Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that people use to cope with difficult feelings.

Defense mechanisms are behaviors that people use to separate themselves from unpleasant events.

The idea of defense mechanisms comes from psychoanalytic theory, a psychological perspective of personality that sees personality as the interaction between three components: id, ego, and super-ego. These psychological strategies may help people put distance between themselves and threats or unwanted feelings, such as guilt or shame.

“The theory was first proposed by Sigmund Freud and now contends that defense mechanisms are not under a person’s control. Most people do them without thinking about it.”

Defense mechanisms are a part of psychological development according to these theories. Identifying which type of person you are may help you in future conversations.

Defense mechanisms are ways you react to situations that bring up negative emotions. According to psychoanalytic theory, when you experience a stressor, the subconscious will first monitor the situation to see if it might harm you. If the subconscious believes the situation might lead to emotional harm, it may react with a defense mechanism to protect you.

You are unaware of the defense mechanism, and it may appear odd to others around you.

Many researchers place defense mechanisms on a continuum, with more mature defenses improving cognitive processes and less mature ones causing harm.

In the long term, mature defense mechanisms may not be harmful to your mental or emotional health. If you use mature mechanisms, you may be able to face the situations that can cause stress and emotional duress.

Other defense mechanisms are not helpful. Prolonged use of these defenses can lead to problems. They may prevent you from facing emotional issues because they block you from seeing the root cause.

There are some signs that defense mechanisms are interfering with your daily life.

  • feeling sad or depressed
  • It was difficult getting out of bed.
  • Things that made you happy, avoiding things that are the same as them.
  • having difficulty forming or maintaining healthy relationships
  • Communication problems can affect your professional or personal life.

There are dozens of different defense mechanisms. Some are used more often than others. There are a few defense mechanisms.

1. Denial

Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms. It occurs when you refuse to accept reality or facts. People in denial may block external events or circumstances from the mind so that they don’t have to deal with the emotional impact. In other words, they avoid painful feelings or events.

This defense mechanism is well known. The phrase, “They\’re in denial,” is a common expression used to mean a person is avoiding reality.

2. Repression

Unsavory thoughts, painful memories, or irrational beliefs can upset you. People may hide their thoughts in hopes of forgetting them.

That does not mean, however, that the memories disappear entirely. They may influence behaviors, and they may impact future relationships. You just may not realize the impact this defense mechanism is having.

3. Projection

Some thoughts or feelings you have about another person may make you uncomfortable. When people project those feelings, they misattribute them to the other person.

“You can dislike your new co-worker but not accept that they dislike you. Even though they don’t dislike you, you start to see their actions in a different way.”

4. Displacement

You direct strong emotions and frustrations toward a person or object that doesn’t feel threatening. This allows you to satisfy an impulse to react, but you don’t risk significant consequences.

A good example of this defense mechanism is getting angry at your child or spouse because you had a bad day at work. Neither of these people is the target of your strong emotions, but your subconscious may believe reacting to them is likely less problematic than reacting to your boss.

5. Regression

Some people may unconsciously escape from a situation if they feel threatened.

This type of defense mechanism may be most obvious in young children. If they experience trauma or loss, they may suddenly act as if they’re younger again. They may even begin wetting the bed or sucking their thumb as a form of regression.

Adults can also get worse. Adults who are struggling to cope with events or behaviors may return to sleeping with a cherished stuffed animal, foods they find comforting, or begin chain-smoking or chewing on pencils or pens. They may avoid doing everyday activities because they are overwhelmed.

6. Rationalization

“Some people may try to explain their behavior with their own facts. Even if you know that it isn’t right, this will allow you to feel comfortable with the choice you made.”

“Someone who didn’t get a promotion at work might say they didn’t want the promotion anyways.”

7. Sublimation

This type of defense mechanism is considered a mature, positive strategy. That’s because people who rely on it choose to redirect strong emotions or feelings into an object or activity that is appropriate and safe.

Instead of lashing out at your coworkers, you choose to take a kickboxing class. You could also use music, art, or sports to channel the feelings.

8. Reaction formation

People who use this defense mechanism are able to feel how they feel, but they choose to act in a different way.

A person who reacts this way may feel they should not express anger or frustration. They react in a positive way.

9. Compartmentalization

Separating your life into separate sectors may feel like a way to protect it.

For example, when you choose to not discuss personal life issues at work, you block off, or compartmentalize, that element of your life. This allows you to carry on without facing the anxieties or challenges while you’re in that setting or mindset.

10. Intellectualization

When you are hit with a trying situation, you may choose to focus on quantitative facts and not worry about emotion.

This strategy can be used when a person is let go from a job and is spending their days creating spreadsheets of job opportunities and leads.

“Defense mechanisms can be seen as self-deception. You might be using them to hide emotional responses that you don’t want to deal with. It is done mostly on an unconscious level. You don’t always know how your mind and ego will respond.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t modify or change the behaviors. Indeed, you can transform unhealthy defense mechanisms into ones that are more sustainable. These techniques may help:

  • Find accountability. Friends and family members can help you recognize defense mechanisms you may be using. By drawing attention to the self-deception, they can help you identify the moment you unconsciously use self-deception. That allows you to then decide in the conscious state what you really want to do.
  • Learn coping strategies. Therapy with a mental health expert, such as a psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychoanalyst, may help you recognize the defense mechanisms you use most often. They can then help you learn active responses to make choices on a more mindful level.

Defense mechanisms are natural. They are often used without problems.

Some people develop emotional difficulties if they continue to use these mechanisms without being aware of the underlying threat or anxiety. Treatment focuses on helping you address issues from a place of calm.