What is a Defense Mechanism?

Circumstances influence and compel people to behave in a certain way. One such behavior is a defense mechanism. It is employed by people to escape from unpleasant circumstances, thoughts and actions. Defense mechanisms are, thus, psychological strategies that help to avert and avoid unwanted feelings such as guilt or shame and situations such as threat and danger.

According to the psychoanalytic theory, a defense mechanism is considered an unconscious activity of the brain psychology to protect oneself from internal conflicts and external stressors. It helps an individual to avoid anxiety and trouble.

Are Defense Mechanisms healthy?

The defense mechanism helps divert painful thoughts, emotions, and situations and channel their energy toward positivity and productivity. In consideration of these benefits, defense mechanisms are healthy. However, frequent and long-term usage of such defense mechanisms can become problematic in the future, which leads to loss of coping ability with anxiety, stress, and other unpleasant situations. It can also lead to the development of neuro-psychoses, phobia, or hysteria.

Sigmund Freud’s definition of Defense Mechanism

Sigmund Freud first stated the theory of defense mechanism. He is also known as the father of psychoanalysis. It was in the nineteenth century the idea of a defense mechanism emerged. According to Sigmund Freud, defense mechanisms are employed by the impulsive part of an individual’s psyche. With time, this theory has evolved and is now defined as behavior under unconscious control. Most people employ such a mechanism without even realizing they use it.

Psychoanalytic Theory

The psychoanalytic theory explains defense mechanism as an association of id, ego, and superego. This mechanism minimizes the internal conflicts between the superego and id or personality component influenced by the unconscious mind.

Common Defense Mechanism

People in day-to-day life use defense mechanisms. Some of the most common defense mechanisms used by people without even realizing the strategies are discussed below:

A flowchart depicting different defense mechanisms, such as denial, repression, projection, displacement, regression, rationalization, sublimation, compartmentalization, reaction formation and intellectualization
Common defense mechanisms


It is a common defense mechanism and is widely known. It is employed wherein an individual refuses to accept reality or denies the existence of reality. People are in a denial state to avoid the reality that is, on the other hand, obvious to people around them. They know that acknowledging the facts or reality would bring emotional distress and anxiety; hence do not wish to admit it.

To avoid such feelings or situations, an individual block external negative circumstances and reality and thus avoid dealing with emotional trauma. It is a defense mechanism to escape from an unpleasant reality that is too much to handle. For example, a wife may refuse to accept the reality that involves obvious signs of her husband’s infidelity.


Repression involves shutting out painful memories, unpleasant thoughts, and irrational beliefs that can upset someone. An individual chooses to hide them instead of facing the issues. The unpleasant situations or thoughts are not erased or denied. It is hidden there deep inside with the hopes of forgetting them entirely someday. An individual keeps the unpleasant memories and thoughts away from the conscious mind and prevents them from becoming conscious.

Therefore, the experiences, memories, thoughts, or beliefs that bring guilt or mental disturbance are repressed. However, they are not forgotten and, in turn, influence an individual's behavior without their knowledge. At times, the repressed memories appear through the subconscious mind in the form of a dream. In the long run, these repressed memories will create anxiety.

For example, a child who experienced drowning in water would develop a phobia of water. However, the child might not have memories of the drowning experience. Because this experience has undergone repression and is pushed down into the unconscious, the child would be unaware of the origin of their phobia.


Projection involves the attribution of an individual’s unpleasant feelings, desires, or motives onto another person. Projection of such feelings without accepting reality leads to misattributing.

For example, an individual hates their classmates. But instead of accepting it is due to ego, the child solves the problem simply by allowing oneself to believe that the classmates also hate the individual. This defense mechanism represents a projection.


Displacement is the steering of strong impulses such as aggression and frustration onto a less powerful and harmful object or person. It allows satisfying the impulse to react in a less problematic way. Here, the impulse receiver is a different person or object and is not the one that is intended.

Redirection of work-related frustration onto children at home is an example. An individual who had a rough day at work yells at his children once he is home. It allows the individual to vent the frustration at work on his children, who are just a symbolic substitute.

An image displaying that the boss is screaming at a man, who in turn is screaming at his daughter to vent out his frustration.


Regression is a defense strategy employed by individuals on encountering threats and anxiety. In this case, individuals unconsciously regress to an earlier stage of development. As a result, they start behaving as if they belong to the earlier developmental stage. In this case, the ego reverts to the earlier stage of encountering stressful events. Regression can be observed in the form of sleeping with stuffed toys, overeating, or smoking. They might further refrain from engaging in daily activities.

For example, under stress and fright, individuals start behaving like children.


Rationalization is a defense style that attempts to explain undesirable behavior. Reasoning an individual's choice allows gaining satisfaction and comfort even when one knows it is not right. It allows displaying a less-threatening impulse.

Explaining a natural disaster as God's will is a classic example of rationalization.


Sublimation is a defense mechanism in which individuals direct their impulses and strong emotions towards something appropriate and safe. It is a positive way of managing unacceptable emotions and engaging in constructive activities. It is the channeling of negative emotions towards something productive.

For example, an individual faces aggressive emotions. Such individuals can engage in boxing or other sports they enjoy, and it helps to let out the aggression.

An image displaying that the individuals are engaged in boxing, reading and playing guitar to redirect the negative feelings towards constructive activities.

Reaction formation

Reaction formation is a defense style where an individual recognizes and analyzes the emotions they feel. Based on the analysis, they choose to behave positively.

An example of reaction formation is when an individual, who is homophobic, develops a defense against their same-sex feelings. It results in the development of an overly harsh anti-homosexual attitude.


The term compartmentalization defines a defense style that involves separating different components of life into different sectors. It provides a feeling of protection of the components in different sectors.

For example, an individual can choose not to mix up personal and professional life. Hence, they can refrain from discussing personal issues at work. Blocking off the personal life component at work allows to block off the anxieties at the workplace.


Intellectualization is a defense mechanism in which individuals block off the emotional consequences and focus on intellectual and quantitative facts.

For example, an individual would help in the financial analysis if their spouse is transferred to another city rather than discussing hurt feelings.

Anna Freud’s theory of defense mechanism

The works of Sigmund Freud are further carried out by his daughter Anna Freud. Anna Freud defined defensive mechanisms as varying levels of complex intellectual abilities gained through voluntary and involuntary learnings. Anna Freud stated that defense mechanisms are generated in response to stress and anxiety. In such cases, both the conscious and subconscious minds manage stress and anxiety. She developed all the above ten common defense mechanisms. However, Anna Freud emphasized only five mechanisms: repression, regression, projection, reaction formation, and sublimation.

Psychodynamic therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is employed by clinicians that involve the orientation of the individuals to their unconscious state of mind. Employing the identification and understanding of the ego, id, superego, and unconscious mechanism, individuals, develop self-awareness and understanding of self-behavior. It helps an individual to understand and interpret self-emotions and behavior. The clinician and the patient share a private window to discuss the problematic grounds of relationships. This therapy aims to derive the psychological roots of the suffering and treat it.

Major concerns

Long-term usage of defense mechanisms can lead to progression from one mechanism to the next or backward. It would lead to the evolution of the mechanisms used and even lead to regression to earlier phases. Such extensive usage would also result in behavior problems and personality issues. Consequently, it would affect and complicate the psychiatric treatment.

Clinical significance

Early recognition of the employment of defense mechanisms can help to predict possible personality disorders. It would be of high clinical significance and help determine whether the defense mechanisms employed are maladaptive or adaptive.

Common mistakes

  • Defense mechanism differs from coping. The former is employed by individuals at an unconscious level, while the latter is employed consciously and purposely. 
  • Defense mechanisms are often used to cope with an unpleasant situation.

Context and Applications

The topic is significant for both undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral courses, especially for the following:

  • Bachelor of Arts in Applied Psychology
  • Bachelor of Science in Psychology
  • Master of Arts in Applied Psychology
  • Master of Science in Psychology
  • Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology
  • Master of Science in Public Health
  • Coping Techniques
  • Cognitive Dissonance
  • Motivated Reasoning
  • Psychological Resistance

Practice Problems

Q1: Sigmund Freud is known as the ___________________.

(a) father of defense mechanism

(b) father of neurology

(c) father of psycho-dynamics

(d) father of psychoanalysis

Correct choice: (d)

Q2: Which one of the following is a defense mechanism?

(a) Denial

(b) Sublimation

(c) Compartmentalization

(d) All of these

Correct choice: (d)

Q3: What is the defense mechanism one blames others?

(a) Denial

(b) Projection

(c) Repression

(d) Displacement

Correct choice: (b)

Q4: Repression involves ___________________.

(a) shutting out painful memories, unpleasant thoughts, and irrational beliefs that can upset someone

(b) the refusal to accept reality

(c) the attribution of an individual’s unpleasant feelings, desires, or motives onto another person

(d) steering of strong impulses onto a less powerful and harmful object or person

Correct choice: (a)

Q5: An individual facing aggressive emotions engage in boxing, and it helps to let out the aggression. Which type of defense mechanism is this?

(a) Sublimation

(b) Rationalization

(c) Compartmentalization

(d) Intellectualization

Correct choice: (a)

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