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What Are Defense Mechanisms?

People who are disturbed by anxious thoughts and feelings act unconsciously to protect themselves from anything they don’t want to think about or deal with. Freud called all defense mechanisms windows to the subconscious. Self-deception and distortions of reality hinder our ability to deal with our feelings and emotions. When we lean on them too much, we stunt our emotional growth.

Defense mechanisms are normal

Britannica defines defense mechanisms as “any of a group of mental processes that enables the mind to reach compromise solutions to conflicts that it is unable to resolve.”

We use defense mechanisms to reconcile our emotional conflicts

Psychology Today says “Defense mechanisms protect us until they prevent us.” They are all different variations on the same thing: protecting ourselves from feelings we don’t want by bypassing our difficult-to-deal-with emotions.

The human psyche is made up of three different theoretical constructs: the id, the superego, and the ego

The id is where our primitive animal instincts, needs, and desires reside. The ego is our civilized moral conscience, where the rules of our culture have been internalized. The superego is idealistic and wrestles with the id to get it to express its impulses in ways acceptable to society. Because the superego and id are in conflict, the ego steps in to mediate.

The id, ego, and superego are always struggling at the subconscious level

This makes them a source of frustration and anxiety. When people have inner conflicts, they deal with them in one of many ways. Here are ten of the most common:

  1. Projection. We all have undesirable feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Some of us have difficulty admitting these things to ourselves, so we project those feelings onto others. When we do so, we reveal our inner fears. Psychology Today says “Projection is considered to be a primitive defense mechanism because it distorts or ignores reality. It’s the defense used by children and emotionally immature adults.”It’s the defense used by children.”
  2. Denial. To deny a problem is to refuse to acknowledge its existence. It’s a natural response when we’re unwilling or unable to face facts. It keeps us from looking at ourselves or making changes. This tactic is employed by children and adolescents.
  3. Repression. To keep negative feelings away from the conscious mind, some of us send them to our unconscious minds. This reaction ensures that our unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and impulses are prevented from entering our conscious minds.
  4. Regression. This reversion to an earlier mental and behavioral state is sometimes called backsliding. It is seen when someone behaves in a manner that is childish, immature, and inappropriate for their age.
  5. Rationalization. We explain some things away when we can’t accept them by painting the picture as prettier than it is. It’s a way of justifying unacceptable feelings by using explanations that seem logical and reasonable.
  6. Displacement. When we disavow thoughts, feelings, and impulses that are incompatible with our sense of self, we’re redirecting our emotional reactions away from the cause of the reaction and putting it on a less-threatening target. If you’re mad at the boss, you probably won’t confront him, but are more likely to direct your anger to a peer or subordinate.
  7. Reaction Formation. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” is a quote from William Shakespeare, who was telling us that someone too insistent about something was replacing their unacceptable impulses with their opposites. It is a way of hiding the true nature of ther impulses and feelings. I immediately think of the televangelists preaching about the evils of adultery between adulterous trysts at the No-Tell Mo-Tel concealing their true feelings from others and from society.
  8. Sublimation. This is a way of transforming unwanted and unacceptable urges into positive and productive thoughts and actions.
  9. Intellectualization. Reasoning is used to block confrontation and is where facts are used to avoid feelings. We avoid uncomfortable emotions by concentrating on facts and logic to reduce unpleasant feelings and emotions. Putting distance between ourselves and our emotions is a way to avoid intimacy.
  10. Compartmentalization. When we have conflicting thoughts and emotions, compartmentalization is a way to keep them isolated from each other to avoid the discomfort of contradiction. It involves separating something into smaller parts and isolating them from each other, the way the ridges in the tray keep of your TV dinner’s meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans from touching each other.

Once we get past the regression stage, defense mechanisms aren’t always bad. All can have value as temporary coping mechanisms, but all are also unproductive in the long run because they are maladaptations that become problematic. Emotionally mature and healthy people deal with troublesome thoughts by acknowledging and identifying the source of conflict. 

Bonus

Observe closely and see how many of these defense mechanisms you can find your friends using. Look even more closely and try to see the ones that you use.

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