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10 Common Defense Mechanisms in Mental Health

Common Defense Mechanisms in Mental Health

Humans are resilient creatures and the human brain is a wonderfully complex structure. The instinct of self-preservation is deeply rooted in the human psyche. As our brains develop, through time and experience, our self-preservation instincts can become stronger, for better or for worse. This is not only the case for physical self-preservation, it also applies to protecting our mental health from negative outside forces and trauma.

Defense mechanisms are a set of actions, thought patterns, and behaviors that people use to separate themselves from harmful thoughts, events, or actions. The human brain uses these psychological strategies in order to distance itself from unwanted feelings and threats, such as guilt or shame.

The idea of psychological defense mechanisms was first proposed by pop-psychologist Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century. While many of his theories have been criticized and even debunked, Freud’s work on this particular subject is broadly agreed upon as accurate. His daughter, Anna Freud, expanded upon this subject and wrote the very first definitive book on defense mechanisms, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense in 1936.

The Freudian theory of mental defense mechanisms argues that these behaviors are not always under conscious control. Many people exhibit one or more of these mechanisms without even realizing they’re doing so.

It is also important to realize these defense mechanisms are a natural and normal part of psychological development. By being aware of the signs of each defensive behavior, it can help you better understand what a loved one, and even yourself, is going through.

The Top 10 Most Common Psychological Defense Mechanisms

Psychologists have categorized defense mechanisms based on a scale of how “primitive” they are. The more primitive the defense mechanism, the less effective they are for the individual in the long-term. Primitive defense mechanisms are typically very effective in the short term, that’s why they are favored by many people, especially children. Adults who never learn more effective and healthy coping strategies may also rely on these primitive defense mechanisms as well.

Since Freud’s initial work on the subject, many more types of defense mechanisms have been identified but the following 10 have been shown to be the most commonly exhibited by people.

1. Projection

This first common type of mental defense mechanism occurs when a person attributes their feelings of shame or insecurity to another person. This also occurs when any thoughts or feelings they may have about someone make them uncomfortable. Rather than confronting their feelings of insecurity, they may subconsciously convince themselves that the other person is the issue, not themself.

A common example of this phenomenon occurs in the schoolyard. We’ve all seen, in movies or real life, the school bully picking on kids for one reason or another. This bully may target another child with constant taunting and insults, but in reality, that bully is projecting his feelings of insecurity and inadequacy upon the other child. Most cases of school bullying involve projection, or one of the other common defense mechanisms, in some capacity.

2. Denial

Perhaps the most common psychological defense mechanism of them all is denial. When someone refuses to face or accept reality or facts, despite being presented with hard evidence, they are said to be in denial. This occurs when a person blocks external circumstances or events in order to avoid dealing with any emotional impact that they may carry.

This is commonly seen in people who are suffering from addiction or substance use issues. While a person may be fully aware of their substance use issues, they may be in denial about the negative consequences of their actions. They’re avoiding reality despite the negativity of the situation being obvious to the people around them.

3. Repression

Repression occurs when a person blocks out troubling events or experiences from entering their conscious thought. Painful memories, troubling thoughts, or irrational beliefs can be upsetting. Rather than face them, a person may unconsciously choose to block them in an attempt to forget them entirely.

An example of this may include someone experiencing a traumatic event as a child, only to push that memory back into their subconscious. This memory is not gone entirely, it’s simply gone from conscious thought. Think of it like putting something away in a closet. The item still exists, although it may not be directly in your line of sight. 

Repressed memories can show themselves in any number of ways. They can still influence behaviors and relationships, leading to issues with trust and other things. Many people that are repressing memories aren’t even aware they are doing it, that’s where seeking guidance from a mental health professional can be beneficial.

4. Regression

While most commonly experienced by children, regression occurs when someone regresses to an earlier stage of maturity or development when faced with situations that cause anxiety or make a person feel threatened. 

Regression as a defense mechanism is most noticeable in young children. Many children who experience traumatic events or loss may begin to act as if they’re in an earlier stage of development. Some examples of regression behavior in children may include sucking their thumb or wetting the bed.

Regression in adults can be similar but also has its own set of symptoms. An adult who is having trouble coping with trauma may regress to sleeping with a childhood stuffed animal, or binge-eat foods from their childhood that make them feel comfortable. Many psychologists believe that for people suffering from substance use issues, relapsing may be a form of regression. The person is regressing to using a substance that once made them feel happy or comfortable.

5. Rationalization

One common defense mechanism occurs when a person explains negative behaviors by presenting their own set of logical reasons or explanations. This allows the person to feel comfortable with their actions or choices while realizing, on some level, that they aren’t correct.

One example of this in the workplace may involve one worker lashing out at a co-worker for missing a deadline on an assignment, while completely ignoring they are frequently late on deadlines as well.

This also occurs in people who suffer from substance use disorders. For example, a person may have arbitrary rules and tell themselves “my substance use isn’t an issue because I’m still able to pay all of my bills.” This rationalization may be completely ignoring how the person is neglecting their relationships or other aspects of their life.

6. Compartmentalization

Not all mental defense mechanisms are inherently unhealthy. Compartmentalization can be an effective way to manage multiple stressors if done in a healthy way. It involves a person separating their life into independent sectors to keep stress from one part of their life from leaking into the other parts.

It can also be potentially unhealthy as well. Compartmentalization entails a person building mental walls to prevent inner conflict. This can often lead to logical contradictions with a person’s personality. For example, consider a scientist who is also a deeply religious person. Because they can block off parts of their mind into cognitive compartments, they can have complete faith while at church but question the logic of everything while in the laboratory.

The most common form of this defense mechanism occurs when someone prefers to keep their work-life separate from their home life and vice versa. While at home, a person may block off, or compartmentalize, their stresses from work in order to avoid anxieties at home.

7. Intellectualization

Intellectualization involves focusing on the intellectual rather than emotional consequences of a situation. This removal of all emotions allows a person to use reason and logic in order to avoid anxiety-inducing or uncomfortable situations.

For example, if a person’s partner were to move out unexpectedly, they may respond by forming a detailed financial plan for the next six months rather than addressing how their partner leaving makes them feel. The negative emotional feelings of the breakup may manifest themselves in ways that a person doesn’t even realize.

While this defense mechanism can be useful in certain situations, it can also cause people to downplay or not realize the importance of their own emotions and feelings. Rather, this person may treat all difficult situations as objective problems that must be solved.

8. Sublimation

Sublimation is another common defense mechanism that can be positive if utilized in a healthy way. It requires a slightly more self-aware approach to be done correctly. It occurs when a person channels their socially unacceptable impulses or behaviors into socially acceptable actions and behaviors. In many cases, this can result in the long-term conversion of the initial unhealthy impulse into something more acceptable.

This type of behavior is often found in people who suffer from addiction, either substance or sexual. Many people in recovery channel their negative urges into things such as exercise and other physical activities.

One example of sublimation as a defense mechanism involves intrusive sexual urges. Consider a married man going out of town on business who experiences strong urges to have an affair and cheat on his wife. A way to sublimate these feelings would be to channel them into learning more about the city, his industry, or expanding his network of business associates.

9. Displacement

Displacement as a defense mechanism involves redirecting an emotional reaction from the rightful recipient to another person altogether. Typically this is a child or another person that poses no threat. This allows a person to satisfy their need to react while avoiding the potentially awkward confrontation with the person they’re angry with.

Someone who uses displacement as a strategy may have a difficult day at work and not deal with it appropriately. The natural reaction to being treated unfairly at work would be to address the situation with the human resources department or another higher authority. Rather than react appropriately, our subject opts to take his aggression out on his spouse and child. Neither of these people deserves to be the target of his strong negative emotions, but the consequences of taking his anger out on them are lesser than the consequences of lashing out at his boss.

10. Reaction Formation

This defense mechanism involves expressing or behaving in a manner that is the opposite of a person’s true feelings. Typically, the person is fully aware of how they feel but chooses to act in a manner that is opposite of their instincts. Think of this as denial taken to an extreme point. A person who uses reaction formation as a defense mechanism may start to show conscious behaviors to overcompensate for the anxiety they feel regarding unconscious thoughts or emotions that they deem as socially unacceptable.

A classic example of reaction formation can occur in the workplace. Consider that a person has a particular distaste for a coworker, but rather than allow these feelings to become public knowledge, they choose to treat that person in a saccharine or overly-courteous manner.

SUN Behavioral Delaware Can Help You Develop Healthy Ways to Cope with the Difficulties of Everyday Life.

At SUN Delaware, our skilled and compassionate mental health professionals use the best industry-led and evidence-based treatment modalities to help you learn new, healthy ways to cope with the difficulties of life. 

Our outpatient clinic uses every tool at our disposal to help give our patients a path to recovery and wellness. This includes everything from psychopharmacology to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The SUN team guides each patient through the process and provides all the tools necessary for recovery.

Call us today at 302-604-5600 to get started on your path towards wellness.


  • What are defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are strategies that our brains use to protect themselves from negative feelings such as guilt or anxiety. The idea was first introduced by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century and it is concluded that these thoughts often occur subconsciously, or without us even realizing it.

  • Why do we use defense mechanisms?

We’ve developed different strategies for self-preservation. This applies to physical self-preservation, such as reaction instincts when we fall, but it can also apply to psychological instincts. Our brain develops defense mechanisms to protect itself from negative feelings such as shame, guilt, or anxiety. 

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