Defense Mechanisms

Psychology Definition: a Freudian term referring to an unconscious avoidance of something that produces anxiety or some other unpleasant emotion.


 Primitive Defense Mechanisms

  • Denial
    • Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist.
  • Regression
    • Regression is the reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses.
  • Acting Out
    • Acting Out is performing an extreme behavior in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing.
  • Dissociation
    • Dissociation is when a person loses track of time and/or person, and instead finds another representation of their self in order to continue in the moment. A person who dissociates often loses track of time or themselves and their usual thought processes and memories.
  • Compartmentalization
    • Compartmentalization is a lesser form of dissociation, wherein parts of oneself are separated from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values.
  • Projection
    • Projection is the mis-attribution of a person’s undesired thoughts, feelings or impulses onto another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings or impulses. Projection is used especially when the thoughts are considered unacceptable for the person to express, or they feel completely ill at ease with having them.
  • Reaction Formation
    • Reaction Formation is the converting of unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings or impulses into their opposites.

Less Primitive, More Mature Defense Mechanisms

  • Repression
    • Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses. The key to repression is that people do it unconsciously, so they often have very little control over it.
  • Displacement
    • Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts feelings and impulses directed at one person or object, but taken out upon another person or object. People often use displacement when they cannot express their feelings in a safe manner to the person they are directed at.
  • Intellectualization
    • Intellectualization is the overemphasis on thinking when confronted with an unacceptable impulse, situation or behavior without employing any emotions whatsoever to help mediate and place the thoughts into an emotional, human context.
  • Rationalization
    • Rationalization is putting something into a different light or offering a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviors in the face of a changing reality.
  • Undoing
    • Undoing is the attempt to take back an unconscious behavior or thought that is unacceptable or hurtful.

Mature Defense Mechanisms

  • Sublimation
    • Sublimation is simply the channeling of unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones. Sublimation can also be done with humor or fantasy. Humor, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable impulses or thoughts into a light-hearted story or joke. Fantasy, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable or unattainable desires into imagination.
  • Compensation
    • Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other arenas. By emphasizing and focusing on one’s strengths, a person is recognizing they cannot be strong at all things and in all areas in their lives.
  • Assertiveness
    • Assertiveness is the emphasis of a person’s needs or thoughts in a manner that is respectful, direct and firm. People who are assertive strike a balance where they speak up for themselves, express their opinions or needs in a respectful yet firm manner, and listen when they are being spoken to.