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Defense Mechanisms

The different ways of dealing with pain are called defense mechanisms, this is when people
experience difficulties, they have different ways of handling their pain.

Originally conceived by Sigmund Freud, much of the development of defense mechanisms was
done by his daughter, Anna Freud.

Defense mechanisms can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the circumstances and how
much a person uses them.

If you slam down your briefcase because you are mad at your wife one time, that's not a big deal. But
if you frequently take your anger out by throwing or breaking things, there might be a better way of
dealing with your anger.

Defense mechanisms
This can hide many different feelings from anger to love to sadness. There are a variety of other
defense mechanisms such as minimizing, blaming, diversion, withdrawal, mastery,
compensation, conversion, disassociation, idealization, identification, incorporation, introjection,
substitution, and symbolism.

Name of


Burying a painful feeling or thought from your awareness


though it may resurface in symbolic form. Sometimes


You can't remember your father's


considered a basis of other defense mechanisms.


Not accepting reality because it is too painful.

You are arrested for drunk driving

several times but don't believe you have
a problem with alcohol.


Reverting to an older, less mature way of handling

stresses and feelings

You and your roommate have get into an

argument so you stomp off into another

room and pout


Attributing your own unacceptable thoughts or feelings to

someone or something else

You get really mad at your husband but

scream that he's the one mad at you.


Everything in the world is seen as all good or all bad with

nothing in between.

You think your best friend is absolutely

worthless because he forgot a lunch
date with you.

Isolation of

Attempting to avoid a painful thought or feeling by

objectifying and emotionally detaching oneself from the

Acting aloof and indifferent toward

someone when you really dislike that


Channeling a feeling or thought from its actual source to

something or someone else.

When you get mad at your sister, you

break your drinking glass by throwing it
against the wall.


Adopting beliefs, attitudes, and feelings contrary to what

you really believe

When you say you're not angry when

you really are.


I always study hard for tests and I know

Justifying one's behaviors and motivations by substituting
a lot of people who cheat so it's not a big
"good", acceptable reasons for these real motivations
deal I cheated this time.


Handling your own pain by helping others.

After your wife dies, you keep yourself

busy by volunteering at your church.


Focusing on funny aspects of a painful situation.

A person's treatment for cancer makes

him lose his hair so he makes jokes
about being bald.


Intense rage redirected in the form of

Redirecting unacceptable, instinctual drives into personally
participation in sports such as boxing or
and socially acceptable channels


The effort to hide and control unacceptable thoughts or



Trying to reverse or "undo" a thought or feeling by

You have feelings of dislike for someone
performing an action that signifies an opposite feeling than
so you buy them a gift
your original thought or feeling

You are attracted to someone but say

that you really don't like the person at all

Defense Mechanisms

Explanations > Behaviors > Coping > Defense Mechanisms

Anxiety and tension | Defense Mechanisms | So what?

Sigmund Freud describes how the Ego uses a range of mechanisms to handle the conflict
between the Id, the Ego and the Super ego. His daughter Anna introduced the principle of

inner mechanisms that defend the ego in her 1936 book 'The Ego and the Mechanisms of

Anxiety and tension

Freud noted that a major drive for most people is the reduction in tension, and that a major
cause of tension was anxiety. He identified three different types of anxiety.

Reality Anxiety
This is the most basic form of anxiety and is typically based on fears of real and possible
events, such as being bitten by a dog or falling from a ladder.
The most common way of reducing tension from Reality Anxiety is taking oneself away from
the situation, running away from the dog or simply refusing to go up the ladder.

Neurotic Anxiety
This is a form of anxiety which comes from an unconscious fear that the basic impulses of the
ID (the primitive part of our personality) will take control of the person, leading to eventual
punishment (this is thus a form of Moral Anxiety).

Moral Anxiety
This form of anxiety comes from the Superego in the form of a fear of violating values and
moral codes, and appears as feelings of guilt or shame.

Defense Mechanisms
When anxiety occurs, the mind first responds by an increase in problem-solving thinking,
seeking rational ways of escaping the situation. If this is not fruitful (and maybe anyway), a
range of defense mechanisms may be triggered. These are tactics which the Ego develops to
help deal with the Id and the Super Ego.
All Defense Mechanisms share two common properties :

They often appear unconsciously.

They tend to distort, transform, or otherwise falsify reality.

In distorting reality, there is a change in perception which allows for a lessening of anxiety,
with a corresponding reduction in felt tension.
Anna Freud's Defense Mechanisms include:

Denial: claiming/believing that what is true to be actually false.

Displacement: redirecting emotions to a substitute target.

Intellectualization: taking an objective viewpoint.

Projection: attributing uncomfortable feelings to others.

Rationalization: creating false but credible justifications.

Reaction Formation: overacting in the opposite way to the fear.

Regression: going back to acting as a child.

Repression: pushing uncomfortable thoughts into the subconscious.

Sublimation: redirecting 'wrong' urges into socially acceptable actions.

After the initial list, many other mechanisms for coping with the difficulties life
throws at us have been identified by other analysts and authors.

Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychic processes

that provide the ego with relief from the state of psychic
conflict between the intruding id, the threatening superego
and the powerful influences emanating from the external
Due to these forces in the mind opposing and battling
against each other, anxiety signals an internal danger.
These mechanisms come into play to enable the ego to
reach compromise solutions to problems that it is unable
to solve, by letting some component of the unwelcome
mental contents emerge into consciousness in a disguised
How efficiently these mechanisms are to strengthen the
ego and to what extent they further different forms of
compromise formations that may turn out to be

psychoneurotic symptoms, depends on how successfully

the ego reaches a higher or lesser degree of integration of
these conflicting forces in the mind.
The more the ego is blocked in its development for being
entangled in its earlier conflicts (fixations), clinging to
archaic modes of functioning, the greater is the possibility
of succumbing to these forces.
Anna Freud, in The Ego and The Mechanisms of Defence (1946),
formulates the hypothesis that what the ego fears most is
the return to a previous stage of fusion with the id, in case
repression fails or instincts are too intense. In order to
ensure the maintenance of the level of organization
achieved, the ego has to protect itself from the invasion of
instinctual demands (drives) of the id and from the return
of the repressed contents.
In fact, in the chapter "The Ego's Dependent Relations",
in The Id and the Ego (1923), Freud says: "psychoanalysis is
the instrument to enable the ego to achieve a progressive
conquest of the id".
Psychoanalysis aims at transforming greater amounts of
what once belonged to the id into acceptable possessions
of the ego, along with its main purpose of turning
unconscious contents into conscious ones. Thus, the mind
can find solutions that were previously unattainable to the
immature ego.

The major defense mechanisms are the following:

1. Repression - the withdrawal from consciousness of an
unwanted idea, affect, or desire by pushing it into the
unconscious part of the mind.
2. Reaction formation - the fixation in consciousness of an idea,
affect, or desire that is opposite to a feared unconscious
3. Projection - unwanted feelings are attributed to another
4. Regression - a return to forms of gratification belonging to
earlier phases, due to conflicts arising at more developed
5. Rationalization - the substitution of the true, but threatening
cause of behavior for a safe and reasonable explanation.
6. Denial - the conscious refusal to perceive disturbing facts.
It deprives the individual of the necessary awareness to
cope with external challenges and the employment of
adequate strategies for survival as well.
7. Displacement- the redirection of an urge onto a substitute
8. Undoing - is achieved through an act, which goal is the
cancellation of a prior unpleasant experience.
9. Introjection - intimately related to identification, aims at
solving some emotional difficulty of the individual by

means of taking into his personality characteristics of

someone else.
10. Sublimation - part of the energy invested in sexual
impulses is shifted to the pursuit of socially valuable
achievements, such as artistic or scientific endeavors.

This was the first defense mechanism that Freud discovered, and arguably the most
important. Repression is an unconscious mechanism employed by the ego to keep
disturbing or threatening thoughts from becoming conscious. Thoughts that are often
repressed are those that would result in feelings of guilt from the superego. For example, in
the Oedipus complex aggressive thoughts about the same sex parents are repressed.
This is not a very successful defense in the long term since it involves forcing disturbing
wishes, ideas or memories into the unconscious, where, although hidden, they will create

* Projection
This involves individuals attributing their own thoughts, feeling and motives to another
person. Thoughts most commonly projected onto another are ones that would cause guilt
such as aggressive and sexual fantasies or thoughts. For instance, you might hate
someone, but your superego tells you that such hatred is unacceptable. You can 'solve' the
problem by believing that they hate you.

* Displacement
Displacement is the redirection of an impulse (usually aggression) onto a powerless
substitute target. The target can be a person or an object that can serve as a symbolic
substitute. Someone who feels uncomfortable with their sexual desire for a real person may
substitute a fetish. Someone who is frustrated by his or her superiors may go home and
kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage in cross-burnings.

* Sublimation
This is similar to displacement, but takes place when we manage to displace our emotions
into a constructive rather than destructive activity. This might for example be artistic. Many
great artists and musicians have had unhappy lives and have used the medium of art of
music to express themselves. Sport is another example of putting our emotions (e.g.
aggression) into something constructive.
For example, fixation at the oral stage of development may later lead to seeking oral
pleasure as an adult through sucking ones thumb, pen or cigarette. Also, fixation during the
anal stage may cause a person to sublimate their desire to handle faeces with an enjoyment
of pottery.
Sublimation for Freud was the cornerstone of civilized life, arts and science are all
sublimated sexuality. (NB. this is a value laden concept, based on the aspirations of a
European society at the end of the 1800 century).

* Denial
Denial involves blocking external events from awareness. If some situation is just too much
to handle, the person just refuses to experience it. As you might imagine, this is a primitive
and dangerous defense - no one disregards reality and gets away with it for long! It can
operate by itself or, more commonly, in combination with other, more subtle mechanisms
that support it. For example, smokers may refuse to admit to themselves that smoking is
bad for their health.

* Regression
This is a movement back in psychological time when one is faced with stress. When we are
troubled or frightened, our behaviors often become more childish or primitive. A child may
begin to suck their thumb again or wet the bed when they need to spend some time in the
hospital. Teenagers may giggle uncontrollably when introduced into a social situation
involving the opposite sex.

* Rationalization
Rationalization is the cognitive distortion of "the facts" to make an event or an impulse less
threatening. We do it often enough on a fairly conscious level when we provide ourselves

with excuses. But for many people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy
that they never are truly aware of it. In other words, many of us are quite prepared to
believe our lies.

* Reaction Formation
This is where a person goes beyond denial and behaves in the opposite way to which he or
she thinks or feels. By using the reaction formation the id is satisfied while keeping the ego
in ignorance of the true motives. Conscious feelings are the opposite of the unconscious.
Love - hate. Shame - disgust and moralizing are reaction formation against sexuality.
Usually a reaction formation is marked by showiness and compulsiveness. For example,
Freud claimed that men who are prejudice against homosexuals are making a defense
against their own homosexual feelings by adopting a harsh anti-homosexual attitude which
helps convince them of their heterosexuality. Other examples include:
* The dutiful daughter who loves her mother is reacting to her Oedipus hatred of her
* Anal fixation usually leads to meanness, but occasionally a person will react against
this (unconsciously) leading to over-generosity.

Anxiety and Ego-Defense Mechanisms

In Freud's view, the human is driven towards tension
reduction, in order to reduce feelings of anxiety.
Anxiety : an aversive inner state that people seek to
avoid or escape.
Humans seek to reduce anxiety through defense

Defense Mechanisms can be psychologically healthy or

maladaptive, but tension reduction is the overall goal in
both cases.
A comprehensive list of Defense Mechanisms was
developed by Anna Freud, Sigmund's daughter.
Anna remained with her Father throughout
his life, never marrying. In Freudian terms, she
remained trapped in her Oedipus complex, never giving up
her longing to possess her father sexually.
However, because of a strong ego and
super ego, this ID based desires were sublimated into
psychological creativity which advanced Freudian theory,
her father's greatest love.
Freud specified three major types of anxiety :
Reality Anxiety : the most basic form, rooted in
reality. Fear of a dog bite, fear arising from an
impending accident. (Ego Based Anxiety)
Most Common Tension Reduction Method :
Removing oneself from the harmful situation.
Neurotic Anxiety : Anxiety which arises from an
unconscious fear that the libidinal impulses of the ID will
take control at an in opportune time. This type of anxiety is
driven by a fear of punishment that will result from
expressing the ID's desires without proper sublimation.

Moral Anxiety : Anxiety which results from fear of violating

moral or societal codes, moral anxiety appears as guilt or
In this conception of Anxiety, we can see
why Freud concentrated on strengthening the Ego through

When some type of anxiety occurs, the mind responds in
two ways :
First, problem solving efforts are increases,
and Secondly, defense mechanisms are triggered. These
are tactics which the Ego develops to help deal with the ID
and the Super Ego.
All Defense Mechanisms share two common properties :
They can operate unconsciously
They can distort, transform, or falsify reality is some way.

The changing of perceived reality allows for a lessening of

anxiety, reducing the psychological tension felt by an
Types of Defense Mechanisms:
The most basic defense mechanism.
Sometimes referred to as : defensiveness
Repression can be conscious but is most commonly
Advantages :
Can prevent inappropriate ID impulses from becoming
Can prevent unpleasant thoughts from becoming
Can prevent memories of things we have done wrong from

Repression does not have to be total, partial memories

where only the single piece of damaging information is
"forgotten" is common.
What an individual represses depends upon cultural
expectations and the particular development of an
individuals super-ego.
When people are overwhelmed by the anxiety present
within a situation, they can engage an even more severe
form of memory repression : Denial
In Denial, the individual denies that the threatening event
even took place !
In war, a mother receives word that her Son
has been killed, and yet refuses to believe it, still setting
the table for him, keeping his room and clothes current.
At school, a student seeing a grade of "C"
next to their name, and automatically assuming the
professor made a grading error.
Alcoholics and other Substance Abusers
who refuse to admit they have a problem, despite it being
very apparent to everyone around them.

Denial becomes more difficult with age, as the ego

matures and understands more about the "objective
reality" it must operate within.
People engaging in Denial can pay a high cost is terms of
cathected psychic energy which is used to maintain the
denial state.
Repression and Denial are the two main defense
mechanisms which everybody uses.
In projection, anxiety is reduced by claiming another
person actually has the unpleasant thoughts that you are
thinking. You are attributing your own repressed thoughts
to someone else.
For example, lets say that you do not like
Your mother and father always told you to treat other
people well, and to be friendly to everyone.
These thoughts from your parents become
embedded in your super ego.
You discover that you do not like this

If you allow this thought to consciously
surface, you will experience moral anxiety in terms of guilt
feelings, because this conscious thought goes against the
moral prohibitions of your super ego.
So, instead of consciously thinking the
anxiety provoking thought " I do not like this person" , this
defense mechanism allows for the non-anxiety provoking
"This person does not like
me "
This is a post-hoc (after the fact) defense mechanism.
Rationalization allows to find logical reasons for
inexcusable actions.
For Example : Cheating on Taxes
Possible Rationalization : It is better that I hold onto this
money or the government will spend it on weapons of
mass destruction.
Fail to get into Med school (law school) :

Possible Rationalization : I didn't want to pursue that

career, anyways.
Rationalization helps to protect our sense of self-esteem
Rationalization is closely tied to the Self-serving Bias : The
tendency to interpret success as inwardly achieved and to
ascribe failure to outside factors.
Thinking about events in cold, hard, rational terms.
Separating oneself from the emotional content of an event,
focusing instead on the facts.
Intellectualization protects against anxiety
by repressing the emotions connected with an event.
For example, a wife who learns her
husband is dying tries to learn all she can about the
disease, prognosis, treatment options. By doing this she
can help repress the emotional onslaught of feelings of
loss and anger which can accompany the death of a loved

Freud believed that memories could have

both conscious and unconscious aspects, and that
intellectualization allows for the conscious analysis of nonanxiety provoking information about an event.

Because of partial fixations in any of the psychosexual
stages of development, regression can occur when an
individual is faced with high levels of stress in their life.
Regression is the giving up of mature problem solving
methods in favor of child like approaches to fixing
Someone with an oral fixation may increase their cigarette
smoking of lollipop licking behavior when stressed at work.
Someone who is anal retentive might become more detail
oriented and fastidiously neater as a result of anxiety.
This regression represents a way of relating
to the world that was formerly effective.
Regression is a way to try to recapture
some childhood satisfaction.

Displacement is the shifting of intended targets, especially
when the initial target is threatening.
The classic use of displacement is in the understanding
of displaced aggression.
An individual is "dressed down" by the
supervisor at their job.
They feel anger and hostility toward their
Their ID, driven by aggressive impulses,
would like to tear the boss's head off.
The Ego, being reality based and very much
in favor of continued paychecks, realizes that this is not a
good idea and therefore does not remove boss's head.
The person goes home, but still has this
aggressive impulse.
The Ego allows for the individual to scream
at the spouse, since it feels this will not threaten future

The spouse, now angry and upset,

displaces their anger on their child, who then becomes
angry and kicks their pet dog, a further displacement of

Repression. Blocking a threatening idea, memory, or emotion from


Reaction formation. Transforming anxiety-producing thoughts into their

opposites in consciousness.

Regression. Returning to more primitive levels of behavior in defense against

anxiety or frustration.

Rationalization. Justifying ones behavior or failures by plausible or socially

acceptable reasons in place of the real reason.

Denial. Refusing to admit that something unpleasant is happening, or that a

taboo emotion in being experienced. Note: Denial distorts the way you perceive events
(I am NOT angry at you) repression blocks or distorts your memory of events (the socalled repressed memories in which a person was molested but up to this point had no
memory of it).

Displacement. Discharging pent-up feelings, usually of hostility, on objects less

dangerous than those that initially aroused the emotion.

Examples of Rationalization (taken from an Instructors Manual for Intro Psych, but I
forget which book):

After Carla rejected him, Phil told his friends that he didnt think she was very
attractive and interesting, and that he really wasnt all that crazy about her.

Jack told his parents that he got a C in his psychology course because all the As
and Bs went to students who cheated on tests and had professionals write their papers.

Bill said that the reason he flunked out of college was because of the poor quality
of teaching there.
Examples of Reaction Formation:

George feels that his younger son, Gary, is unattractive and not very smart. He
accuses his wife of picking on Gary and favoring their other son.

Lucy dresses in provocative clothes and uses suggestive language although she
fears that she is unattractive and she really isnt very interested in sex.

John has a lot of unconscious hostility toward his father but he acts very
affectionate toward him and tells other people that he and his father have a wonderful
Examples of Regression:

After Sue Anns baby brother was born, she began to talk baby-talk and suck her

Mary was homesick and anxious when she moved into the dormitory and started
her first year in college. She began to sleep with her favorite teddy bear again.
Examples of Denial

Sixteen-year-old Tom had started using drugs, and the changes in his behavior
made it pretty obvious, but Toms parents didnt believe the school principal when she
called to talk with them about the problem.

Bill, who is 50 years old wears clothes that you would see on teenagers and
drives a sports car. He cant see that he doesnt look 30, or even 40, anymore.

Shakespeare: The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.

From Academic Earth: This lecture introduces students to the theories of

Sigmund Freud, including a brief biographical description and his contributions to the
field of psychology. The limitations of his theories of psychoanalysis are covered in
detail, as well as the ways in which his conception of the unconscious mind still operate
in mainstream psychology today.

Read more: http://www.thepsychfiles.com/2007/02/episode-5-in-defense-of-defensemechanisms/#ixzz3LPHpj3LD