Defense mechanisms are your brain’s (mostly unconscious) way of avoiding conflict, anxiety or upset. Although they get a bad rap, defense mechanisms are a necessary part of your psychology, and some are even considered healthy! Today, you’ll gain some self-awareness as you learn all about defense mechanisms and where you fit.
As I mentioned in the intro, defense mechanisms can be deemed healthy or unhealthy or, as we psychologists say, maladaptive or adaptive. I’m going to be sharing a big list with you today, but please know it’s not exhaustive. These are also in no particular order.
Projection is when you have feelings or qualities you don’t like in or about yourself, so you project them onto other people. The most common example of this is when you don’t like someone but say that they don’t like you. Probably the most common way I see this show up in a couple is when one person is cheating but they accuse their partner of cheating. Their psyche is trying to preserve their self-image by justifying what they’re doing. If you’re cheating, but then decide your partner is cheating, you’re letting yourself off the hook. Your behavior is no longer so bad, and you don’t need to feel guilty if your partner is also doing something wrong.
Denial is probably the most commonly referenced and known of all the defense mechanisms, but it’s often used incorrectly. True denial is when someone refuses to accept facts or objective reality. Denial is not lying to yourself. With denial, you really don’t think that you’re lying about something. You truly don’t see it.
When someone is in true denial, it’s because the emotional impact of whatever the thing is is too big a burden to bear, so the event is blocked from your mind. A great example of this is a person in the beginning stages of drug or alcohol addiction. You really, really, truly don’t think you have a problem despite maybe having two DUIs, a partner divorcing you, losing your job, or any other number of things directly tied to your use.
Passive aggressive people are all about the indirect expression of their feelings. Whether it’s a cold-shoulder freeze out, a back-handed compliment (“Wow. I’m so impressed that you don’t seem to care that you’re carrying extra weight and will just walk around in those shorts”), or martyrdom intended to guilt trip (“Nevermind, I’ll just do it myself”), being passive aggressive is a common defense mechanism. I have an entire episode dedicated to dealing with passive aggressive people (including my top six tips) so make sure to check that out.
When you’ve got painful memories or deeply negative or irrational beliefs, your unconscious mind will sometimes deal with that by burying those thoughts and memories. These memories are often impacting your behavior even if you think you’ve “forgotten” them. For example, an adult who doesn’t necessarily remember being sexually abused as a child might have difficulty trusting in their adult partnerships or might avoid sex completely or become overly sexualized later.
Regression is when a person feels anxious or threatened in some way and tries unconsciously to escape to an earlier developmental stage. A common example in children might be a four-year-old who gets a new baby sister and starts sucking their thumb again and asking to be picked up. They might even say out loud, “I’m a baby.” In adults, this might be someone who forged through their life always doing the “right” thing and then has a crisis of sorts and starts cheating in their relationship, compulsively eating comfort foods from their childhood or chewing on pencils or pen tops.
Displacement is when you have a feeling you believe you can’t express with someone and then directing that anger, frustration, anxiety or upset onto someone or something else that doesn’t feel as threatening to you. An example of displacement is being passed over for that promotion at work, coming home and then snapping at your kid because he left his dish on the table or yelling at your dog for not going out fast enough when you open the door.
When you rationalize, you’re justifying a feeling you don’t like having or something you’ve done with your own facts or logic. You rationalize because, deep down at that unconscious/semi-conscious level, you know what you’re thinking or doing is wrong, but you want to feel OK about the choice you’ve made (often people rationalize by saying they had no choice)! I just saw this recently with a client whose wife didn’t want to have sex anymore. He was having sex with other women on business trips and saying things like, “I don’t know what she expects if she’s not having sex with me, she knows I have to get it somewhere. She’s probably relieved I’m not asking her anymore.”
8. Reaction formation
When people use this defense mechanism, they might know how they feel, but they act the opposite of that. It’s because they don’t like their reaction, for some reason, so shift it. For example, a woman might believe that it’s not OK to be angry or act disappointed, so when someone cancels plans or takes advantage, she might act happy about it. Instead of showing frustration or anger, they’ll be overly positive and accepting. I see this more often with someone who hates a boss or coworker but acts overly friendly and “glad to see them.”
Compartmentalization is one of the most common defense mechanisms I see. Compartmentalizing is basically what it sounds like; you’re separating areas of your life and those corresponding memories, thoughts and emotions into independent silos. It helps you focus in one area while putting something distressing “on a proverbial shelf” so you don’t get overwhelmed with emotions.
For example, I had a client who was a hard-driving businesswoman but who also had a huge hoarding problem at home. She kept her work and home lives very separate. She also kept the people in her personal life separate from one another, making sure that worlds never collided. You can also compartmentalize trauma from your past in this same way.
I have many clients who default to using their brains, not their hearts, when faced with difficult interpersonal situations. When people intellectualize, they attempt to take all the emotion out of their thinking and responses and focus on tangible, quantitative facts or proof.
Another common defense mechanism, especially for trauma survivors, is dissociation, which basically happens when someone feels untethered, removed or numb to what’s happening around them. Often, it’s a reaction when they’ve been triggered regarding an earlier trauma and this is their brain’s way of staying safe from the scary or overwhelming feelings associated. They become mentally and emotionally disengaged from whatever situation they’re in.
Adaptive Defense Mechanisms
As I mentioned earlier, there are also more helpful defense mechanisms known as adaptive defense mechanisms. These include:
Hello. My name is Abby, and humor is my number one defense mechanism. I tend to use humor everywhere and sprinkle it around like confetti. When I’m uncomfortable in whatever situation, finding humor, for me, helps me to put things in perspective and take a step back so I’m not quite so scared. I also find that it can help me bond with whomever I’m having difficulty with so we can get to solutions quicker and easier.
Like anything, humor can also be used too much and then be maladaptive, as in the case of your partner trying to have a serious conversation with you about being triggered by something you’re doing. It’s important to understand that there’s a time and a place, and not everything can be made funny. Having said that, I’ve found that, once a connection is made, humor can be used to lighten a difficult issue so you can gain perspective and increase communication.
Sublimation is when you find a way to do something positive instead of something negative or harming when you’re having a difficult time. For example, you might go for a run instead of punching a wall or throwing something when you’re feeling overcome with an emotion. Sublimation is a defense mechanism that’s also called mature because it’s something we often learn as we get older.
Overall, it’s a way of redirecting strong or overwhelming feelings into something that’s considered more appropriate. How it can go wrong is how I often see this show up with my clients as workaholism or excessive exercise. Yes, it’s great to feel achievement at work, but if it means you’re not parenting your kids at home at all because you find it overwhelming or don’t get enough positive feedback for it, then that’s taking it too far.
One of my favorite, more helpful defense mechanisms is helping others or altruism. In these cases, you’d deal with something anxiety-producing or upsetting by doing something for others. In this way, you can fulfill your own needs for calmness or peace. An example of this for me is that, whenever I’m having any thoughts that money is tight, I immediately give money to a charity. When we do for others, it takes us out of our own heads and, once again, helps us gain perspective. We feel better for it, which allows us to be calmer and approach whatever’s initially upsetting us with more rationality and collaboration. As with the others, if you go too far with this you end up with maladaptive behaviors like codependency and people-pleasing.
Although very similar, suppression shouldn’t be confused with the earlier-mentioned repression. Suppression is consciously keeping yucky information from your conscious mind (while repression is the same, but it’s unconscious, which creates different issues). In this case, you might clearly remember being abused as a kid but do some therapy and then consciously choose not to think or talk about it.
When people use the defense mechanism of anticipation, they spend time thinking about what could go wrong and then taking steps to mitigate it. In the case of it being healthy, you might be someone who prepares for a job interview by learning about the people or company interviewing you and then role-playing some situations with a friend in attempts to decrease your anxiety. Once again, if you’re obsessing about this interview and staying up all night worrying, this is not a healthy response.
Three Tips for Coping with Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms
Tip #1: Self-Awareness and Mindfulness
I cannot say enough about how important it is to learn more about yourself and understand why you do what you do. I’ve written quite a bit about increasing your self-awareness and being more mindful, so I’m not going to go deep here. What I will recommend as a starting point is to ask three trusted people in your life for feedback about your strengths and limitations and then spend some time shoring up your strengths and working on your limitations.
Tip #2: Try Therapy or Coaching
There isn’t a person I can name in the whole world whose life wouldn’t be made better by some good old counseling or some targeted coaching. It’s all about finding something or someone who’s the right fit. When that happens, you can really make inroads into self-awareness and change.
Tip #3: Be Open to Learning
If you’re using some of the unhealthy or maladaptive defense mechanisms, it’s time to be open to learning some new, healthier coping strategies to deal with your thoughts and emotions. This can mean reading books, attending workshops, listening diligently to my wonderful podcast or any number of things to expand your horizons and practice new skills. The big key is to practice. Listening right now is great, but if you don’t take action steps, you’ll only get so far. Attending a workshop or reading a great book is also awesome, but if you don’t have clear, actionable takeaways, you’re not going to change your behavior.
Resources for What You Need to Know About Defense Mechanisms
Di Giuseppe M, Perry JC. The Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms: Assessing Defensive Functioning With the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scales Q-Sort. Front Psychol. 2021 Oct 15;12:718440. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.718440. PMID: 34721167; PMCID: PMC8555762.