What are defense mechanisms? These are human behaviors used to deal with unpleasant feelings, events, thoughts, or actions. If there’s a physical threat, what is the first thing you do? Of course, you have to defend yourself.

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

Defense mechanisms are explained in the Psychoanalytic Theory by Sigmund Freud. The theory explains 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 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:

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

10 Most Common Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are used every day, and the person may not be aware it’s actually happening. Know about the ten most common defense mechanisms and read if you can relate to them. 


Denial is a common defense mechanism that comes naturally to a human’s personality. 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:

After hearing the news that your loved one died, there is the denial stage. You refuse to accept the reality 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. 


Projection is a defense mechanism where a person may “project” their unacceptable behavior to others. In other words, you’re attributing your unwanted behaviors or unacceptable impulses and tag them to other people around you. 

This is because it may be hard for some people to accept their bad behaviors. Anger is often projected onto another person. Little did you know, what you blame on other people, is a reflection of your personality. 

Example of Projection:

For example, 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. 


Painful memories, traumatic experiences, and heart-breaking events are upsetting. For some, instead of facing these painful thoughts or feelings the right way, they unconsciously “repress” or hide those feelings. Some pretend to forget about those events, some block their thoughts entirely, and some 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 relationships. 

Example of Repression: 

For example, 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. 


Another common defense mechanism is regression. Regression, with the root word “regress,” 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: 

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


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

Example of Displacement:

For example, you’re having a bad day at work. 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. 

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 tagged 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, up to the point that it’s becoming too apparent to the people around them. 

Example of Reaction Formation: 

For example, 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. 


Rationalization is a defense mechanism that 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 blaming other people or factors that seem out of their control.

Example of Rationalization: 

For example, you didn’t meet a deadline of 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. 


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

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


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 the workplace. 

Example of Compartmentalization: 

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


In intellectualization, when you’re in a bad situation, you choose to block off your emotions. 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. Intellectualization may help reduce anxiety. 

Example of Intellectualization: 

For example, 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 mechanism 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 willingly do so. 

How do you do that? By talking to a mental health professional. Talk to a counselor at Kentucky Counseling Center (KCC) and get your feelings sorted out. Many people let their negative feelings slide, and it’s done more damage in the long run. Don’t let this happen to you. 

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