Defense mechanisms of sigmund freud

Defense Mechanisms - StatPearls - NCBI Bookshelf

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Anna Freud defined defense mechanisms as "unconscious resources used by the ego" to decrease internal stress ultimately. Patients often devise these unconscious mechanisms to decrease conflict within themselves, specifically between the superego and id. Psychodynamic therapy is used by clinicians to help orient patients to their own unconscious processes. By recognizing and identifying these processes, patients improve their self-awareness and gain a new understanding of their own behaviors. This activity defines major defense mechanisms to increase clinician's understanding of their patients during patient encounters and the role of the interprofessional team in the care of these patients.


  • Identify and define the common psychological defense mechanisms.

  • Describe the goal of psychodynamic therapy in relation to defense mechanisms.

  • Review the clinical significance of defense mechanisms in relation to psychodynamic therapy.

  • Outline interprofessional team strategies for improving coordination and communication in the care of patients with defense mechanisms.

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Sigmund Freud, known as the father of psychoanalysis, began the discussion of defense mechanisms in the nineteenth century in relation to the subconscious defenses of the id, ego, and superego.[1] These initial defense mechanisms were more clearly defined and analyzed by his daughter, Anna Freud, in the twentieth century. She created 10 major defense mechanisms, but the number of mechanisms has since been increased by later psychoanalysts.


Anna Freud defined these defense mechanisms as "unconscious resources used by the ego" to decrease internal stress ultimately.[2] Patients often devise these unconscious mechanisms to decrease conflict within themselves, specifically between the superego and id. Psychodynamic therapy is used by clinicians to help orient patients to their own unconscious processes. By recognizing and identifying these processes, patients improve their self-awareness and gain a new understanding of their own behaviors. These insights can be helpful to patients with a variety of mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and personality disorders.[3] 

Issues of Concern

As we progress from childhood to adolescence and then progress from adolescence into adulthood, these psychological defense mechanisms can persist from one phase to the next, regress to earlier phases in response to stressors, or can evolve over time.[4] Defense mechanisms can be internalized or externalized, resulting in corresponding behavior problems, which can complicate psychiatric treatment.[5] Having a thorough understanding of defense mechanisms can help clinicians progress through treatment and avoid pitfalls. For example, recognizing the presence of defense mechanisms during a patient encounter can help maintain an appropriate therapeutic and professional relationship. [6]

Clinical Significance

If defense mechanisms are identified and adolescence, it can help predict further development of personality disorders.[7] Therefore, the early identification of defense mechanisms can have great clinical significance. Depending on the context and the severity, defense mechanisms can be either maladaptive or adaptive.[8]

Primitive Defense Mechanisms [1] [9]

Acting out: The development of detrimental behaviors that distract attention and energy away from other stressors. This defense mechanism may be present in conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder. 

Avoidance: Dismissing thoughts or feelings that are uncomfortable or keeping away from people, places, or situations associated with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. This defense mechanism may be present in post-traumatic stress disorder, where one avoids the location of a traumatic motor vehicle accident or avoids driving completely.  

Conversion: The development of physical symptoms that cannot be explained by pathophysiology or physical injury. This defense mechanism is recognized in conversion disorder, also known as functional neurologic symptom disorder. 

Denial: Dismissing external reality and instead focusing on internal explanations or fallacies and thereby avoiding the uncomfortable reality of a situation. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who continues to shop for expensive designer clothes despite being in serious financial debt. 

Identification: The internalization or reproduction of behaviors observed in others, such as a child developing the behavior of his or her parents without conscious realization of this process. Identification is also known as introjection. 

Projection: Attributing one’s own maladaptive inner impulses to someone else. For example, someone who commits an episode of infidelity in their marriage may then accuse their partner of infidelity or may become more suspicious of their partner.  

Regression: Adapting one’s behavior to earlier levels of psychosocial development. For example, a stressful event may cause an individual to regress to bed-wetting after they have already outgrown this behavior. 

Repression: Subconsciously blocking ideas or impulses that are undesirable. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who has no recollection of a traumatic event, even though they were conscious and aware during the event. 

Schizoid fantasy: Creating an internal retreat into one’s imagination to avoid uncomfortable situations. This defense mechanism may present commonly in children or later in development, may be present in schizoid personality disorder. 

Splitting: Failing to reconcile both positive and negative attributes into a whole understanding of a person or situation, resulting in all-or-none thinking. Splitting is commonly associated with borderline personality disorder. 

Higher-level Defense Mechanisms [10]

Anticipation: The devotion of one’s effort to solving problems before they arise. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who prepares for an important job interview by practicing their answers to the toughest questions. 

Compensation: Focusing on achievement in one area of life in order to distract attention away from the inadequacy or fear of inadequacy in another area of life. This defense mechanism may be present in a student who receives poor grades on their report card and then devotes more time and effort to extracurricular clubs and activities. 

Displacement: Transferring one’s emotional burden or emotional reaction from one entity to another. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who has a stressful day at work and then lashes out against their family at home. 

Humor: Decreasing or combating the negative emotions associated with a situation by using comedy. For example, telling a funny story about someone during a eulogy. 

Intellectualization: The development of patterns of excessive thinking or over-analyzing, which may increase the distance from one's emotions. For example, someone diagnosed with a terminal illness does not show emotion after the diagnosis is given but instead starts to research every source they can find about the illness. 

Isolation of Affect: Avoiding the experience of an emotion associated with a person, idea, or situation. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who describes the day their house burnt down in a factual way without displaying any emotion. 

Rationalization: The justification of one’s behavior through attempts at a rational explanation. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who steals money but feels justified in doing so because they needed the money more than the person from whom they stole. 

Reaction formation: Replacing one’s initial impulse toward a situation or idea with the opposite impulse. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who teases or insults a romantic interest whom they like. Conversely, reaction formation may be present in someone who is overly kind to someone whom they dislike.  

Sexualization: Associating sexual aspects to one’s experience of certain people, places, objects, or ideas. Sexualization can refer to the development of one’s sexual identity in general. Alternatively, sexualization can refer to the development of specific fetishes or sexual references to conventionally non-sexual entities. 

Sublimation: Transforming one’s anxiety or emotions into pursuits considered by societal or cultural norms to be more useful. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who channels their aggression and energy into playing sports. 

Suppression: Consciously choosing to block ideas or impulses that are undesirable, as opposed to repression, a subconscious process. This defense mechanism may be present in someone who has intrusive thoughts about a traumatic event but pushes these thoughts out of their mind.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Recognition and interpersonal communication about any defense mechanisms the patient is using amongst the psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, primary care provider, nurse, and family can help to orient the team and enhance patient-centered care. Psychodynamic therapy can involve the patient in their own care by achieving greater awareness of their own patterns of psychological defense mechanisms. Some meta-analysis studies have shown psychodynamic therapy to have equal efficacy compared to cognitive behavioral therapy and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of mild to moderate mood disorders. It is important to recognize that therapeutic treatments based on self-awareness and communication will avoid the possible complications of pharmacotherapy, such as side effects and drug-to-drug interactions, and some patients may be more willing to try these therapies compared to pharmacotherapy.[11]



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Parekh MA, Majeed H, Khan TR, Khan AB, Khalid S, Khwaja NM, Khalid R, Khan MA, Rizqui IM, Jehan I. Ego defense mechanisms in Pakistani medical students: a cross sectional analysis. BMC Psychiatry. 2010 Jan 29;10:12. [PMC free article: PMC2836996] [PubMed: 20109240]


Abbate-Daga G, Amianto F, Delsedime N, De-Bacco C, Fassino S. Resistance to treatment and change in anorexia nervosa [corrected]: a clinical overview. BMC Psychiatry. 2013 Nov 07;13:294. [PMC free article: PMC3879222] [PubMed: 24199620]


Cramer P. Change in children's externalizing and internalizing behavior problems: the role of defense mechanisms. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015 Mar;203(3):215-21. [PubMed: 25668653]


Bruschweiler-Stern N, Lyons-Ruth K, Morgan AC, Nahum JP, Sander LW, Stern DN. The foundational level of psychodynamic meaning: implicit process in relation to conflict, defense and the dynamic unconscious. Int J Psychoanal. 2007 Aug;88(Pt 4):843-60. [PubMed: 17681896]


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Defense mechanism | Definition, Examples, & Facts

Sigmund Freud

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Sigmund Freud Anna Freud
Related Topics:
projection repression reaction formation compensation denial

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defense mechanism, in psychoanalytic theory, any of a group of mental processes that enables the mind to reach compromise solutions to conflicts that it is unable to resolve. The process is usually unconscious, and the compromise generally involves concealing from oneself internal drives or feelings that threaten to lower self-esteem or provoke anxiety. The concept derives from the psychoanalytic hypothesis that there are forces in the mind that oppose and battle against each other. The term was first used in Sigmund Freud’s paper “The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence” (1894).

Some of the major defense mechanisms described by psychoanalysts are the following:

  • 1. Repression is the withdrawal from consciousness of an unwanted idea, affect, or desire by pushing it down, or repressing it, into the unconscious part of the mind. An example may be found in a case of hysterical amnesia, in which the victim has performed or witnessed some disturbing act and then completely forgotten the act itself and the circumstances surrounding it.

  • 2. Reaction formation is the fixation in consciousness of an idea, affect, or desire that is opposite to a feared unconscious impulse. A mother who bears an unwanted child, for example, may react to her feelings of guilt for not wanting the child by becoming extremely solicitous and overprotective to convince both the child and herself that she is a good mother.

  • 3. Projection is a form of defense in which unwanted feelings are displaced onto another person, where they then appear as a threat from the external world. A common form of projection occurs when an individual, threatened by his own angry feelings, accuses another of harbouring hostile thoughts.

  • 4. Regression is a return to earlier stages of development and abandoned forms of gratification belonging to them, prompted by dangers or conflicts arising at one of the later stages. A young wife, for example, might retreat to the security of her parents’ home after her first quarrel with her husband.

  • 5. Sublimation is the diversion or deflection of instinctual drives, usually sexual ones, into noninstinctual channels. Psychoanalytic theory holds that the energy invested in sexual impulses can be shifted to the pursuit of more acceptable and even socially valuable achievements, such as artistic or scientific endeavours.

  • 6. Denial is the conscious refusal to perceive that painful facts exist. In denying latent feelings of homosexuality or hostility, or mental defects in one’s child, an individual can escape intolerable thoughts, feelings, or events.

  • 7. Rationalization is the substitution of a safe and reasonable explanation for the true (but threatening) cause of behaviour.

Psychoanalysts emphasize that the use of a defense mechanism is a normal part of personality function and not in and of itself a sign of psychological disorder. Various psychological disorders, however, can be characterized by an excessive or rigid use of these defenses.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn.

concept in psychoanalysis, brief identification, examples


  • What is meant by a defense mechanism in psychology
  • Types of personality defense mechanisms according to Sigmund Freud, examples
    • crowding out nine0006
    • Projection
    • substitution
    • Rationalization
    • Jet formation
    • Regression nine0006
    • Sublimation
    • Negation
  • Psychology books worth reading


  • What is meant by a defense mechanism in psychology nine0006
  • Types of personality defense mechanisms according to Sigmund Freud, examples
    • crowding out
    • Projection
    • substitution
    • Rationalization nine0006
    • Jet formation
    • Regression
    • Sublimation
    • Negation
  • Psychology books worth reading nine0006

What is meant by a defense mechanism in psychology

For the first time the concept of "defense mechanism" was used by Sigmund Freud. The idea of ​​them was outlined in 1894 in his work "Defensive Neuropsychoses".

Defense mechanisms - reactions of the brain to external stimuli. They are aimed at minimizing negative experiences.

According to Freud, there are two reactions to the threat of impulse breakthrough:

Beware! If the teacher detects plagiarism in the work, major problems cannot be avoided (up to expulsion). If it is not possible to write yourself, order here.

  • blocking the expression of impulses in conscious behavior;
  • distortion of pulses to such an extent that their intensity is reduced or deviated to the side.

Protective mechanisms have common characteristics :

  • act on an unconscious level and therefore they can be considered means of self-deception, a person does not realize that he uses this or that method of protection, accordingly, it is impossible to “switch on” these mechanisms at will; nine0006
  • they deny or distort the perception of reality in order to reduce anxiety and make it safer for the individual and his consciousness.

Also, a person rarely uses any one defense mechanism - most often several types are combined depending on the situation.

Types of personality defense mechanisms according to Sigmund Freud, examples

Sigmund Freud identified the following defense mechanisms:

  • repression;
  • nine0005 projection;
  • substitution;
  • rationalization;
  • jet formation;
  • regression;
  • sublimation;
  • negation.


One of the primary mechanisms, the essence of which is the rejection of unpleasant thoughts, events, memories, experiences. As a consequence, a person is not aware of internal conflicts and does not remember traumatic events of the past.

At the same time, the repressed impulses do not cease to be active, they manifest themselves unconsciously through jokes, dreams, slips of the tongue. The psyche spends a huge amount of energy on suppressing them, and therefore there is a risk that memories will “break through” out.


Appropriation of one's own desires, aspirations, attitudes to other people. This allows you to relieve yourself of responsibility for character traits, thoughts and behaviors that may seem unacceptable.

Based on this, there is an opinion that an overly jealous person is himself capable of treason. nine0003


This method manifests itself as redirection, redirection of one's reaction from a more threatening, dangerous object to a less threatening one. For example, after criticism from the boss, the employee takes out her irritation on the children at home.


The essence of rationalization lies in the fact that a person unconsciously finds logical connections and builds conclusions to explain his failures. This is necessary in order to maintain a positive attitude towards yourself. So, a student who did not pass the test will decide that there were no questions on the ticket in the program being studied, and the teacher was simply out of sorts. nine0003

Reactive formation

In order to hide his real feelings, a person shows emotions that are opposite to those experienced. A person unconsciously translates one mental state into another.

This fact should be taken into account when evaluating a person, since his actions may be a distortion of true desires. For example, ostentatious anger or aggression may indicate good nature, defenselessness.


In this case, a person's behavior "rolls back" to an earlier form. Such a mechanism helps to adapt to a stressful situation due to the unconscious return to the usual forms of behavior in childhood: whims, tears and other manifestations. This happens because a person learned as early as childhood that such behavior guarantees support, attention, and care. nine0003

Regression allows you to relieve yourself of responsibility - in childhood, parents carried it. Often a similar mechanism manifests itself during illness, when a person turns from an adult and independent personality into a child.


This mechanism is considered as the only constructive in a situation of stress, discomfort. It was thanks to him that many works of art appeared.

The point is to switch negative energy to socially useful work. That is, this is a switch from their experiences to some kind of occupation. It can be both cleaning the apartment and drawing. nine0003


This mechanism protects the psyche from trauma by ignoring obvious facts, a complete refusal to accept negative information.

This mechanism is often activated when particularly stressful and traumatic situations appear in life. For example, with the loss of a loved one, diagnosing an incurable disease.

Books on psychology worth reading

Although defense mechanisms work unconsciously, understanding how they are arranged and function will help a person to understand and identify himself. Relevant literature will help to understand this topic:

  • Sigmund Freud, "Defensive neuropsychoses";
  • Sergei Bogomaz, "Psychological defense of personality: methodology, mechanisms, tools";
  • Anna Freud, The Psychology of the Self and Defense Mechanisms;
  • Maria Padun, Anastasia Kotelnikova “Psychic Trauma and the Picture of the World. Theory, empiricism, practice”.

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Psychological defense mechanisms according to Freud

Freud believed that the ego reacts to the threat of a breakthrough of impulses in two ways:

  1. by blocking the expression of impulses in conscious behavior
  2. by distorting them to such an extent that their original intensity is noticeably reduced or deviated to the side. nine0006

All defense mechanisms have two characteristics in common :

  1. they operate on an unconscious level and are therefore means of self-deception
  2. they distort, deny or falsify the perception of reality in order to make anxiety less threatening to the individual.

It should also be noted that people rarely use any single defense mechanism - usually they use various defense mechanisms to resolve conflict or reduce anxiety. Some basic defensive strategies will be discussed below. nine0003

Removal . Freud saw repression as the ego's primary defense, not only because it is the basis for the formation of more complex defense mechanisms, but also because it provides the most direct way to escape from anxiety. Sometimes described as "motivated forgetting," repression is the process of removing from awareness thoughts and feelings that cause suffering. As a result of the action of repression, individuals are unaware of their anxiety-producing conflicts, nor do they remember traumatic past events. For example, a person who suffers from horrendous personal failures may become unable to talk about this difficult experience due to repression. nine0003

Releasing anxiety through repression does not go unnoticed. Freud believed that repressed thoughts and impulses do not lose their activity in the unconscious, and a constant expenditure of psychic energy is required to prevent their breakthrough into consciousness. This relentless waste of ego resources can severely limit the use of energy for more adaptive, self-developmental, creative behavior. However, the constant striving of the repressed material for open expression can receive short-term satisfaction in dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue, and other manifestations of what Freud called "the psychopathology of everyday life." Moreover, according to his theory, repression plays a role in all forms of neurotic behavior, in psychosomatic diseases (such as peptic ulcers), psychosexual disorders (such as impotence and frigidity). This is the main and most commonly encountered defense mechanism. nine0003

Projection . As a defense mechanism, in its theoretical significance, projection follows repression. It is the process by which an individual attributes their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to other people or environments. Thus, projection allows a person to place the blame on someone or something for their shortcomings or blunders. A golfer who criticizes his club after a bad shot shows a primitive projection. On another level, we can see the projection of a young woman who is unaware that she is struggling with her strong sex drive, but who suspects everyone who meets her of intent on seducing her. Finally, a classic example of projection is a student who has not prepared well for an exam, attributing his low grade to dishonest testing, cheating other students, or blaming a professor for not explaining this topic in a lecture. Projection also explains social prejudice and the scapegoat phenomenon, since ethnic and racial stereotypes are a convenient target for attributing negative personality characteristics to someone else. nine0003

Substitution for . In a defense mechanism called substitution, the manifestation of an instinctive impulse is redirected from a more threatening object or person to a less threatening one. A common example is the child who, after being punished by his parents, pushes his little sister, kicks her dog, or breaks her toys. Substitution also manifests itself in the increased sensitivity of adults to the slightest annoying moments. For example, an overly demanding employer criticizes an employee, and she reacts with outbursts of rage to minor provocations from her husband and children. She does not realize that, being the objects of her irritation, they are simply replacing the boss. In each of these examples, the true object of hostility is replaced by a much less threatening one for the subject. Less common is this form of substitution when it is directed against oneself: hostile impulses addressed to others are redirected to oneself, which causes a feeling of depression or condemnation of oneself. nine0003

Rationalization . Another way for the ego to deal with frustration and anxiety is to distort reality and thus protect self-worth. Rationalization refers to false reasoning by which irrational behavior is presented in such a way that it appears to be perfectly reasonable and therefore justified in the eyes of others. Stupid mistakes, bad judgments, and blunders can be justified through the magic of rationalization. One of the most commonly used types of such protection is rationalization according to the “green grapes” type. This name originates from Aesop's fable about the fox, which could not reach the bunch of grapes and therefore decided that the berries were not yet ripe. People rationalize in the same way. For example, a man who was humiliated by a woman when he asked her out on a date consoles himself with the fact that she is completely unattractive. Similarly, a student who fails to get into the dental department of a medical school may convince herself that she doesn't really want to be a dentist. nine0003

Jet formation . Sometimes the ego can defend itself against forbidden impulses by expressing opposite impulses in behavior and thoughts. Here we are dealing with reactive formation, or reverse action. This protective process is implemented in two stages: first, the unacceptable impulse is suppressed; then, at the level of consciousness, a completely opposite one appears. The resistance is especially noticeable in socially approved behavior, which at the same time looks exaggerated and inflexible. For example, a woman who is anxious about her own pronounced sexual desire may become a staunch fighter against pornographic films in her circle. She may even actively picket film studios or write protest letters to film companies, expressing her strong concern about the degradation of modern cinema. Freud wrote that many men who make fun of homosexuals are actually defending themselves against their own homosexual urges. nine0003

Regression . Another well-known defense mechanism used to protect against anxiety is regression. Regression is characterized by a return to childish, childish patterns of behavior. It is a way of alleviating anxiety by returning to an earlier period of life that is safer and more enjoyable. Easily recognizable manifestations of regression in adults include intemperance, dissatisfaction, as well as such features as "pouting and not talking" with others, baby talk, resisting authority, or driving a car at a recklessly high speed. nine0003

Sublimation . According to Freud, sublimation is a defense mechanism that enables a person, in order to adapt, to change his impulses in such a way that they can be expressed through socially acceptable thoughts or actions. Sublimation is seen as the only healthy, constructive strategy for curbing unwanted impulses because it allows the ego to change the target or/and object of the impulses without inhibiting their manifestation. The energy of instincts is diverted through other channels of expression - those that society considers acceptable [Golden, 1987]. For example, if over time a young man becomes more and more anxious about masturbation, he may sublimate his impulses into socially approved activities such as football, hockey, or other sports. Similarly, a woman with strong unconscious sadistic tendencies can become a surgeon or a first-rate novelist. In these activities, it can demonstrate its superiority over others, but in a way that will produce a socially useful result. nine0003

Freud claimed that the sublimation of sexual instincts was the main impetus for great achievements in Western science and culture. He said that the sublimation of the sexual desire was a particularly marked feature of the evolution of culture, and that it alone made possible the extraordinary rise in science, art, and ideology, which play such an important part in our civilized life.

Negative . When a person refuses to admit that an unpleasant event has occurred, this means that he turns on such a protective mechanism as denial. Imagine a father who refuses to believe that his daughter has been raped and brutally murdered; he acts as if nothing of the kind ever happened. Or imagine a child denying the death of a beloved cat and stubbornly believing that she is still alive. Reality denial also occurs when people say or insist, “This just can’t happen to me,” despite obvious evidence to the contrary (as happens when a doctor tells a patient that he has a terminal illness).

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