What are defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that people tend to use unconsciously to protect themselves from anxiety rising from thoughts or feelings. This type of anxiety is generally unwanted or feels unacceptable. On the other hand, some anxiety is actually helpful. It serves to motivate us to change or do something differently. If everything feels comfortable, we may feel complacent and satisfied with the status quo. However, if we feel a bit of discomfort, we may feel stimulated to progress to the next level.

There are a variety of defense mechanisms that Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis, extrapolated to help us understand what we do to avoid feeling overwhelmed by anxiety.

What are different types of defense mechanisms?

There are a variety of defense mechanisms that people employ. Following is a description of some of the most common ones:

1. Denial – The phrase, someone is “in denial” is commonly understood to mean a person is avoiding reality despite what may be obvious to people around them.

2. Repression – Instead of facing painful memories or irrational beliefs, we might try to hide them and hope we will forget them forever. However, memories do not disappear completely. They tend to impact how we related to others and influence our behaviors.

3. Projection – When we recognize an uncomfortable feeling within ourselves, sometimes we project the feelings on someone else. For example, if you don’t like somebody, you may misattribute those feelings and decide that it is that person who doesn’t like you.

4. Displacement – This is when you don’t feel safe to communicate negative emotion toward the person you feel angry or frustrated with, you direct the feelings toward someone who doesn’t seem threatening. This would be the case if your boss was very critical and you took out your feelings on your partner or child instead. Displacement often occurs during bullying incidents.

5. Regression – If we feel threatened or anxious, we may unconsciously “escape” to an earlier stage of development. Children may regress by resuming to suck their thumb or wet the bed despite having resolved these issues. Adults, too, can regress. We see this with addictive behaviors like overeating and chain-smoking or social withdrawal.

6. Rationalization – When we want to feel comfortable with an undesirable choice, we can explain it as okay. For instance, if we have been doing a good job of dieting and know we shouldn’t have dessert, we explain or excuse it as we deserve it.

How can defense mechanisms help?

“Defense mechanisms are a normal, natural part of psychological development. Identifying which type you, your loved ones, even your co-workers use can help you in future conversations and encounters.” They serve to protect us from intense feelings so we can handle them when we feel ready.

We may not realize we are actually using defense mechanisms. It is when our behaviors become extreme or out of proportion, that we want to take a more serious look at them. That is when it may be beneficial to seek out a psychologist to learn more effective coping strategies.