Common Psychological Defense Mechanisms

Common Psychological Defense Mechanisms


Defense mechanisms are psychological habits that we all have to manage deeper and often unconscious anxieties. These anxieties are often built in childhood and born out how we stayed connected to important people early in our lives, how we managed early emotional difficulties or even coped with trauma. They are our stories of psychological survival and highlight our emotional resilience, but they also come with a cost. The earlier the anxiety, trauma, or issue, and the more persistent, the more primary a defense mechanism is. Psychological development was typically impacted earlier and the natural trajectory of growth was halted at an earlier psychological developmental phase. Secondary psychological defense mechanisms are more developmentally evolved and sophisticated. Adversity occurred at a later stage of development and was typically less severe. They have a more mature quality to them, although they are still pathological because they are manipulations or distortions of reality in order to cope with these deeper anxieties.


Primary Defense Mechanisms


1-    Denial – Disavowing unacceptable feelings and thoughts or refusing to accept what is happening (e.g. first reaction to a death or major loss – “No!”).  As in the childhood, “If I don’t acknowledge it then it isn’t happening” or “Everything always works out for the best.” Common defense in those that are acutely manic.

2-    Extreme Withdrawal or Flight into Fantasy – When overwhelmed one may psychologically withdraw from the world. A defense often seen in babies when overwhelmed (falling asleep after being emotionally overwhelmed). If this happens too much as a child it might become a reflexive adult tendency. The more sensitive an infant, the more likely to use this defense as an adult.  Often seen as a flight into fantasy to cope with stress.  No distortion of reality, simply an escape from it.

3-    Projection – What is inside is misunderstood as coming from the outside.  In the clinical range what is projected is usually disowned and negative parts of the self.  In a mature form this is the basis for empathy.  As infants, we begin to develop self and other boundaries and can make these distinctions readily but left undeveloped primitive forms of projection persist, for example at an extreme, paranoia (what is inside is misunderstood as coming from the outside).    

4-    Projective Identification – Projecting a thought or feeling into another person, then interacting with that person to make him/her experience the projected feeling. As if the other person becomes the container for affect they cannot tolerate themselves. Another form of this is when one unconsciously behaves in ways that pull for the other to act as an early important attachment figure (e.g. parent). When they get the other to take on the projections and act accordingly it typically affirms their worldview or their negative view of themselves (e.g. “I knew I was bad and that others aren’t safe”).

5-    Somatization – When emotional states are expressed physically.  Originates in childhood if the primary caregiver did not help the child express their feelings in words.  If not mastered they continue to express feelings in depleted body states instead of emotional language. This is the basis for a condition called Alexithymia (lack of words for affect).

6-    Acting Out – By enacting upsetting scenarios, the unconsciously anxious person turns passive into active, transforming a sense of helplessness and vulnerability into an experience of agency and power no matter how negative the drama.  Stems from the unconscious need to master the anxiety associated with internally forbidden feelings, wishes or traumatic memories.  Young children often do this with toys.  Freud says, “We act out what we do not remember.”

7-    Introjection – What is outside is misunderstood as coming from the inside (e.g. the internalization of others, both positive and negative).  Seen is more depressive personalities and those quick to “blame themselves”.  Fairbairn says, “It is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God than live in a world ruled by the devil.”

8-    Splitting – Placing everything into all good or bad categories.  This becomes a primary defense when one does not develop emotional object constancy (ability to realize something exists even when not in sight; someone’s love, etc.) or have a tolerance for ambivalence.  Children do this in order to survive as infants but as they grow older and parts of themselves become integrated ambivalence can be tolerated. If emotional development is arrested here the splitting stays as an adult.

9-    Omnipotent Control – An unhealthy extension of the infant’s primary and healthy narcissism (believing that by their wishes and cries they produce their desires, for example, crying brings food to their mouth without an understanding that another had to meet that need).  If an adult is fixated/arrested here they will seek and enjoy the feeling of exercising ones power over others, as in more psychopathic individuals.  Also common in politicians, religious leaders and those in leadership roles.

10- Extreme Dissociation – Psychologically “checking out” or mentally fleeing-the-scene without conscious control over it. Typically happens when someone is triggered by events related to or associated with a prior trauma.  It functions to separate one’s pain from the trauma, one can have a functional memory of an event but can feel like it wasn’t them it happened to; an experience that continues to occur without the threat or triggered by only minor stressors. Feeling completely numb around something objectively emotional is a sign this defense may be in operation.

11- Sexualization – Sexual activity and fantasy are used to: master anxiety, restore self-esteem, to offset shame, to distract oneself from inner deadness.  People also sexualize terror or pain into excitement.  Typically, women sexualize dependency, men sexualize aggression.  Pathology often occurs when we sexualize things in childhood that were terrifying or overwhelming. 


Secondary Defense Mechanisms


1-    Intellectualization – Replacing painful or uncomfortable feelings with excessive thinking.  Talking about feelings rather than experiencing them (e.g. “Well, naturally I have some anger about that” or responding to “How do you feel about X” with “Well, what I doner understand is…”). Some tend to become highly analytical when they are experiencing intense emotions.

2-    Compartmentalization – “Putting it in a box in your mind”.  It serves to allow two conflicting conditions to exist without conscious confusion, shame, guilt or anxiety.  There is a contradiction without appreciating the contradiction.

3-    Turning Against the Self– Blaming oneself rather than experiencing unacceptable feelings towards another person.  If one is critical towards an authority whose goodwill seems essential for their security and they believe that person could not handle that criticism then they will aim it at themselves instead. 

4-    Regression– Sliding back into an earlier stage of development or psychological maturity.  Using coping strategies from earlier periods of development to deal with stressful events or feelings.  Kids often do this when they get tired or hungry (or after experiencing a trauma). 

5-    Displacement – Redirecting feelings or impulses to other people or activities usually because the original direction makes them anxious.  When people “take it out on” someone.  E.g. Phobia (displacing anxiety from a fraught area to a specific object that symbolizes the dreaded phenomenon).

6-    Repression- Turning something away and keeping it at a distance from our awareness.  What is actually repressed is typically of an emotionally traumatic nature. It could be the whole experience, the affect connected to it or ones fantasies/wishes associated with it.  In extreme stress, the hippocampus (memory center) is shut down with glucocorticoids thus an episodic memory may not be laid down in the first place but afterwards may have a third party experience of it, procedural memory (body memory) or emotional memory but not episodic.  Pathological use of this defense is often seen in hysteria.

7-    Reaction Formation – Reversing an unacceptable feeling by experiencing it as its opposite or turning something into its polar opposite in order to render it less threatening (e.g. hatred into love, envy into attraction).  Can also be used to deny ambivalence about something.

8-    Reversal- Enacting a scenario that switches one’s position from subject to object or vice versa in order to cope with feelings that present a psychological threat to self (e.g. if feeling cared for by someone is dangerous or shameful then to satisfy one’s own dependency needs they will take care of another person and unconsciously identify with that persons gratifications of being nurtured). 

9-    Moralization – Often used as an excuse for “building character”.  Explaining it as ones “moral duty”. They attach what they did to a moral duty rather than revealing the lower reasons that they actually did it for.  A more evolved version of primitive “splitting”

10- Undoing – “Fixing” unacceptable thoughts, feelings or behaviors with opposing behaviors.  Using behaviors to “magically erase” prior events without the conscious awareness that one has that intention (e.g. a partner brings home flowers the next day after getting upset the night before).  Can be compulsive if used pathologically without awareness.  People with a high degree of remorse for past sins or failures may make a life out of this defense. Common in certain forms of OCD.

11- Sublimation– Converting unacceptable impulses into more useful forms.  Finding a creative and useful way to express problematic impulses and conflicts (e.g. dentist; sadism. A performing artist; exhibitionistic. A lawyer; wish to kill one’s enemies or more benignly a mourning woman who channels her grief into beautiful art). Freud thought this was actually a rather skillful and productive way to channel our emotional issues.

12- Humor – Using humor to regulate/distance oneself from intense emotion. Humor neutralizes threatening content and feelings. It also has a clever social impact in that it serves to distract others from continuing to open up difficult emotional material. If humor is compulsively used, you get something along the lines of a comedians personality (not ironically, also a known depressive group – the cost of the defense used too much). 


Dr. Mitch Keil
Dr. Mitch Keil

Dr. Mitch Keil is a licensed clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, CA. His specialities in treatment cover a wide range of difficulties including depression, anxiety, addiction, PTSD, and grief/loss for teens, young adults, and adults. As a part of his dedication to the field, Dr. Keil receives regular supervision, support, continuing education, and training for his private practice. He is a lifelong learner and practitioner who is passionate about mental health, philosophy, and psychology.

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