The Essential Guide to Defense Mechanisms

Posted on June 7, 2017


For many of us, any situation that brings uncertainty triggers an unconscious protective measure that allows us to cope with unpleasant emotions. But while many mechanisms can serve short-term efficacy, most do not actually bode well for our emotional processing in the long run.

Thus is why it is important to become more cognizant of your personal tendencies. Whether we like it or not, defense mechanisms are a part of our everyday life; everyone engages in some form of self-deception at least some of the time. However, the question is whether you can detect the forms of deception that you, your friends, and your family are using at any given moment.

Below are the 8 most common defense mechanisms, as first delineated by Freud himself. Do you identify with any of them?

1. Denial.

This can be considered the most "generic" mechanism as it underlies many of the others. According to Susan Krauss Whitebourne of Psychology Today, "when you use denial, you simply refuse to accept the truth or reality of a fact or experience. "No, I'm just a social smoker," is a good example." Denial can also be used by victims of trauma or disaster and may even act as a beneficial initial protective response. In the long run, however, denial can prevent you from incorporating unpleasant information about yourself and your life, having potentially destructive consequences.

2. Repression.

Repression involves suppressing or pushing down anxiety-inducing desires out of our consciousness. Freud thought repression was our top defense mechanism, and that a person "forgets" an unpleasant experience simply because the incident was too much for his consciousness to handle. Though modern psychologists have questioned his methods and beliefs, Freud ultimately believed that repressed feelings, memories, or desires come out either in dreams symbolically or through slips of the tongue.

3. Regression.

In regression, you revert back to a "childlike emotional state in which your unconscious fears, anxieties, and general 'angst' reappear." People exhibit regression when they return to a child-like state of dependency, like when a child is sent to kindergarten and starts sucking his thumb again for comfort. Retreating under the blankets after a rough day is another likely example. The problem with regression is that you let your childish self show in a self-destructive way that may do more harm than good in the long run.

4. Displacement.

In displacement, you direct the unwanted desire toward something more acceptable than the root of the desire itself. A student upset over the fairness of a test, for example, can't show his anger towards the teacher, so instead snaps at a friend or parent. While displacement may protect you from being fired or getting detention, it won't protect your hand should you decide to displace your anger to a wall or window.

5. Projection.

This defense mechanism hides our bad, unwanted desires and feelings by "projecting" them onto other people. For example, you feel that an outfit you spent a lot on in fact looks bad on you. Wearing this outfit, you walk into a room where your friends stare at you perhaps for a moment too long (at least in your opinion). Though they say and do nothing that could be construed as critical, your insecurity about the outfit leads you to "project" your feelings onto your friends: "Why are you looking at me like that? Don't you like this outfit?". As silly as this mechanism sounds, it occurs more often than one would think.

6. Reaction formation.

Freud thought we had desires that we knew we couldn't allow to surface. So, the ego unknowingly changes those forbidden desires into their opposites. Most of the time the schoolyard bully, who may appear macho and strong, is actually very insecure inside. Or the man's overt disdain for homosexuality may actually be a defense against confronting his own homosexual feelings. With reaction formation, we go beyond denial, behaving in the opposite way of how we really think and feel.

7. Rationalization.

This defense mechanism occurs when we make up a justification for doing something that we know is wrong. "I smoke because it helps me relax and that makes me more productive." "I only cheated on you because I thought you didn't love me anymore." Of course it's easier to blame someone else than to take the heat yourself, especially if you would otherwise feel shame or embarrassment.

8. Sublimation.

Some people can use their negative emotions to fire up a positive, cognitively-oriented response. Sublimation, which develops over a long period of time, is the transformation of unacceptable impulses into socially valued motivations. For example, a man with aggressive tendencies may take up boxing. A music artist, as well, may have a fight with her partner and thus turn to writing music (I'm looking at you, Taylor Swift). "When used to handle a situation you cannot effectively do anything about, sublimation is actually a positive form of defense."

In short, defense mechanisms are one of our most common ways to cope with unpleasant emotions, and apply to a wide range of reactions from anxiety to insecurity. We may never truly rid ourselves of them; they may be even hard-wired into our system. But by cultivating self-awareness and learning to identify when you use such self-deceptive measures, you can understand how they are helping or hurting you, and how to truly tend to your emotional well-being.

Category(s):Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Self-Care / Self Compassion

Source material from Psychology Today

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