategies to deal with stress positively
  • To find an excuse to defend an unhealthy behavior
  • To avoid dealing with hurtful emotions
  • As pain avoidance when you feel threatened
  • As a mental time-out to adjust to changes in life 

10 Most Common Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are used every day, and the person may not be aware they’re actually using them. Learn about the ten most common defense mechanisms and see if you can relate to them. 

1. Denial

Denial is a common defense mechanism that comes naturally to humans. In fact, it’s the first stage of grieving if a loved one dies. Denial occurs when you refuse to accept reality. You deny what’s happening in front of you even it’s obvious to the people around you. For some, this is their first instinct when receiving bad news. 

Example of Denial:

You refuse to accept the reality that your loved one died and wish you were just dreaming, or it’s not really happening. Another example is a person who excessively drinks, denies having substance use problems, and denies not needing help. 

2. Projection

Projection is a defense mechanism where a person may project their unacceptable behavior onto others. In other words, you’re attributing your unwanted behaviors or unacceptable impulses and making it appear that it’s the people around you who are manifesting such behaviors. 

Projection happens because it may be hard for some people to accept their bad behaviors. Anger is often projected onto another person. What you may not be conscious of is that what you blame on other people is actually a reflection of your personality. 

Example of Projection:

A husband has anger management problems and may become hostile. Instead of acknowledging that behavior, the husband blames the wife for having anger issues, which in reality is not true. 

3. Repression

Painful memories, traumatic experiences, and heart-breaking events are upsetting. Instead of facing these painful thoughts or feelings the right way, some unconsciously repress or hide those feelings. Some pretend to forget those events, while others block their thoughts entirely or shut down their feelings. 

Repression is a way of “feeling okay for now,” as painful memories will not disappear entirely. It’s like sweeping the dirt under the rug; it may not be seen on the surface, but it’s still there. Instead of dealing with it the healthy way, these feelings may influence a person’s behavior, change their mood, and impact their relationships. 

Example of Repression: 

A child who was physically abused chose to repress those memories. Later in life, they may find it hard to form meaningful relationships because the trauma was not dealt with properly. 

4. Regression

Another common defense mechanism is regression, whose root word is “regress,” which means the act of going back or returning. Someone who feels anxious or worried about a situation may unconsciously return to their earlier stage of development, which is not appropriate for their age. 

Like middle-school-aged children who experienced trauma, who haven’t wet their bed for a long time now, suddenly start to wet their bed after the trauma. In short, regression makes a person act younger than what is expected of their age. 

Example of Regression: 

An adult who’s too stressed at work may start to bite their nails or begin to watch their favorite cartoons to be happy. 

5. Displacement

Displacement is another common defense mechanism that you may have experienced at least once in your life. This defense mechanism involves taking out your frustrations or anger to people or objects around you. Furthermore, you take out these frustrations on others who have nothing to do with why you’re upset in the first place. 

Example of Displacement:

You’re having a bad day at work, so you take your anger or frustrations to your partner or child. You’re displacing your anger to the wrong people. Never take your anger to the people you love, as this may affect your relationships. 

6. Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is a defense mechanism in which a person recognizes their feelings, chooses to deny them, and acts the opposite way. It may be detected as being “pretentious” because you’re acting differently from what you truly feel. 

People who use reaction formation may show exaggerated behaviors of showiness or compulsiveness to the point that the behavior becomes too apparent to the people around them. 

Example of Reaction Formation: 

Someone else was promoted to the position you badly want. You try to act professional, but you know deep inside that you’re more deserving of the job. You react by exaggeratedly congratulating that person to cover your frustration. You may pretend to be happy for them or clap your hands with exaggerated behavior. 

7. Rationalization

Rationalization is a defense mechanism where you try to rationalize or give reasons when bad things happen. You try to make excuses for your bad behavior and cover up the real reasons behind that action.

Rationalization has both a good and bad side. It can prevent a person from feeling anxious by not overthinking the situation because they justified their actions. Furthermore, rationalization can protect a person’s self-esteem and self-concept. 

In rationalization, when the person experiences success, they credit the achievement to their skills or capabilities. However, in the face of failure, they try to rationalize the situation and blame other people or factors that seem out of their control.

Example of Rationalization: 

You didn’t meet the deadline for a project. You rationalize the situation by blaming it on your slow internet connection. But the truth is, you were procrastinating, even though you had plenty of time to finish the project. 

8. Sublimation

Of all the defense mechanisms, sublimation is the most positive strategy. Sigmund Freud called sublimation a sign of maturity. How so? Sublimation is about taking your strong emotions and redirect them to something appropriate, safe, healthy, or socially acceptable ways. 

Example of Sublimation

You are stressed at work. Instead of taking it out on your family, you go to the gym to exercise or to box to channel your frustrations in a healthy way. For some, they redirect their negative emotions by writing songs, painting, or blogging. 

9. Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization means creating compartments in your life. This psychological defense mechanism means you’re separating your work life, family life, or romantic relationships to prevent conflicting emotions. This mindset is helpful, especially when it comes to workplace issues. 

Example of Compartmentalization: 

You don’t want to think or talk about your issues at work, and vice versa. This can help you concentrate well at work and not think about problems at home. You don’t think about the stress at work at home, which may prevent the displacement defense mechanism. 

10. Intellectualization

In intellectualization, you choose to block off your emotions when you’re in a bad situation. Instead, focus on the quantitative facts. You do not allow your emotions to get the best of you and focus your attention on the intellectual side of your issues. Intellectualization may help reduce anxiety. 

Example of Intellectualization: 

You got fired from your job. Instead of sulking and thinking about your painful feelings, you gather information about the job opportunities you can apply to. Or you use this opportunity to learn new skills and pursue your dream job. 

Final Thoughts

Some forms of defense mechanisms may be viewed as self-deception. Some may be helpful, some maybe not; either way, negative emotions should be dealt with the healthy way, not hide them.

If you have unhealthy defense mechanisms like denial, projection, regression, repression, or displacement, you need to learn coping strategies to overcome them. These behaviors can still be changed if you’re willing to do something about them. 

Talking to a mental health professional can help bring awareness to your unhealthy defense mechanisms. Talk to a counselor at Kentucky Counseling Center (KCC) and get your feelings sorted out. Many people just let their negative feelings slide, causing more damage in the long run. Don’t let this happen to you. 

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