What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on August 17, 2022
5 min read

It is our instinct, as human beings, to want to protect ourselves, and this is where our defense mechanisms come into play. Oftentimes, during our developmental years, we tend to create individual defense mechanisms as a way to combat pain and anxiety. The purpose of these defensive mechanisms is to protect us from the pain associated with these feelings. Unfortunately, in doing so, we sometimes limit the feelings that are part of our healing processes.  

As soon as you’re born, you begin to form certain strategies to help you cope in times of stress and mental anguish. Your defense mechanisms often feel like a tool for survival. In your youth, especially, it feels important to have defense mechanisms at the ready to deal with both psychological and existential pain. 

As you grow into adulthood, though, these strategies can start to hurt you rather than help you. In fact, defense mechanisms can do more harm than good in the long run. 

Some defense mechanisms are worse than others, so at the end of the day, it’s important to realize what each defense mechanism is, how it formed, and when it’s brought out. By understanding these important factors, you can fight back against the limitations that defense mechanisms instill.

There are many defense mechanisms, and no two defense mechanisms are the same. Each person will deal with their own pain and anxiety in their own unique way, and that includes forming unique defense mechanisms. 

However, there are some common defense mechanisms that exist that, although they can vary from person to person, basically follow the same formula. These defense mechanisms include: 

  • Denial: Refusing to accept reality
  • Repression: Keeping disturbing or threatening thoughts from becoming conscious
  • Projection: Projecting your thoughts or beliefs onto another person
  • Displacement: Redirecting an impulse onto a helpless alternate target
  • Regression: Reverting to an earlier stage of development
  • Sublimation: Channeling offensive emotions into productive and socially acceptable behaviors
  • Rationalization: Creating a less threatening event or impulse by examining the facts
  • Reaction Formation: Behaving in a manner opposite to what one thinks or feels
  • Introjection: Copying the personality characteristics of someone else
  • Identification with the Aggressor: Adopting similar behavior to a person who is more powerful or hostile

If you still don’t fully understand these defense mechanisms and how they work, here are some specific examples: 

  • Denial: A person may refuse to accept the infidelity of their partner or the illness of a loved one. 
  • Repression: A person may suppress traumatic experiences such as bullying, domestic abuse, and other trauma.  
  • Projection: A person may project their feelings of hatred or contempt onto another person, thinking that this other person hates them instead. This is usually because the projecting person feels that hatred is unacceptable to feel. 
  • Displacement: Someone who is enraged by an occurrence outside of the household may come home and punch a wall or take their aggression out on their family members. 
  • Regression: When someone is threatened or fearful, they may regress to an earlier time in their life. This can often be seen in people with dissociative identity disorder who have so-called alters who identify as children. Alternatively, children who are afraid may begin exhibiting symptoms such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. 
  • Sublimation: Someone may choose to direct their aggressive or unhappy energy into music, art, or sports. 
  • Rationalization: During times of stressful circumstances, a person may create logical reasoning in their head for what happened and why it happened. This could include referring to a stressful or traumatic experience as an act of God. 
  • Reaction Formation: LGBTQ+ people may adopt a strict anti-LGBTQ+ stance in order to combat their feelings and to convince themselves that they are straight. 
  • Introjection: A person may admire someone so much, such as an actress, actor, musician, or even a family member or friend, that they begin imitating their likes, dislikes, and personality traits.
  • Identification with the Aggressor: Someone who is afraid of another person may adopt personality traits similar to the aggressor in hopes of being more like them and avoiding negative consequences. This is similar to Stockholm Syndrome, where a captive becomes emotionally bonded to their kidnappers.  

There are other forms of defensive mechanisms, too, including: 

  • Humor: Including self-deprecating or dark humor that makes light of an otherwise dark situation
  • Passive-aggression: Expressing anger indirectly, such as through the silent treatment
  • Fantasy: Retreating to your own mind, or safe space, to avoid stressful situations in reality
  • Undoing: Offering to do something nice for someone you have offended in order to diminish your guilt

There are definitely some advantages of adopting defense mechanisms. While not all defense mechanisms are seen as healthy, some defense mechanisms are better than others in terms of mental health. 

For example, displacing your anger or other bad feelings onto an inanimate object is better than taking your frustrations out on a person or animal. Alternatively, screaming into a pillow is better than, say, punching a wall or throwing a lamp.

Similarly, if you’re using sublimation to overcome aggressive thoughts, you’re choosing to put your thoughts and intentions into something beautiful, whether it be art, music, or sports. Participation in such hobbies can also increase your happiness. 

Often, defense mechanisms can do more harm than good. While these strategies can oftentimes offer immediate relief from an otherwise stressful or anxiety-inducing situation, defense mechanisms can also stop you from reaching a deeper level of feeling. It may limit how you express your feelings to those around you. Defense mechanisms can also hurt your relationship with other people, including your family and friends. Ultimately, holding in your anger and aggression is never a good idea and should be dealt with upfront. 

So, while some defense mechanisms are okay to hold onto, those that are used to shield you from bad feelings or traumatic experiences are best to let go of. It can be difficult to let go of these coping strategies, especially if you developed them as an adolescent and have hung onto them since, but once you realize what your defense mechanisms are and when they are brought out, you can start replacing them with healthier actions and thoughts.

While parting with your defense mechanisms may mean coming face to face with addiction or giving up control over a situation, you’ll be taking a step closer to vitality and learning to live with your feelings.