Defense Mechanisms

“Out of your vulnerabilities will come your strength.”
― Sigmund Freud

Defense mechanisms or psychological defenses involve a process of pushing away and avoiding thoughts or feelings that are too painful or morally unacceptable to us. Freud began writing about defenses in an early work, Studies on Hysteria (1895), where he described a mental process that translates to “fending off.” His daughter, Anna Freud, worked further on these concepts and is credited with our first definitions of defense mechanisms.  

Simply put, we can understand defense mechanisms as the automatic and unconscious psychological process of evading pain. We might also view defenses as the ways we deceive ourselves so that we can feel better – at least in the short-term.

Generally, most defense mechanisms are not inherently good or bad; they are a universal and necessary part of human psychology as they protect and help us navigate life. However, when they become rigid or increasingly entrenched into our functioning, they can prevent us from forming meaningful relationships or maintaining our self-esteem. In fact, many people first seek therapy as a result of their defenses becoming less effective in helping maintain an emotional or interpersonal balance. Consider how a compulsive behavior or destructive pattern may have a negative impact or how difficulties controlling reactions in social settings can lead to problems. All of these things can be connected to the role of defenses working to avoid pain and maintain stability.  

We all develop a unique collection of defenses as we navigate life and a common goal of psychodynamic therapy involves helping a client better understand their defenses as well as the needs that can be neglected or denied as a result. Learning more effective ways of coping with pain or discomfort as well as effective ways of expressing ourselves can lead to less reliance on defenses. The goal is never to eliminate defenses, but rather to change our relationship to our defenses so that they operate in a less rigid manner as we become more accepting of our vulnerabilities.  

Attempting to learn the full list of defense mechanisms in one sitting would be a bit daunting.  Here are three of the most common to help you get started.  

Denial is a refusal to perceive or consciously acknowledge unpleasant aspects of reality. In other words, when using denial, we are denying our own awareness and refusing to recognize what we actually know on some level to be true. Although this can seem like a deliberate process, all defense mechanisms operate largely on an unconscious level, outside of our awareness.  

Projection is another fairly well-known term in popular culture, although it is typically oversimplified in everyday conversation. Essentially, this process involves attributing one’s own unwanted thoughts or emotions to another. A good example of this process might involve a disgruntled colleague who becomes critical or rude to other co-workers, causing them to also become disgruntled. In this way, the colleague has projected his or her distress onto others, making it more tolerable to him. Likewise, projecting guilt is a common occurrence as seen in the partner who forgets to pick up milk. Upon returning with no milk, he is faced with criticism and feels guilty, which causes him to then react in anger towards his partner, causing his partner to feel guilty as well. In this way, projection allows people to unconsciously unload distress onto others and experience relief as a result. 

Displacement involves redirecting emotion or pain to a safer outlet. This is commonly seen in the example of an angry parent screaming at their children after a long day of being criticized and frustrated by his or her boss. It is not safe to express anger towards the boss so it gets displaced onto the children. In more technical terms, displacement involves the separation of emotion from the actual object of pain or distress and redirection of this pain to an object or person that is less threatening. Again, this unconscious process provides short-term relief, but it can lead to long-term problems as a primary approach to coping and it can have a negative impact on close relationships.  

Pay attention to the ways you work to avoid pain and discomfort. In most cases, you will not be aware that your behaviors are actually functioning in this way. You might seek feedback from family and friends regarding your patterns of behaviors or reactions. Again, the goal is not to eliminate defenses, but to rely less rigidly on such defenses or increase your awareness of attempts to avoid, ultimately broadening your capacity to manage and engage directly with your emotions and needs.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Published by tlindquistpsyd

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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