Defence Mechanisms

Defence Mechanisms: Coping Strategies Against Stressors

Defense mechanisms are unconscious, emotional strategies that are engaged in to reduce anxiety and maintain a positive self-image.

In simple words, defense mechanisms may be described as psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect oneself from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings. They are a rather automatic and unconscious way in which we lessen the effects of our emotions.

Sigmund Freud was one of the first theorists to identify psychological defense mechanisms. He suggested that we use coping strategies unconsciously to reduce our anxiety and maintain a positive self-image and self-esteem.

Freud considered the ego to be a defensive structure that mediates between the excessive demands of the id and the excessive restrictions of the superego. It was Freud’s daughter, Anna (1953), who formulated a comprehensive list of defense mechanisms employed by the ego.

Some of the common forms of defense mechanisms as identified by Anna Freud are briefly described as follows:

  1. Repression
    Repression, the central defense mechanism, is the inability to remember material that is unacceptable to the individual. By means of repression, ideas, impulses, and emotions pass out of conscious awareness. For example, the individual who cannot acknowledge hostile feelings toward an old friend may “forget” the friend’s name. Also, a person may forget the details of an accident, crime, or other situation associated with trauma or harm.
  2. Displacement
    Displacement is the transferral of emotion from one target to another. It involves directing emotions toward a less threatening target. You yell at your partner after an argument with your boss. An athlete throws objects or kicks the bench after a missed play.
  3. Reaction formation
    Reaction formation refers to the transformation of unacceptable impulses into opposite behavior. For example, hostile feelings toward someone may be expressed by behaviors that are excessively kind and loving.
  4. Isolation
    Isolation is the separation of an idea from the emotion surrounding it. The idea itself may or not be forgotten, but the accompanying emotion always is. Thus, a college freshman may ignore feelings of homesickness even though she often has thoughts of returning home.
  5. Undoing
    Undoing is an effort to cancel out certain actions, real or imaginary. Undoing may be accomplished through apologies, atonement, or ceremonies and rituals. An adolescent who engages in masturbation may try to undo the behavior by repeated, ritualistic hand-washing, for example.
  6. Rationalization
    Rationalization involves devising a plausible reason or motive to explain one’s behavior, which may or may not be valid, for certain events or behaviors. Rationalization is used to conceal one’s real motives or shortcomings from oneself or from others. An example is the alcoholic who says that he needs to drink in order to “wind down” from daily pressures.
  7. Intellectualization
    Intellectualization is similar to rationalization and involves the use of intellectual processes to avoid emotional expression. An incompatible couple may use intellectualization to avoid discussing their actual feelings about each other.
  8. Denial
    Denial is a partial or complete rejection of something. It is refusal to accept or acknowledge the reality of a situation. That is, one may deny a total experience or only the emotion that accompanies the experience. For example, having unprotected sex denies the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy or contracting an STI. Denial is quite common and may be adaptive or maladaptive, depending on the circumstances.
  9. Projection
    Projection involves attributing one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes to other people. For example, you accuse another student of brown-nosing the professor when in reality it is you who engages in this behavior. Again, a person in a relationship may accuse his partner of wanting to cheat or date other people when this is his own desire.
  10. Regression
    Regression is returning to an earlier stage of development in one’s behavior, thinking, or attitudes. This enables people to return to an earlier stage of functioning in order to avoid the tension and demands of a later stage. The five year old whose world is invaded by a new sibling may, for example, return to the oral or anal stage, where gratification was assured.
  11. Introjection
    Introjection is the eradication of distinction between the individual and an early love object. When all the characteristics of a love object are internalized, the sense of being a separate entity is lost. Thus, a child who adopts all the characteristics of a parent may lose his sense of being separate or different from the parent.
  12. Identification
    Identification is the imitation or acquisition of certain attributes of a significant person. The son of a famous baseball player who tries to emulate his father is using the mechanism of identification.
  13. Sublimation
    Sublimation is the expression of psychic energy in socially acceptable ways by controlling or delaying instinctual drives. It involves directing emotions into activity that is more constructive and socially acceptable. Sublimation of the erotic drive may be seen in the behavior of a childless woman who expresses her mothering capacities by teaching preschool children. Sublimation of the aggressive drive may manifest in aggressive persons directing energy into exercise or athletic event when they are triggered. Others may direct their emotions into writing, sculpting, music, or painting or other productive exercises.

Freud believed that psychological defense mechanisms are a rather automatic and unconscious way in which we lessen the effects of our emotions. Thus, defense mechanisms are used to avoid or reduce the emotion associated with a stressor, but they do not necessarily eliminate the source of the stress. For example, you might use the defense mechanism of displacement to deal with your anger toward a boss, a parent, or a significant other. You take your anger out on a friend by yelling at her, or on an object by throwing it against the wall. Afterward, you may feel better, but it does not resolve the issue that made you angry in the first place. The stressor is still present and may resurface again in the future.

Anna Freud contented that everyone uses a variety of defenses from time to time, some of which are more functional than others. Some of these defense mechanisms are adaptive. Directing your anger into a more constructive activity such as washing your car is more productive than hurting someone else (e.g., “sublimation”).

Other defense mechanisms, especially when we use them to excess, can prevent us from developing effective ways of coping. For example, the student who fails to study for a test may decide that his roommate who watches television is at fault. Such a defense on the part of the student does not promote an adaptive way of coping with failure.

Benefits and Costs of Defense Mechanisms

The use of defense mechanisms involves cost and benefits. However, the benefits of defense mechanisms are typically outweighed by the costs.

  • We use defense mechanisms chiefly to restore our self-image.
  • We also benefit because defense mechanisms reduce anxiety.
  • Defense mechanisms may also give us the confidence to handle additional stressors
  • Defense mechanisms often inhibit our ability to resolve a problem.
  • Using our emotions to cope with stressors may impede our functioning in other daily activities—yelling at our friends too often may drive them away.
  • Using defense mechanisms keeps us in a state of unawareness as to the true source of any stress-related symptoms.

Given these disadvantages, why do we continue to use defense mechanisms? Basically, they are easier and produce quicker results in reducing our feelings of anxiety. Unfortunately, these advantages are often at the expense of our well being as we may experience more distress and negative mood over the long run (Littleton et al., 2007; A. O’Brien, Terry, & Jimmieson, 2008).