The Psychology Of Defense Mechanisms, Explained By Experts
Sometimes when life gets hard, our minds do a funny thing. Instead of facing the challenge head-on, we subconsciously twist our internal story of what's happening into something different. Something that's more palatable, or something that feels more within our control.
In psychology, these mental gymnastics are known as defense mechanisms.
What are defense mechanisms?
Defense mechanisms are unconscious behaviors or psychological strategies people use to avoid experiencing anxiety, discomfort, or threats to the ego. Common examples of defense mechanisms include denial, projection, rationalization, and suppression, among many others.
People are typically not aware when they're using these self-protective methods, according to couples' therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC. "Because they're survival adaptations, it would be misguided to say defense mechanisms are bad, wrong, or unhealthy," she adds. "At the same time, they tend to block our awareness of our true underlying experiences, create tension in our bodies, and make it harder for us to be truly intimate and vulnerable with others."
The concept of defense mechanisms stems from Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory and was developed in detail by his daughter Anna Freud, who in 1937 published her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence describing 10 main defense mechanisms. Today, the concept continues to be an important part1 of how many psychologists and mental health professionals understand how to best support the people they work with, with the goal being to help them develop more self-awareness and healthier ways of coping with stressful situations.
How they work.
The psychology behind defense mechanisms starts with Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, which holds that an individual's personality has three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is the primal part of ourselves that seeks to fulfill our most basic desires and impulses, whereas the superego is the part of ourselves concerned with upholding morality and social norms. The ego is the realistic part of ourselves that attempts to satisfy, moderate, and balance the needs of the id, the superego, and reality.
In the Freudian psychological framework, defense mechanisms are actually ego defenses—methods used by the ego to protect against the anxiety of dealing with the competing, often incompatible demands of the id and the superego. When situations arise where the id, superego, and reality are in conflict with one another, the ego attempts to protect itself from the resulting discomfort by using these defense mechanisms.
As one 2015 study2 puts it, defense mechanisms are used "in order to maintain mental homeostasis and protect the conscious mind from the effects of such conflicts." In essence, the subconscious mind attempts to protect the conscious mind from being aware of the uncomfortable feelings so the individual can continue to move through the world "normally" with as little disruption as possible.
There are different types of defense mechanisms1, ranging from primitive and neurotic to mature and adaptive. The healthier end of the spectrum might be more accurately described as positive coping strategies, whereas the other end of the spectrum represents emotional dysregulation, dysfunctional self-protective behaviors, and high internal conflict. (The latter is more typically what people are referring to when they use the term "defense mechanism.")
Here are some examples of defense mechanisms and how they're used in action:
Projecting is taking a negative quality about yourself and attributing it to someone else. For example, a person who is a spendthrift constantly accusing their partner of being irresponsible with money, or a person with insecurities about their body projecting that onto others by making critical comments about their bodies.
"Projection is one of those relationship experiences that can make you feel crazy," relationship counselor Margaret Paul, Ph.D., writes for mbg. She notes that it can also happen in parent-child relationships: "Maybe your parents called you selfish, irresponsible, or crazy or told you to stop being angry when they were the ones being selfish, irresponsible, off-kilter, or getting angry."
Displacement is another way of redirecting your feelings away from the correct target. In this case, a person transfers their emotional reaction from one thing onto another, such as when a person is having an ongoing conflict at home and takes out their frustrations on their coworkers, or vice versa.
Someone is in denial when they refuse to accept reality or acknowledge the facts of a situation, such as when a person refuses to acknowledge their partner is cheating on them despite catching them in the act, or when a woman in a toxic relationship continues to act like there's nothing wrong with how her partner treats her.
Repression is a defense mechanism wherein the subconscious mind blocks out unpleased feelings, events, or memories, such as when a trauma survivor cannot remember the actual details of what happened to them despite the fact that they were conscious when it was occurring. They have repressed those memories in order to cope with the trauma. (That said, sometimes certain triggers can cause the repressed memory to resurface, which can sometimes be therapeutic if done in a safe setting with a therapist but potentially retraumatizing in other contexts.)
Suppression is similar to repression, except that it's done more consciously. A person may choose to suppress difficult memories, ideas, or feelings by trying to push these thoughts out of their mind.
According to psychotherapist Emily Roberts, LPC, one of the most common ways this defense mechanism gets deployed is when people try to suppress their emotions to avoid having to deal with them. But it tends to be a double-edged sword: "We've learned how to push discomfort away, but even when we do, it always stays—and grows," she writes at mbg. "When we avoid our emotions, we're actually making them stronger. This can create many maladies in the body and in the mind, causing a myriad of health issues3."
Regression is a defense mechanism wherein a person will revert to an earlier developmental stage when faced with certain types of stressful situations, such as a person who starts sulking childishly in the face of rejection or when an adult reenacts teenage behavior around their controlling parents.
"These dynamics may feel comfortable, even if in reality they're anything but," social psychologist Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D., recently told mbg. "You can slide back into these very familiar patterns of interaction without even realizing it."
Rationalization can take many forms, but it refers to when we try to justify unacceptable behavior using logic or reason rather than acknowledging the true, emotional, and potentially negative truths behind why we did what we did. For example, a guy who cheated on his partner might try to justify his actions by saying he was drunk so it "shouldn't count," or he might point to the fact that he and his partner don't have sex that regularly to justify why he sought sex elsewhere behind her back.
Intellectualization is a defense mechanism wherein you overly focus on the intellectual aspects of an issue to avoid dealing with the emotional parts of it. "A cognitive defense mechanism might be talking intellectually about the cycle of life and death, how nobody escapes it, and how everybody grows old and dies when someone has just asked you how you feel about someone you love passing away," says Muñoz.
Reaction formation refers to when a person replaces their initial reaction toward a situation with the opposite feelings or behavior, in an attempt to hide how they really feel. For example, someone might be overly nice to someone who they secretly dislike, or a person might laugh when they're uncomfortable or breaking down inside.
Or take the example of a person with a superiority complex: "Superiority complexes usually are defense mechanisms that come from deep personal insecurities, shame, and feelings of being inadequate in some way," licensed mental health counselor Hailey Shafir, M.Ed., LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS, previously told mbg. "Because shame is such a distressing and uncomfortable emotion, a person may use their defenses to hide these feelings from others, deny them in themselves, and avoid having to experience them."
Another example may be stonewalling: Rather than acknowledging how activated and upset they are, a person may shut down during a conflict and become nonresponsive or dismissive.
Sublimation is the channeling of one's emotions or urges into something more useful or safe, such as a person leaning into sports as a way to release stress and aggression or someone who transmutes sexual energy into fuel for creative projects. This can actually be a healthy coping mechanism when deployed consciously.
Sometimes we compartmentalize—i.e., separate into categories—different parts of our life in order to avoid emotions or need from one area of our life from conflicting with or disrupting other areas of our life. For example, oftentimes people compartmentalize family stress or anxiety about larger global issues while they're at work, setting aside those feelings completely during their work hours so they're able to function well enough to perform their job duties.
Sometimes we use distractions as a defense mechanism—such as when we fall into an endless social media scrolling to distract from the stress of our daily lives. Another example might be spending two hours shopping on the internet when you're feeling lonely or ashamed, says Muñoz.
Dissociation is essentially "spacing out" or "checking out" mentally from the situation you're in. People might dissociate when dealing with a stressful or traumatic situation to avoid having to feel the pain associated with it.
A person may try to "undo," backtrack, or otherwise make up for their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors as a defense mechanism, such as when a person prefaces a strong opinion with a disclaimer that essentially nullifies what they're about to say, or when a person focuses on doing nice things for a person they hurt in an attempt to assuage their own guilt.
Passive-aggressive behavior, in addition to being an unhealthy way of communicating our feelings in relationships, is also a defense mechanism. "Being passive-aggressive means that you avoid direct confrontation by using less direct forms of communication to express negative emotions," marriage therapist Weena Cullins, LCMFT, writes at mbg. People use passive-aggressive behavior because they're uncomfortable with being honest about how they feel, whether because they're generally uncomfortable with their emotions or because they expect the other person won't be receptive to their true feelings.
Yes, even humor can be used as a defense mechanism, such as when people make jokes about a traumatic or tragic event to avoid having to feel the pain or sadness associated with it. The character Chandler Bing on Friends is a classic example of someone using humor as a way to deflect from his anxiety, insecurities, and general day-to-day miseries.
Acting out is a very basic defense mechanism: To avoid naming or acknowledging negative emotions, a person may instead "act them out," such as a person who starts yelling and screaming during an argument instead of directly saying that they're angry or upset. Another example might be a person who resorts to impulsive, reckless, or otherwise problematic behaviors to distract themselves from feeling their difficult emotions.
A person may choose to avoid people, places, or experiences that are associated with negative feelings as a way to avoid having to deal with them head-on. For example, a person with abandonment issues might avoid relationships completely so they don't need to deal with the fear or sadness of getting abandoned. This is common behavior among those with an avoidant attachment style.
Conversion is actually a psychosomatic defense mechanism, wherein a person develops physical conditions or sensory issues to cope with emotional distress. An example might be someone who witnesses a tragedy but failed to say something to stop it from happening in the moment; unable to cope with the guilt, the person develops a physical inability to speak at all. This response is also known as conversion disorder, and it appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, though research on it is still ongoing4.
Identification, also known as introjection, is when a person unconsciously adopts or reproduces the feelings or behavior they see in other people. "It occurs as a normal part of development, such as a child taking on parental values and attitudes," licensed psychoanalyst Jordan Dann, MFA, LP, CIRT, writes at mbg. "However, it can also be a defense mechanism, and in many instances, introjection creates unconscious behavior, rigidity, anxiety, fixedness, and suffering."
A person may focus on excelling in one area of their life in order to distract from the areas in which they feel they're lacking. For example, a woman who feels she's failing in her romantic life may compensate by becoming hyper-focused on professional achievement, or a man who's insecure about his body may try to compensate by becoming rich and flaunting his wealth.
Isolation of affect
This refers to when a person talks about events and experiences always focusing on the facts of what happened while avoiding, ignoring, or otherwise leaving out any of the emotions associated. For example, a woman might focus on describing the events and logistics of her divorce whenever she talks about it without ever bringing up how it felt for her emotionally.
Altruism can sometimes be used as a defense mechanism, and it can even be a healthy coping strategy in some situations. For example, a person who is depressed might find it rewarding to support other people living with depression, and it might even personally help that person with their own mental health.
As another example of a defense mechanism on the healthier side of the spectrum, a person who is headed into a potentially stressful situation might try to think ahead and anticipate what emotional troubles they might encounter, so that they can plan how to deal with them in the moment. As long as this is done without rumination—i.e., overthinking about what's to come—this can be a healthy type of coping mechanism.
Why people use defense mechanisms.
People use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from unwanted or difficult feelings, says Muñoz, though especially with the less healthy methods, it's usually not a conscious decision. "We're mostly unaware that we're using defense mechanisms," she explains. "They tend to be unconscious, at least until we put in the effort to become more aware of them."
According to Muñoz, most of our defense mechanisms are usually learned in childhood. "Defense mechanisms are a huge part of what has helped us survive difficult or overwhelming physical, emotional, and psychological experiences as we've moved through childhood and adolescence into adulthood," she explains.
Despite helping us move through difficult experiences in the past, Muñoz notes that many of our defense mechanisms can contribute to relationship issues, emotional issues, and even physical ones, wherein we may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety or stress but not realize it. "Many of our somatic complaints and interpersonal problems can be traced to our defense mechanisms," she explains.
Recognizing your defense mechanisms.
Often our defense mechanisms keep us from fully understanding ourselves and from dealing with difficult situations in ways that are healthy and truly healing. And as Muñoz points out, the disconnect between what we're acknowledging and what we're actually experiencing can create feelings of tension, both emotionally and physically, that may cause even more discomfort than if we actually faced those feelings head-on.
Instead, Muñoz recommends taking the time to understand your defense mechanisms and how they are or aren't serving you. "It can be helpful to work with a professional who can help us increase our awareness of our defenses," she suggests. "The more aware you become of your defenses, the more you have a choice to do something else rather than unconsciously using them."
She offers some examples: "If you're a woman who cries instead of connecting with her anger, for example, you can begin to practice experiencing your anger directly and learning to be more assertive. If you're a man who realizes that you tend to blanket your grief and other emotions with anger, you can learn to make room for a range of feelings and be vulnerable to this experience. In both of these examples, reducing your reflexive use of a defense can help you understand yourself better and forge safer, more trusting, intimate relationships."
There are many ways to develop better self-awareness. Then, from that place of awareness, you can move into learning new, healthier ways of dealing with stress rather than relying on unproductive defense mechanisms.
How to respond to someone using a defense mechanism.
It's not always appropriate to call people out on their defense mechanisms, according to Muñoz—it depends on your relationship.
"Pointing out people's defenses without their permission is a subtle boundary violation," she notes. It can feel very vulnerable and even shattering to have someone name out loud something that you're trying very hard to keep withheld. It can also feel condescending to have someone "psychoanalyze" you when you haven't yourself invited them to unpack and process with you.
"That said, there may be certain situations where you may need to call out someone's defense," she says. "If someone unfairly accuses you of being angry (for example), it may be appropriate to say, 'Listen, I think there's something else going on here. Is it possible that you're the one who's angry, and you're projecting your anger onto me?'"
(Here's more on how to deal with a defensive partner.)
Learning to recognize our defense mechanisms can be an eye-opening, humbling, and even frightening process. These subconscious behaviors have often kept us safe from difficult situations throughout the years, and so giving them up can be a scary task. But the more we can truly understand ourselves and our feelings, the easier it will be to know what we need to do to truly and fully care for ourselves.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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