The Types and Uses of Personality Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are brought on by stressful situations.
Defense mechanisms are brought on by stressful situations. (Image: Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Defense mechanisms exist to ease uncomfortable feelings and impulses. They are unconscious ways the ego defends itself when confronted with feelings of anxiety or guilt. The term “unconscious” means that the person is unaware that he is operating under one or more defense mechanism. Sigmund Freud, the famous Austrian neurologist, discovered defense mechanisms while treating his patients, and wrote about them extensively. His daughter, Anna Freud, refined these concepts and added to her father's list.


Although Freud was not the first person to discover repression, he wrote extensively about the phenomenon. Repression is the process of pushing anxiety-provoking thoughts, ideas or memories into the subconscious. For example, a traumatic event like sexual abuse in childhood may be "repressed," thereby preventing the child or adult from remembering the incident. This loss of memory protects the child from reliving the trauma, but mental health problems can develop over the long term because the traumatic memories remain in the unconscious, according to Richard Niolon, Ph.D.


Denial is the refusal to accept a painful situation for what it is. The person in denial may act as if everything is fine, when clearly it is not fine. This can be helpful for someone who has experienced a dramatic stressor, such as the loss of a loved one. It may help him slowly accept the situation in a way that is not psychologically overwhelming. However, denial can also be destructive. An alcoholic may deny he has a problem, stating that he is able to function at work and in his daily activities, but the alcoholism slowly destroys his life and relationships.


Displacement occurs when anger cannot be expressed toward the intended person because the risk is too great. Instead, the anger is “displaced” onto a less threatening target. For example, it may not be acceptable to show anger toward a boss or a police officer, so the anger is redirected to a spouse, a child or close friend. In this way, the anger is expressed, but because it is misdirected, it can cause problems in interpersonal relationships.


Projection occurs when certain traits or desires in ourselves are not acceptable, so they are projected on to others. This defense mechanism is usually the result of a person's own inability to recognize and understand their own feelings or desires, according to John M. Grohol, Psy.D. For example, you may have negative feelings, such as hatred, toward someone, but instead of allowing yourself to feel that emotion, you project it onto that person by imagining that they hate you.


This defense mechanism occurs when people accept what they view as a logical reason for a situation, rather than the truth, because the logical reason is more comfortable for the ego. For example, a woman may think highly of her new boyfriend and brag about him to her friends, but when he suddenly breaks off the relationship, she rationalizes the situation by telling herself that she knew he was a jerk all along.


Regression occurs when a person responds to stress by reverting to a younger psychological age. A child under stress may suck her thumb or wet the bed, even though she has long since given up these behaviors. Adults can regress when feelings of anxiety take over. For example, a person experiencing the loss of a child may stay in bed all day, rather than face the outside world.


Sublimation is a process in which negative emotions or impulses are used in a constructive activity. A person can use exercise, sports, humor or fantasy to sublimate anxiety, according to Grohol. For example, a person may reduce the anxiety of losing a job by "fantasizing" about different options and new career goals. By focusing his energy on new opportunities, he feels empowered rather than defeated.

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