Updated on 1/27/2022
Defense mechanisms are strategies used to decrease stress and avoid inner conflict. The concept was introduced by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and later refined by his daughter, Anna Freud.
“Defense mechanisms are unhealthy ways in which a person deals with internal stressors in their life. They alleviate an issue in the interim, but there is no long lasting effect. In defense mechanisms, it’s important to recognize that there are different tiers: lower or primitive mechanisms and higher or intellectual ones.”– Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
We use many different defense mechanisms to shield ourselves from difficult thoughts, behaviors, people, and events. As you read, you’ll see defense mechanism examples and learn how these coping skills can influence your interactions with others.
Projection as a defense mechanism is when someone feels so ashamed that they’re acting a certain way. As an ego defense, they instead make it seem as if someone else is exhibiting the behavior that they’re guilty of.
For example, if you know you yell too much at your kids, you may accuse your partner of having anger management issues. While one part of the mind knows that you’re the one with an anger problem, you might be so ashamed of directly confronting this fact that you subconsciously project your insecurities onto someone else; in this case, the other parent, which is a typical psychological defense mechanism.
“Projection can be seen as a defense mechanism that’s used to deflect an issue and lay it on the party accusing the person. It can be similar to gaslighting. Ultimately, it’s a short-term alleviation and can lead to other unhealthy behaviors.”– Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
Regression is a common defense mechanism that causes someone to revert to an earlier stage of social, emotional, or behavioral development. While it’s most commonly seen in children, it can also impact adults.
One of the most common examples of regression is a temper tantrum. Temper tantrums are developmentally normal for children under the age of four, but older children and adults can also engage in tantrum-like behavior.
People typically regress when they’re struggling with fear or insecurity. Acting out through regression allows you to temporarily revert to a time in your life when you felt safe.
Denial is a classic defense mechanism whereby you deny the existence of something too difficult or uncomfortable to deal with. This mechanism is used frequently by those struggling with addiction or other mental health issues.
You might recognize this if, despite your friends remembering you have had many more drinks than you’re admitting, you’re adamant that you’re “not drinking too much. You barely had 3 drinks last night, and they were watered down.”
It’s evident that denying a problem doesn’t make it go away and makes it impossible to confront or resolve, which is why it’s essential to recognize if denial is your go-to defense mechanism.
Rationalization as a defense mechanism is a way to explain or justify thoughts, actions, or situations that a person feels uncomfortable with. While rationalization might sound logical, it covers up the true motive and emotion for a person’s behavior.
People rationalize to themselves and others. For example, after treating yourself to a luxury item like an expensive purse, you might tell yourself that the impulse purchase was a smart investment rather than what it was, a splurge.
While rationalization isn’t always harmful, it can be a form of self-deception. You might avoid confronting your true feelings when you constantly come up with excuses for certain behaviors or actions.
“Not all defense mechanisms will be detrimental to a person, but they are still unhealthy. Rationalization is one that can be kind of okay but still not healthy. When a person uses rationalization to justify a situation or behavior it can be seen as working through an issue logically. However, when a person’s or society’s ethical and moral boundaries are confronted and rationalization is employed as a result, it can be unhealthy.”– Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC
Displacement as a defense mechanism is when you use a replacement object as the recipient of feelings or behaviors because you’re afraid to direct the energy toward the person or situation you’re really thinking about.
For instance, you might feel angry at your boss for passing you over for a promotion. However, you may find it too terrifying to even think about confronting your superior. You might also be ashamed to consider that you weren’t promoted due to your performance, knowledge, or ability.
Instead of dealing with the situation directly, your unconscious mechanisms can offer a convenient out, redirecting your anger. You might come home from work that night and instantly start concentrating your frustration on the rest of your family, which is unacceptable behavior.
Sublimation is a way to channel negative feelings or urges into a more acceptable outlet. While it’s one of many defense mechanism types, it can also be a source of creative inspiration.
For example, if you find that you’re angry, you might be tempted to get involved in a physical fight. Instead of swinging your fists, though, maybe you choose to instead express your aggression by going for a run or hitting the gym.
Sublimation is considered to be a mature and healthier form of defense mechanism. Still, even though it can be helpful to redirect your emotions, it’s essential to acknowledge what you’re feeling.
Intellectualization uses reasoning as a way to avoid an upsetting emotion. When people are confronted with distressing situations, they ignore their feelings and focus on logical or practical matters.
After a breakup, for example, you might focus all your attention on finding a new place to live. You may even go so far as to create spreadsheets and charts designed to help you find the perfect home.
In the short term, this can be a way to stay motivated and focus on important tasks. Eventually, however, you’ll have to confront the emotions you’ve been pushing aside.
When feelings are too intense, uncomfortable, or taboo, our subconscious might begin to hide them from our conscious mind. These are what we call “repressed emotions.”
For example, if you feel jealous over another woman’s pregnancy, you may push this feeling out of consciousness and repress it entirely. Unfortunately, though, when feelings are hidden, they don’t disappear as neatly as you probably wish they would.
In this case, you may end up avoiding your pregnant friend or lashing out at her, even if you remain unaware of why. As you can imagine, exploring what’s at the root of this behavior would likely help you better understand your true feelings, ultimately allowing you to become more supportive.
At times, we may place thoughts and uncomfortable feelings into compartments to minimize stress or anxiety. You can find examples of defense mechanisms like compartmentalization in any environment, from the home to the workplace.
You might have trained yourself to block out feelings at work so you can focus on productivity. You also may create different personas that you use at home or in the workplace.
10. Reaction formation
Reaction formation is an unconscious reaction in which a person replaces an unpleasant thought or desire with the opposite. While many defense mechanism examples are seen in children and adolescents, this behavior can be observed in adults as well.
Sometimes, reaction formation can look like overcompensation. For example, if you feel guilty about your love of junk food, you might preach the virtues of healthy eating.
It can also be a form of denial, like when someone in an unhappy relationship claims they have the perfect partner. Reaction formation can even be a way for some people to deny aspects of their personality, like aggressive tendencies.
Dealing with Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms
Several types of defense mechanisms are unconscious. It isn’t always easy to hold yourself accountable, but it is possible. Looking at defense mechanism examples can help you recognize behavior patterns in your own life.
Once you’re more familiar with different defense mechanisms, you can replace harmful habits with healthier coping skills. You may be able to relate these examples of defense mechanisms to aspects of your own life. In-person or online therapy can help you recognize defense mechanism types so you can respond to distressing emotions mindfully.
Looking to better understand your thoughts and behaviors? With a licensed therapist from Talkspace, you can get to the root of unhealthy defense mechanisms and learn how to replace them with healthy coping strategies. Get connected today.
- Cramer P. Understanding Defense Mechanisms. Psychodyn Psychiatry. 2015;43(4):523-552. doi:10.1521/pdps.2015.43.4.523. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26583439/. Accessed September 25, 2022.
- Cohen D, Kim E. Sublimation (Defense Mechanism). Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. 2020:5275-5278. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_1430. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5815149/. Accessed September 25, 2022.
- Ferrari S. The danger of compartmentalization. Philosophy & Social Criticism. 2016;43(4-5):465-473. doi:10.1177/0191453716682374. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0191453716682374. Accessed September 25, 2022.