What is a defense mechanism?

The defense mechanisms are part of our life. We use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from feelings of anxiety or guilt, unpleasant thoughts and behaviors. They are natural, normal, non-voluntaristic, not under our conscious control. When they get out of proportion, neuroses develop, such as anxiety states, phobias, obsessions, or hysteria.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first proponents of this construct. His daughter Ana Freud was the first one who defined these mechanisms in her father’s book.

Some of the major defense mechanisms are the following:

1. Denial
Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. It’s one of the most primitive of the defense mechanisms. It’s characteristic of early childhood development. Many people use denial in their everyday lives to avoid dealing with painful feelings or areas of their life they don’t wish to admit. For example, smokers may refuse to admit to themselves that smoking is bad for their health. 

2. Regression

Regression is defined as “A reversion to immature patterns of behavior.” When we are troubled or frightened, our behaviors often become more childish or primitive. One of the more obvious examples might be a teenager not allowed to go on a trip for spring break, so he or she might throw a temper tantrum and scream and cry at his or her parents. Conversely, a teenager might revert back to infant behavior to receive sympathy from his or her parents.

3. Rationalization

Rationalization is something that every human being does, probably on a daily basis. Rationalization is defined as “Creating false but plausible excuses to justify unacceptable behavior.” For example, a person A said that the reason he flunked out of college was because of the poor quality of teaching there.

4. Repression.

Repression is an unconscious mechanism employed by the ego to keep disturbing or threatening thoughts from becoming conscious. Thoughts that are often repressed are those that would result in feelings of guilt from the superego. For example, in the Oedipus complex aggressive thoughts about the same sex parents are repressed.

5. Projection.

Projection is defined as “Attributing one’s own thoughts, feelings, or motives to another.” For example, you might hate someone, but your superego tells you that such hatred is unacceptable. You can ‘solve’ the problem by believing that they hate you.

6. Displacement

Displacement is the redirection of an impulse onto a powerless substitute target. The target can be a person or an object that can serve as a symbolic substitute. For example, someone who is frustrated by his or her superiors may go home and kick the dog, beat up a family member, or engage in cross-burnings.

7. Sublimation

This is similar to displacement, but takes place when we manage to displace our emotions into a constructive rather than destructive activity. For example, many great artists and musicians have had unhappy lives and have used the medium of art of music to express themselves. Sport is another example of putting our emotions (e.g. aggression) into something constructive.

8. Compensation

Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other arenas. By emphasizing and focusing on one’s strengths, a person is recognizing they cannot be strong at all things and in all areas in their lives. When a person says, “I may not know how to cook, but I can sure do the dishes!,” they’re trying to compensate for their lack of cooking skills by emphasizing their cleaning skills instead. Compensation is defense mechanism that helps reinforce a person’s self-esteem and self-image.

9. Reaction formation

Reaction formation is the converting of unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings or impulses into their opposites. For example, a woman who is very angry with her boss and would like to quit her job may instead be overly kind and generous toward her boss and express a desire to keep working there forever. She is incapable of expressing the negative emotions of anger and unhappiness with her job, and instead becomes overly kind to publicly demonstrate her lack of anger and unhappiness.

10. Assertiveness

Assertiveness is the emphasis of a person’s needs or thoughts in a manner that is respectful, direct and firm. Communication styles exist on a continuum, ranging from passive to aggressive, with assertiveness falling neatly inbetween. People who are passive and communicate in a passive manner tend to be good listeners, but rarely speak up for themselves or their own needs in a relationship. People who are aggressive and communicate in an aggressive manner tend to be good leaders, but often at the expense of being able to listen empathetically to others and their ideas and needs. People who are assertive strike a balance where they speak up for themselves, express their opinions or needs in a respectful yet firm manner, and listen when they are being spoken to. Becoming more assertive is one of the most desired communication skills and helpful defense mechanisms most people want to learn, and would benefit in doing so.

You should remember that the use of a defense mechanism is a normal part of personality function. They are most learned behaviors. That is a good thing, because it means that we can choose to learn some new behaviors that will help through our lives. But also, we need to be aware of how we use these mechanisms, because various psychological disorders can be characterized by an excessive or rigid use of these defenses.

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