Humor defense mechanism example

Coping and Laughing Your Woes Away

The belief that laughter heals the mind has been around for centuries. And why not?

Humor just feels good; it distracts us from our problems and promotes a lighter perspective. For this reason, many famous quotes have been penned about the benefits of humor, such as:

The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.

Mark Twain

Twain had a point, as the research literature supports a relationship between humor and a wide range of positive psychosocial outcomes. This article will provide readers with an abundance of information regarding the theoretical foundations of humor within the field of psychology, as well as empirical studies linking humor to various favorable outcomes.

Meaningful quotes and additional resources are also included, along with a bit of humor sprinkled throughout.

Before you continue reading, we thought you might like to download our three Grief Exercises [PDF] for free. These science-based tools will help you move yourself or others through grief in a compassionate way.

This Article Contains:

  • Theories of Humor in Psychology
  • Humor as a Character Strength
  • Coping or Defense Mechanisms?
  • 18 Examples of Humor as a Strength
  • Humor’s Role in Stress
  • 6 Ways to Explore and Maximize This Strength
  • A Brief Look at Dark Humor
  • 8 Quotes on the Subject
  • 10 Relevant Books
  • Humor Resources
  • A Take-Home Message
  • References

Theories of Humor in Psychology

Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle have been trying to explain humor since ancient times. Recent scholars have proposed several theories explaining the underlying mechanisms of humor.

Martin and Ford (2018) describe the three top humor theories. First, relief theory focuses primarily on the motivational mechanisms of interpersonal needs, positing that humor provides relief of tension. The authors describe this as akin to a hydraulic engine, with laughter serving the function of a steam pipe pressure valve. In this way, pent-up pressure is relieved through laughter.

More specifically, the muscular and respiratory processes involved in laugher serve the important role of releasing pent-up nervous energy (Martin & Ford, 2018).

Many of us may relate to high-anxiety situations where a joke feels like a much-needed outlet. For example, in a famous scene on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary is distressed by the death of Chuckles the Clown, who, while dressed as a peanut, was killed by an elephant in a circus parade.

Mary is deeply offended by office jokes following the parade incident. However, she finds herself overwhelmed with an anxious energy that finally reaches its peak at the clown’s funeral, where she is mortified by her inability to stop her pressure valve of nervous laughter.

The second theory described by Martin and Ford (2018) is the superiority theory, which focuses on interpersonal motivational mechanisms, with humor resulting as a function of self-esteem enhancement. In this way, humor results from feelings of triumph over the errors or misfortune of others, which promotes self-enhancement and feelings of superiority.

Incongruity theory, which focuses on the cognitive mechanisms of perception and interpretation, posits that it is the perceptions of incongruity that explain humor (Martin & Ford, 2018). In other words, laughter is a function of anticipating a different outcome than what was expected.

Incongruity theory is believed to be the most influential humor theory, with some proposing that “incongruity is at the core of all humor” (Zhan, 2012, p. 95). This theory is intuitive, as a joke with an expected or obvious punchline is simply not funny. Instead, laughter occurs in response to unexpected punchlines or those that go against usual patterns (Wilkins & Eisenbraun, 2009).

I was raised as an only child. My siblings took it pretty hard.

Humor as a Character Strength

Positive psychologists have a keen interest in the role of character strengths, which have been described as virtues that are crucial to human thriving (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).

Peterson and Seligman (2004) propose six virtues and 24 character strengths that fall within each virtue category (a few examples below):

  • Wisdom and knowledge — Creativity & curiosity
  • Humanity — Kindness & love
  • Justice — Fairness & leadership
  • Transcendence — Gratitude & humor

Proposed links between humor and positive wellbeing are intuitive; it makes sense that those with a good sense of humor will be in a better position to weather difficult situations, enjoy more cohesive relationships, find humor in all sorts of experiences, and benefit from more positive mental and physical health (Martin, 2019).

These ideas are supported by empirical research, and here are several examples:

  • Engaging in a humor exercise is associated with a positive mood (Edwards, 2013) and positive cognitive appraisals (Maiolino & Kuiper, 2016).
  • A sense of humor is associated with increased life satisfaction and a pleasurable and engaged life (Ruch, Proyer, & Weber, 2010).
  • Humor has been reported as among the top eight of 24 character strengths and is associated with increased life satisfaction, life engagement, and life pleasure (Samson & Antonelli, 2013).
  • Adaptive humor is linked with increased stable positive mood and decreased stable negative mood (Cann & Collette, 2014).

An important caveat to the above findings is that the type of humor a person exhibits also plays a key role in determining its impact. This idea is evident in Cann and Collette’s study (2014), as positive outcomes were associated with self-enhancing humor.

Detrimental humor (e.g., sarcasm and self-disparaging humor), on the other hand, is believed to have potentially negative ramifications such as reduced relationship quality and low self-esteem (Martin, 2019). Therefore, it is suggested that the absence of detrimental humor is equally important to the presence of prosocial humor styles (Martin, 2019).

These findings have been supported by other research studies, such as that by Maiolino and Kuiper (2016), who investigated the ability of humor to predict positive outcomes.

The researchers found that greater wellbeing was related to affiliative and self-enhancing humor, whereas reduced wellbeing was linked to aggressive and self-defeating humor (Maiolino & Kuiper, 2016).

Similarly, in their review, Stieger, Formann, and Burger (2011) reported that self-defeating humor was linked to depression and loneliness, whereas self-enhancing humor was related to beneficial outcomes.

A sandwich walks into a bar. The barman says “Sorry we don’t serve food in here.”

Coping or Defense Mechanisms

When is a coping technique seen as a way to manage, and when is it seen as a defense mechanism?

What is a defense mechanism?

The concept of defense mechanisms originated in psychoanalytic theory. Defense mechanisms are believed to protect the ego from emotional pain through the unconscious mind’s distortion of reality.

The use of defense mechanisms may have positive or negative ramifications depending upon the particular mechanism and how it is used. For example, the mechanism of denial, when used by addicts, serves as a barrier to accepting the addiction and seeking help. In contrast, a person who is not yet ready to face trauma may use mechanisms such as regression or suppression as protective mechanisms until ready to face the situation.

Humor also may function as an adaptive ego defense by enabling people to perceive the comical absurdity in highly challenging situations. In this respect, humor serves as both a defense mechanism and a way of coping with adversity.

Research has supported this idea. For example, in a study by Samson, Glassco, Lee, and Gross (2014), humorous coping applied after viewing negative pictures was found to increase positive emotions at both short- and longer term follow-up.

Want to know more about defense mechanisms? Here we share defense mechanism worksheets as tools for practitioners.

Using humor to cope with medical problems

While more research is sorely needed, extant literature suggests that humor may have many benefits among patients, such as enhanced immunity and positive emotions, improved interpersonal relationships, reduced pain, and increased positive emotions (Gelkopf, 2011).

However, most evidence proposing a link between humor and improved health is anecdotal. For example, among physicians who do the exceedingly difficult work of treating cancer patients, humor has been reported as beneficial for patients, doctors, and relationships between the two (Joshua, Cotroneo, & Clarke, 2005).

Hope may represent a powerful mechanism through which humor brings relief to patients, as evidenced in research addressing the impact of humor on terminally ill patients (Herth, 1990). The results of this study indicated that 85% of patients believed that humor helped them to deal with reality by empowering hope.

The use of humor in medicine has also been studied from the perspective of healthcare workers. For example, among physicians who work with dying patients, humor has been reported as one of eight coping mechanisms used to handle the extreme stress involved in doing this type of work (Schulman-Green, 2003).

Similarly, other researchers have suggested that gallows humor is beneficial for emergency personnel by providing an outlet for painful emotions and by enhancing support via group cohesion (Rowe & Regehr, 2010).

Among nurses, humor has been related to lower emotional exhaustion and depersonalization, increased personal accomplishment (Talbot & Lumden, 2000), as well as greater coping efficacy and emotional expressivity (Wanzer, Booth-Butterfield, & Booth-Butterfield, 2005).

Using humor to cope with mental illness

As with other forms of illness, it is logical to propose that humor enhances coping among individuals dealing with mental health issues. The substantive literature is again lacking; however, some studies do show that humor serves as an important coping mechanism for psychiatric patients.

For example, one study examined the impact of humorous films on various psychological symptoms among schizophrenia inpatients. The researchers found reductions in anger, anxiety, psychopathology, and depression among participants (Gelkopf, Gonen, Kurs, Melamed, & Bleich, 2006).

In another study examining the effectiveness of humor among individuals with mental illness, a humor-based activity involving clowns (i. e., the “therapeutic clown approach”) was implemented among psychiatric ward inpatients. During the humor activity period, patients were reported as having significant decreases in multiple disruptive behaviors including self-injury, fighting, and attempted escapes (Higueras et al., 2006).

‘What are you allergic to?’ queried a stressed nurse as a gunshot victim was rushed into the ER. Patient: ‘Bullets!’

18 Examples of Humor as a Strength

Along with helping to promote resilience and cope with stress and illness, humor also serves as an invaluable strength associated with various indices of psychological wellbeing, work-related benefits, learning, and creativity.

It also is advantageous for both elderly and child populations. Here are 18 examples of studies showing evidence of humor as a strength.

Humor and psychological strengths

There is something to be said for not taking everything too seriously. Internalizing criticism erodes self-esteem, a process that may be inhibited by a good sense of humor. This idea is borne out by research such as that by Liu (2012), who conducted a study with undergraduate students in Hong Kong. The results indicated that adaptive humor was linked to higher levels of self-esteem and happiness.

Similarly, Vaughan, Zeigler-Hill, and Arnau (2014) addressed stable and unstable self-esteem among college students and found that participants with stable high self-esteem were lower in less adaptive forms of humor (i.e., self-defeating humor). Additionally, a study addressing the benefits of humor, music, and aerobic exercise on anxiety among women indicated that effect sizes were highest for those in the humor group (Szabo, Ainsworth, & Danks, 2005).

Humor on the job

There is good reason to believe that humor at work leads to many positive outcomes, such as increased work performance and enhanced relationships with coworkers (Cooper, 2008). Additionally, in their comprehensive review, Cooper and Sosik (2012) reported that humor at the workplace was linked to enhanced relationships, more creative thinking, more collaborative negotiations, and better customer relations.

Similarly, Mesmer‐Magnus, Glew, and Viswesvaran (2012) conducted a meta-analysis of 49 studies focusing on the impact of humor in the workplace. Positive humor was found to buffer the impact of work stress on mental health, as well as to promote more effective functioning on the job.

More specific workplace benefits of humor included lower stress, burnout, and subordinate work withdrawal, and increased coping effectiveness, health, team cohesion, and job performance and satisfaction.

Humor and education

Not only does humor have the ability to make school more enjoyable, but it is beneficial in various meaningful ways. For example, among college students enrolled in language courses, 72% noted that humor enhanced their interest in the subject matter, 82% reported that the instructor’s use of humor made them more approachable, and 82% indicated that humor created an environment more conducive to learning (Askildson, 2005).

The humor students bring to the classroom is also essential. For example, in a study exploring humor among undergraduate students, a sense of humor was positively related to both sociability and creativity (Ghayas & Malik, 2013). The intentional use of classroom humor also has been linked to enhanced learning among nursing students (Ulloth, 2002).

Humor in the classroom also is believed to promote social and emotional development among children (Lovorn, 2008), and we share a few ideas in our article – Activities to Stimulate Emotional Development.

Humor as a strength among the elderly

While there is a paucity of research addressing humor among older people, there is some evidence of its potential to enhance the quality of life within this group. For example, research by Ganz and Jacobs (2014) indicated that attending a humor therapy workshop was associated with positive mental health outcomes among seniors.

In a similar study, following a 10-week ‘happiness and humor group’ within an urban senior center, participants reported significant improvements in life satisfaction (Mathieu, 2008).

Coping humor also has been associated with increased social support and self-efficacy among older community-dwelling adults (Marziali, McDonald, & Donahue, 2008). Lastly, following humor therapy sessions, elderly nursing home residents showed a reduced duration of agitation and an increased duration of happiness (Low et al., 2014).

Humor as a strength among children

Among humans, laughter begins as early as four months of age (Lovorn, 2008). A child with a well-developed sense of humor has been described as “becoming a joy tracker or humor spotter in everyday life… a point of view that will be carried into adulthood” (Franzini, 2002, p. 11).

Indeed, by nurturing their sense of humor, adults equip children with important coping skills (Martin, 1989). Children have reported such benefits, noting that humor increases their ability to cope with stressors associated with relationships, school-related activities, and life at home (Dowling, 2014).

Additionally, humor may represent a vital strength during middle childhood by helping kids to gain the support of a peer group and by enhancing self-esteem (Klein & Kuiper, 2006).

A comprehensive look at how children are impacted by the experience of humor is described by Hogan (2003), who noted that humor benefits children in terms of enhanced social bonding, stress relief, and pain coping. Growing up with humor sets children on a more positive pathway. Once they begin college, humor is predictive of better college adjustment (Hickman & Crossland, 2004).

Sign on a repair shop door: We Can Repair Anything. (Please knock hard on the door, the bell doesn’t work.)

Humor’s Role in Stress

There is little doubt that humor enables people to cope better with stress. It has long been believed that “humor and laughter play an important role in the maintenance of both psychological and physiological health and wellbeing in the face of stress” (Lefcourt & Martin, 1986).

Research supports this connection. For example, in a study by Abel (2002), coping strategies were examined concerning humor and various types of stress. Participants were categorized into either high or low sense of humor groups. It was found that those within the high sense of humor category appraised relatively lower amounts of stress and anxiety.

The impact of humor on stress also was investigated in a medical study using humor as a complementary therapy among cancer patients (Bennett, Zeller, Rosenberg, & McCann, 2003). After watching a funny video, cancer patients reported significantly less stress, and a negative correlation was found between stress and amount of mirthful laughter.

Interestingly, those who were higher in humor scores were also found to have increased immune functioning (Bennett et al., 2003). In general, research reviews have documented that positive styles of humor are related to lower perceptions of stress (Mauriello & McConatha, 2007).

I went to buy some camouflage pants the other day but I couldn’t find any.

6 Ways to Explore and Maximize This Strength

Since we know humor represents an essential strength with all sorts of excellent benefits, it is in our best interest to maximize it as much as possible.

If you don’t find yourself laughing nearly enough, here are six things you can do:

  • Watch or listen to stand-up comedy. Many comedians have filmed their shows and made them widely available. Additionally, listening to comedians while walking or jogging creates a far more enjoyable experience, especially for those who don’t enjoy exercising.
  • Spend more time around funny people. This idea is simple: if you have amusing people in your life, hanging around them is sure to make you feel better.
  • Don’t allow others to dictate what you find amusing. If you have a dark sense of humor or enjoy potty jokes, that’s okay. As long as humor is not aggressive or offensive to groups of people, go ahead and laugh.
  • Read funny books. Plenty of reading material is available for bookworms who love to laugh (please see the list of books below).
  • Play with a pet. It’s tough to feel blue when playing with a puppy or kitten. If you have access to animals, they may do wonders to make your heart smile.
  • Don’t be afraid to embrace your inner child. Adults often feel that they must always behave in an “age-appropriate” way. However, if being silly and playful made you happy at age 12, it probably still will. Don’t deprive yourself of happiness because of perceived pressure to act a certain way.

Two cannibals are eating a clown. One says to the other: “Does this taste funny to you?”

A Brief Look at Dark Humor

Dark or twisted humor is an acquired taste, as not everyone appreciates the taboo humor others find in disturbing subject matter. But, for people who experience stressful jobs or complicated family dynamics, dark humor often serves as an important protective mechanism.

This concept is exemplified by the ability of healthcare workers to employ dark humor as a way of coping with chronic job stress (e.g., Schulman-Green, 2003; Talbot & Lumden, 2000; Wanzer et al. , 2005).

Importantly, gallows humor used in this way is not aggressive or hurtful to others. This idea is explained by Wanzer et al. (2005) in their aptly titled article If We Didn’t Use Humor, We’d Cry.

The authors note that nurses use humor to deal with specific situations such as daily medical routines, difficult patients/families, and even death. And while approaching such situations with humor may not make sense to others, humor helps nurses deal with their distress when encountering extremely difficult situations regularly (Wanzer et al., 2005).

Dark humor has also been found to enhance resilience during some of the most horrible events in human history. For example, during the Holocaust, victims reported using humor in ghettos, concentration, and death camps to better cope with extreme trauma and adversity (Ostrower, 2015).

Ostrower (2015, p. 184) describes humor coping within this context as a defense mechanism that “under the nightmare circumstances of living in the ghettos and camps during the Holocaust, laughter was a form of rebellion against reality. Humor was the weapon of those whose lives were utterly in the hands of the executioners, those who were powerless to rebel or resist in any other way.”

Along with the Holocaust, dark humor has been used as a coping and survival mechanism across a broad range of life-threatening situations.

First the doctor told me the good news: I was going to have a disease named after me.

Steve Martin

8 Quotes on the Subject

There is no shortage of quotes about humor (and humorous quotes) available online; here are eight terrific examples:

The earth laughs in flowers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.

Mahatma Gandhi

People with a sense of humor tend to be less egocentric and more realistic in their view of the world and more humble in moments of success and less defeated in times of travail.

Bob Newhart

Laughter is a sunbeam of the soul.

Thomas Mann

I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.

WC Fields

If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.

Robert Frost

Honest good humor is the oil and wine of a merry meeting, and there is no jovial companionship equal to that where the jokes are rather small and laughter abundant.

Washington Irving

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.

Groucho Marx

10 Relevant Books

Whether you are interested in learning more about the psychology of humor or in finding material that will make you laugh, plenty of books are available. Here are 10 examples:

  • Humor at Work in Teams, Leadership, Negotiations, Learning and Health by Tabea Scheel and ‎Christine Gockel (Amazon)
  • Engaging Humor by Elliott Oring (Amazon)
  • Humor Theory: Formula of Laughter by Igor Krichtafovitch (Amazon)
  • Sweet Madness: A Study of Humor by William Fry (Amazon)
  • Comic Relief: A Comprehensive Philosophy of Humor by John Morreall (Amazon)
  • Laugh Out Loud: 40 Women Humorists Celebrate Then and Now… Before We Forget by Allia Zobel Nolan (Amazon)
  • Gallows Humor by Carolyn Elizabeth (Amazon)
  • Calypso by David Sedaris (Amazon)
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson (Amazon)
  • I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron (Amazon)

So many books, so little time.

Frank Zappa Humor Resources

As humor represents an important aspect of positive psychology, here at, we have described several ways in which humor contributes to positive wellbeing. Here are a few examples:

  • Humor is an effective way to find and build happiness. For example, laughing has a similar emotional impact to being hugged.
  • Humor is related to resilience. For example, research suggests that resilient people have many qualities in common, including humor.
  • Humor is an essential tool for enhancing teen resilience. For example, specific phrases have been identified that help kids to see the humor in stressful situations.
  • Humor may be applied as part of resilience-building activities in the classroom. For example, Helen McGrath’s Bounce Back! Program (McGrath & Noble, 2003) includes lesson plans and suggestions for resilience-building in young children. Humor is included among the resilience-promoting principles.
  • If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others overcome adversity, this collection contains 17 validated resilience tools for practitioners. Use them to help others recover from personal challenges and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.

Whenever I feel the need to exercise, I lie down until it goes away.

Paul Terry

A Take-Home Message

This article provides readers with a comprehensive look at humor as an important concept in positive psychology. Top humor theories are described, along with the role of humor as both a defense mechanism and character strength. Some key takeaways are as follows:

  • Self-enhancing humor is an invaluable strength that supports human thriving.
  • There are numerous positive benefits of humor, such as enhanced positive mood, life satisfaction, self-esteem, job performance, creativity, social bonding, and emotional resilience.
  • Humor plays an essential role in buffering the impact of stress and is important for positive wellbeing among both children and seniors.

Doable techniques for adding more humor to one’s life, meaningful quotes, useful books, and resources from are also included. With this collection of information, it is the hope that readers will better understand humor and its many benefits, while maybe even enjoying a few chuckles along the way.

And so, with laughter and love, we lived happily ever after.

Gail Carson Levine

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Grief Exercises [PDF] for free.

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  • Zobel Nolan, A. (2018). Laugh out loud: 40 women humorists celebrate then and now… before we forget. Independently Published.

Getting Serious About Being Funny: Using Humor as A Defense Mechanism | by Disha Shah

Legend has it that shortly after Adam was created, he complained: ‘O, Lord! You have given the lion fierce teeth and claws, and the elephant formidable tusks; you have given the deer swiftness of legs, and the turtle a protective shell; you have given the birds of flight wings, but you have left me altogether defenseless.’ And the Lord said unto Adam: ‘I shall give you an invisible weapon that will serve you and your children better than any weapons of fight or flight, a power that will save you even from yourself. I shall give you the sense of humor.’

The belief that laughter heals the mind has been around for centuries. And why not? Humor just feels good; it distracts us from our problems, promotes a lighter perspective, and serves as a great defense mechanism. In this article, I would like to discuss my experience and perspective on using humor as a positive defense mechanism.

Defense mechanisms are believed to protect the ego from emotional pain through the unconscious mind’s distortion of reality. In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms are used to “manipulate, deny, or distort reality” to reduce anxiety and control impulses or to maintain dignity. All defense mechanisms are responses by the subconscious/unconscious to handle the stresses of a social situation. The use of defense mechanisms may have positive or negative ramifications depending upon the mechanism and how it is used.

Humor may function as an adaptive ego defense by enabling people to perceive the comical absurdity in highly challenging situations. In this respect, humor serves as both a defense mechanism and a way of coping with adversity. Research has supported this idea. For example, in a study by Samson, Glassco, Lee, and Gross (2014), humorous coping applied after viewing negative pictures was found to increase positive emotions at both short- and longer-term follow-up.

Everyone has different self-defense or coping mechanism, and different people see comedy in different ways. While some see comedy as a relief, a release from the pain of existence in an otherwise ordinary world, some see it as a distraction, one that must be curbed. I believe that distraction humor is an efficient method of getting yourself out of a tense situation without having to deal with it. The next time someone tells you, “You’re quite difficult to handle”, you could just say “That’s what she said” and deal with the situational reality of you being annoying later. This technique has worked well for me because it takes away the need for split-second decision-making, and no awkward, half-hearted apologies need to be made. It gives me the opportunity to assess the situation on my own time. It isn’t ideal, because reliance on repetitive distraction is a sign of poor decision-making abilities, if not bad conversational skills, and some people may see through it instantly. It’s a win-lose situation one way or another.

In my opinion, even if laughter produces no specific biochemical changes, it accomplishes one very essential purpose. It tends to block deep feelings of apprehension and even panic that all too frequently surrounds us. I feel that a joke is never meant to be delivered with the intention of doing anything other than reinforcing a positive attitude or attaching a positive attribute to a negative or uncomfortable person or situation. Therefore, comedy acts as an excellent front when it comes to dealing with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. I find the case of Jewish humor as an interesting example: while diverse, it revolves around wordplay, irony, and satire, and is mostly anti-authoritarian. Great examples of Jewish humor can be found in small snippets in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”, a light-hearted comedy set in the 1950s, when Maisel pokes fun at Jews being stingy people while being Jewish Orthodox herself.

I believe that the pursuit of happiness is one of life’s basic precepts. I have been using humor as a defense and coping mechanism for quite some time now. Looking back, I feel that positive humor helped buffer the impact of work stress on my mental health, as well as promoted more effective functioning at work. ‘If you want to rule the world, keep it amused,’ said Emerson. I do not want to rule the world, but I want to keep it amused and amuse myself in the bargain.

The whole truth about psychological defense mechanisms from leading experts

For the first time, the mechanisms of psychological defense were described by Z. Freud. This is the concept of deep psychology, meaning an unconscious mental process aimed at reducing the severity of negative experiences.

Psychological security: definition

Psychological protection in psychology is a specific system of personality stabilization, designed to protect the mind from unpleasant and traumatic emotions. Negative emotions can be associated with internal or external conflicts, anxiety states.

A defensive reaction can manifest itself against a background of severe stress, when a person's life is endangered. With its help, the psyche seeks to minimize unpleasant experiences.

Mental defense mechanisms are filters that support basic attitudes, a person's self-identification and his sense of adequacy. But they are also the reason why it is difficult for people to change themselves or their attitude towards others.

Types and classification of protective mechanisms

The concept of the main methods of psychological defense was first developed by Sigmund Freud. It was he who introduced the term psychoprotection and defined its types.

Psychiatrist D. E. Vian introduced a 4-level classification of defense mechanisms. The higher the level, the more healthy the human psyche.


Protection mechanism



Methods and goals of correction



illusory projection

Typical for children under 5 years old, built into the dreams and fantasies of adults

Acceptance of existing reality

Denial of existing reality



Immature (infantile)

Projection of feelings

Peculiar to healthy children and adolescents 3-15 years old, as well as adults with psychological problems

Learning to create trusting and harmonious relationships with others in the course of long-term psychotherapy

Schizoid fantasies


Passive Aggression

Obsessive states (obsessive-compulsive disorder)




It occurs in healthy people in the age range from 3 to 90 years on the background of neurotic disorders caused by psycho-emotional shock

Course of psychotherapeutic sessions

Formation of reaction (acted behavior)


crowding out





Psychosomatic defense mechanism as a way of integrating reality, harmonizing interpersonal relationships and one's own feelings. Under stress and nervous overload, it takes immature forms of psychological protection.

Adequate use




Pulse suppression

Types of psychological protection


Denial as a mechanism for protecting the psyche is the most common. It consists in the complete rejection of unpleasant information and allows you to effectively fence yourself off from it. The category of denial includes, for example, disbelief in one's addiction to alcohol or drugs.

A person at an unconscious level really believes that at any moment he can give up addiction. Moreover, he reacts sharply if someone close to him at least hints at a problem.

Denial is the 1st stage of experiencing grief, an irreparable loss when a loved one dies. When they lose their jobs, people often cannot believe that they are out of work, and they say: “This cannot be!”. This is how the denial mechanism works.

Sign up for an online consultation if you have experienced a difficult event and for a long time cannot come to terms with the loss of a loved one or something important to you. Our psychologists will help you cope with the loss, using effective psychological techniques. Consultations are carried out remotely, by phone.


This is a strategy that involves the selection of suitable and reasonable - rational - explanations for the created uncomfortable situation. Rationalization as a psychological defense mechanism is used to maintain self-respect - "save face", "get away with it".

Rationalization is a way to “stay in the herd” and feel like a person at the same time (Erich Fromm).

Passive behavior can be rationalized by caution, aggressive behavior by self-defence, indifferent behavior by the desire to give others the opportunity to act, to give more independence.

The main result of the work of this type of psychic defense is the apparent restoration of a balance between the desired and actual state of affairs and normal self-esteem. However, the mechanism of rationalization does not always eliminate the negative effect of psychological trauma, and it can still cause mental pain for a long time.

Examples from the life of such psychological protection:

  • in Aesop's fable "The Fox and the Grapes", the fox rationalizes - justifies - the inaccessibility of grapes by the fact that they are green;
  • “all women are bitches” (the same, greedy, fools) - basically this is often and loudly declared by men whom worthy women bypass;
  • “People do not change” is the opinion of those who cannot cope with their own shortcomings.


Compensation is a psychological defense, the essence of which is an attempt to overcome shortcomings. And not only real, but also imaginary. Compensatory behavior is universal, since the achievement of status is the most important need of almost every person.

The technique of the compensation mechanism can take different forms, but they all fall into two main groups - socially acceptable and socially unacceptable. The former include, for example, Paralympic athletes, who compensate for physical disabilities with sporting achievements.

Socially unacceptable mental defense techniques:

  1. Low growth - the desire for power, aggression.
  2. Disability - rudeness in communication, conflict.

In addition, compensation can be direct and indirect. The direct one is the desire of the individual to succeed in a deliberately losing business, the indirect one is the desire to establish himself in another area.

Sign up for an online consultation if something in your appearance or character does not suit you so much that you compensate for it with rude antics and other unconstructive actions. Our psychologists will provide professional assistance and help direct energy in a “peaceful” direction. Consultations are carried out remotely, by phone.


Such psychological protection of the personality is activated if a person subconsciously does not accept some event in his life. The traumatic experience remains in consciousness, but the access to it of unpleasant experiences is blocked.

With such a mechanism, a person's sociability tends to zero, he closes himself from everyone, becomes detached, cold, replacing the lack of communication with fantasies. There is, in fact, a split personality, which is typical for schizoids. However, unlike the latter, compensations are amenable to psychological correction.

Case study:

Student S., who was trained as a plastic surgeon, felt nausea and dizziness during training operations. He felt uncomfortable even when showing pictures at the presentation, and the teacher suggested: “Choose a“ bloodless specialization ”for yourself. But later, S. began to develop psychological defense by the type of isolation. He began to consider patients at the time of the operation not as subjects, but as objects.

Attention! Isolation is not always a positive concept. Such a mechanism of psychosomatic security is present with a tendency to use psychotropic substances, which give that very state of altered consciousness, isolating from uncomfortable reality.

Repressions (forced out)

This is a fairly common mechanism in which a person subconsciously represses memories of a traumatic situation. He seems to forget about the causes of negative experiences, driving fear and pain into the depths of the unconscious.

Repression is one of the most destructive types of psychological adaptation. After all, the created dam of unlived feelings at some point can break through. And then the flow of negative emotions becomes so strong that it is already much more difficult to cope with experiences.

As a result, a person experiences a strong psycho-emotional shock, falls into depression, and sometimes begins to think about suicide.

Such a model of psychoprotection can be used not only to neutralize psychological trauma, but also to suppress forbidden desires that cannot be realized due to social norms.

By displacing traumatic situations and forbidden desires, a person runs the risk of facing consequences in the form of:

  • intrusive thoughts;
  • apathy;
  • loss of self-identification;
  • severe bodily diseases, up to oncology.


Does the person himself understand that his protection function is “turned on”?


No, the protective mechanisms of the personality are not realized, and therefore are not controlled. They create an illusion that makes it difficult to perceive reality adequately. Psychoprotection is a self-deception, an illusion that in certain situations and for a short time really helps a person come to terms with an unpleasant reality. But long-term use of protective mechanisms negatively affects the psyche. A person loses touch with reality, he begins to develop a neurosis.

What is the name of the defense mechanism when a person relieves stress through sports or creativity?


This mechanism is called sublimation. Briefly, it can be described as follows: it is a process by which anger, sexuality is transformed and expressed in a socially acceptable form. This is a mature mechanism, along with humor and altruism. It minimizes negative emotions and maintains peace of mind.

Is it possible that constant family scandals are a manifestation of the defense mechanism of one of the participants?


Yes, and this mechanism is substitution. If for some reason a person is not able to “fight back” the offender (boss, for example), then his wife, child or elderly parents often become a “lightning rod” for him. Substitution can manifest itself in emotions, gestures, words and movements.

Can sublimation be considered as a way to realize "bad" inclinations?


It's really possible. For example, a sadistic propensity may indirectly push a person to become a surgeon or work in the police.

Expert opinion

Psychological defense mechanisms can be compared to heavy knightly armor. They actually help deflect flying arrows and protect against injury. But it is impossible to live in them all the time, because they greatly restrict movement.

A healthy person can use any of the defenses, but most often it is sublimation and humor. Mature mechanisms easily transform from heavy armor into a light and durable shield that can be flexibly manipulated and adjusted to actual tasks. However, a person with a healthy mind never uses the same mechanism in different situations.

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Article author

Monakhova Albina Petrovna clinical psychologist

Experience 17 years

Consultations 1439

Articles 263

Specialist in clinical psychology. Help in finding tools for self-realization, working out beliefs, fears and anxieties. Work with self-attitude, internal boundaries, understanding of interaction with society through conscious personal changes.

  • 2007 - 2008 MUS Children's polyclinic No. 4 - teacher psychologist
  • 2008 - 2009Healthy Country LLC - clinical psychologist
  • 2009 - 2021 Republican Narcological Dispensary - psychologist
  • 2012 - 2013 Occupational medicine - psychologist
  • 2013 - 2015 LLC Vozrozhdenie - psychologist
  • 2019 to present Teledoctor24 LLC - psychologist

Faculty of Philosophy and Sociology of PSNIU - Two-dimensional classification of psychological defense mechanisms

UDC 159.9


Two-dimensional classification of psychological defense mechanisms

Elena Radimovna
development and psychophysiology

Kazan Innovative University. V.G. Timiryasova,
420111, Kazan, st. Moscow, 42;
e-mail: [email protected]

The author's classification of psychological defense mechanisms is proposed, consisting of 20 mechanisms and representing a two-dimensional model, since the mechanisms have cross-relationship between 4 levels of the hierarchy (psychotic, infantile, neurotic and adaptive groups) and 5 types of overcoming frustration, which are the basis for the formation and functioning of the defense mechanism. The novelty lies in the idea that each of the 20 defense mechanisms belongs to one of 5 types of overcoming frustration - a distracting type (mechanisms of regression, compulsive behavior, compensation, sublimation), a type of "protection from guilt" (mechanisms of hypochondria, passive aggression, reactive formation, altruism ), the avoiding type (mechanisms of repression, denial, avoidance, suppression), the rationalizing type (mechanisms of dissociation, substitution / transfer, rationalization, humor) and the controlling type (mechanisms of isolation, projection, omnipotent control, anticipation). A description of the protection mechanisms is given, examples of their manifestation are given, and possible reasons for their formation are listed. Arguments are given in favor of belonging of protection mechanisms to the listed groups and types. This classification is proposed as a convenient diagnostic tool in the practice of a counseling psychologist, since it has the optimal number of defense mechanisms, fairly clear criteria for their definition, their location in the structure of psychological defense and the basis for their functioning. The article also contains an overview of currently existing classifications of protection mechanisms, voices problems related to the identification and ordering of protection mechanisms, such as the subtlety of the semantic difference and blurring of the boundaries between protection mechanisms, inconsistencies in terminology due to the difficulties of translating from foreign languages, differences in approaches to the definition of a hierarchy of protection mechanisms.

Keywords : psychological defense, defense mechanisms, classification of defense mechanisms, glossary of defenses.


Organizing the facts in the field of psychological defense research has been a difficult task for more than a century. As F.E. Vasilyuk, “the atmosphere around this problem is riddled with disappointment” [Vasilyuk F.E., 1984, p. 76]. The reason for this is the depth and multidimensionality of the object itself. The difficulty in defining these mechanisms is further exacerbated by the inconsistency in terminology translated from foreign languages. Some mechanisms have very subtle differences, although in essence they are quite similar. For example, N. McWilliams in his classification separates the concepts of "dissociation" (extreme dissociation) as a multiple personality, "splitting of the Ego" as the division of the surrounding world into positive and negative valencies, the perception of only extremes and "compartmentalization" (compartmentalization ) as "separate thinking", allowing the simultaneous coexistence of two incompatible mental attitudes [McWilliams N. , 2011]. At the same time, R.M. Granovskaya has the term “alienation” [Granovskaya R.M., 2007], which removes the “I” from that part of the personality that provokes unbearable experiences, which is similar to the “dissociation” of N. McWilliams: “... the dissociating one is disconnected from suffering, fear, panic and confidence in impending death” [McWilliams N., 2011, p. 119]. E.S. Romanova uses the term "isolation", which includes distancing, derealization and depersonalization, which the individual describes as a feeling that all events are happening in a dream or with someone else [Romanova E., Grebennikov L., 1996], which, judging by definition, corresponds to the “alienation” of R.M. Granovskaya and "dissociation" N. McWilliams.

At the same time, cases are not uncommon when, on the contrary, several mechanisms are combined into one, such as, for example, “reversion” (reversal) in the work of N. McWilliams. This mechanism, based on its description, contains the characteristic features of "displacement" (displasmment) (switching attitudes from subject to object and vice versa), "altruism" (altruism) (". .. if someone feels that the desire to be cared for by others is shameful or contains a threat, he can sacrificially satisfy his need for dependence by showing concern for the other" [McWilliams N., 2011, p. 135]) and "projection" (projection) (when the patient psychologically changes roles with the therapist). Thus, it is impossible to deny the subtlety of the semantic difference and the blurring of the boundary between protection mechanisms.

Another reason for discrepancies in the authors' classifications is the question of mechanism hierarchy. In general, the hierarchy of mechanisms is recognized by many researchers, but their hierarchies are indicated not only as two-level, differing in the principle of primary/secondary [McWilliams N., 2011], constructiveness/destructiveness [Dolgova V., Kondratieva O., 2014], but and as three-level - lower / intermediate / higher [Poroikov S., 2016], four-level [Bond M., 1992; Meissner W.W., 1980; Perry J.C., 1990; Vaillant G.E., 1971], which seem to be more accurate, since they bring mechanisms to more subtle levels of functioning. There is also a classification by A. Jacobson, which divides defenses into 5 groups according to severity [Jacobson A, et al., 1992].

In addition, the mechanisms themselves are referred by the authors to different, sometimes even opposite levels of the hierarchy. For example, in the two-level classification, N. McWilliams [McWilliams N., 2011] has a regression mechanism in the higher-order defense group, while R. Plutchik [Plutchik R. et al., 1979], on the contrary, is considered the most primitive.

The number of mechanisms reported by the authors also varies greatly. For example, F. Cramer focuses his research on only 3 main defense mechanisms: denial, projection, identification [Cramer F., 2008, 2015]. Also, the technique of V.V. Boyko explores 3 dominant defense strategies: peacefulness, avoidance, aggression [Methodology of diagnostics…, 2011]. E. Fromm names 4 defense mechanisms: sadism, masochism, conformism, destructivism [Fromm E., 1994]. R. Plutchik's Lifestyle Index (LSI) methodology contains 8 mechanisms [Plutchik R. et al., 1979], A. Jacobson scale — 12 mechanisms [Jacobson A. et al., 1992]. R.M. Granovskaya names 16 mechanisms, including 11 adults and 5 children [Granovskaya R.M., 2010]. G. Vaillant's ego scale includes 18 mechanisms [Vaillant G., 1992]. The M. Bond questionnaire contains 22 mechanisms [Bond M., 1992]. The DMRS scale by J. Perry [Perry J., 1990] and the classification by N. McWilliams [McWilliams N., 2011] cover 27 mechanisms each. The glossary of W. Meissner includes 30 mechanisms [Meissner W.W., 1980]. L.I. Wasserman names 34 mechanisms, including quite rare ones, such as incantation and staging of a reaction [Wasserman L.I. et al., 2005]. L.Yu. Subbotina proposes a classification of 14 basic and 35 derivative defense mechanisms [Subbotina L.Yu., 2013]. Systematization of psychological defenses based on the philosophical and methodological approach S.Yu. Poroikov already contains 52 mechanisms, which are subdivided depending on 7 types of needs into status, gnostic, organizing, hedonistic, consolidating, communicative and creative [Poroikov S. Yu., 2016].

We did not aim to find an exhaustive number of protective mechanisms, since this task is practically impossible. The main problem that the article is aimed at solving was the creation of a classification that would allow covering the most frequently encountered mechanisms, without allowing reduction, but at the same time without cluttering the classification itself with little or rarely encountered protections, in order to obtain an optimal tool for identifying protection mechanisms and general assessment of psychological protection in psychological practice. In addition, one of her tasks was to assimilate the experience of foreign colleagues into Russian psychology, since the vast majority of Russian-language research is currently based on the LSI R. Plutchik classification, which identifies only 8 defense mechanisms [Plutchik R. et al., 1979].


The two-dimensional model of the classification of psychological defense mechanisms (Table 1) includes 20 defense mechanisms and is built on a four-level hierarchy (psychotic, infantile, neurotic and adaptive groups) and 5 types of overcoming frustration (distracted, "defense against guilt" , avoiding, rationalizing, controlling).

  1. Four-level hierarchy

The hierarchy of the two-dimensional classification is similar to the ego-scale of defense mechanisms by G. Vaillant [Vaillant G.E., 1971], i.e. includes 4 groups of mechanisms. The first group includes psychotic mechanisms (psychotic mechanisms) - the deepest, working at the level of psychophysiology, the functioning of which is more characteristic of the unconscious flow of processes. Individuals who use these mechanisms are characterized by ignoring or forgetting events, going into a fantasy world, splitting consciousness, reacting at the bodily level (motor stimulation, psychosomatic diseases). This group of mechanisms has the most destructive effect on the personality and impairs its social adaptation. 9

Two-dimensional classification of psychological defense mechanisms

Frustration type


Infantile mechanisms





Compulsive behavior



Guilt Protection


Passive aggression

Jet formation


















This is followed by a group of immature mechanisms functioning at the level of emotions and caused by emotional infantilism. People who use these protection mechanisms tend to relieve the tension that has arisen due to any situation, here and now in any way possible and shifting responsibility to others. We can say that such individuals are too succumb to their emotions. Fear, resentment, anger and other similar emotions are too painful for them, and under the influence of this sharp, painful perception, such people react to the situation in a rather destructive and inadequate way.

The third most adaptive group of neurotic defenses (neurotic mechanisms) includes mechanisms that work at the cognitive level and are closely related to self-esteem of the individual. Those who use these mechanisms are characterized by a painful perception of their own failures and mistakes, their self-esteem is easily shifted from one extreme position to another, depending on external factors. Despite the fact that they have a heightened desire for success, their inadequate self-esteem often prevents them from performing optimally.

The highest level of the hierarchy is represented by adaptive defense mechanisms (mature mechanisms), which not only allow a person to more successfully adapt psychologically, but also have a beneficial effect on his life and are approved by society. In the work of these mechanisms, the will and self-control of the individual play an important role; they are controlled by reflection and have a high degree of adequacy, i.e. correspond to the current situation, as well as the norms and rules established by society.

  1. Five types of frustration coping and their inherent protection mechanisms of the four levels of hierarchy

Distracting type of overcoming frustration: regression - compulsive behavior - compensation - sublimation

The basis of these mechanisms is the redirection of energy from the frustrating factor to some distracting actions that give a sense of security, peace and solution to the problem.

Psychotic level is regression (regression). There are 2 varieties of mental regression: ontogenetic (retrogressive) as a return to the forms of behavior inherent in earlier age stages of a person, such as tearfulness, repetitive monotonous movements and oral stimulation, characteristic of the infantile and childhood period (shaking the leg, head, onychophagia, sucking pencils etc.), and phylogenetic (primitivization) as a more primitive form of physical activity inherent in our distant ancestors (throwing into a fight, destroying objects, outbursts of uncontrollable rage, and similar destructive behavior) [Tunik E.E., 2010]. This mechanism is referred to the psychotic level, since distractions in this case are the most primitive forms of motor stimulation and motor activity.

At the infantile level, this is compulsive behavior (acting out). In this case, distractions are slightly more complex forms of external stimulation, such as gambling and computer games, shopaholism, food and drug addiction, emotional dependence on a partner, on social networks, i. e. these are any types of addiction that allow you to quickly and at any cost dull the feeling of anxiety. These are activities that create a short-term emotional arousal or relaxation, but are followed by longer-term discomfort. The mechanism is assigned to the infantile group, since it is emotional infantilism that is the reason for avoiding the problem through such non-constructive actions, which are generally effective in reducing anxiety, but their effect is short-lived and often brings with it additional problems.

At the neurotic level, this is a compensation mechanism (compensation), which allows you to distract yourself from anxiety due to imaginary or real shortcomings with the help of some status achievements: material acquisitions, development of external data and everything that increases the level of success in society. The self-esteem of these individuals is very dependent on external factors and easily fluctuates on a scale from an inferiority complex to megalomania. A classic example of the manifestation of this mechanism is when a person suffering from a complex of short stature acquires a large car. The formation of this mechanism in an individual, most likely, took place in an ambitious, highly competitive environment, in which the most important factors for recognition as significant persons were a high result, victory, etc. The mechanism is attributed to the neurotic group, since it is closely related to the self-esteem of the individual and the problem of frustration is solved at the cognitive level.

At the adaptive level, this is sublimation (sublimation) — the transfer of the energy of sexuality and aggression into a socially approved and constructive channel: into creative, sports, scientific and other socially useful activities. Distracting actions are such goals and achievements that require the individual to connect and develop many resources, including moral, intellectual, physical, creative (willpower, self-control, creative thinking, etc. ), as a result of which the satisfaction of human instincts has more spiritual orientation than physiological, and acquires existential significance for him. In addition, such activities play a role in raising the cultural level of mankind. In this regard, many researchers attribute the mechanism of sublimation to the highest level of the psychological defense hierarchy.

Type of overcoming frustration "protection from guilt": hypochondria - passive aggression - reactive formation - altruism

This group of defenses is united by an increased sense of guilt in individuals. Such individuals include those to whom the educational environment transmitted and instilled an excessive sense of duty and responsibility. The level of sophistication of these defense mechanisms also varies from psychotic to adaptive.

Psychotic is hypochondria (hipochondria) - going into illness, guilt is subjectively justified by the inability to perform duty due to illness. The formation of this mechanism originates from parent-child relationships, when the child's illness helped him to receive attention and care from significant relatives and / or gave "indulgence" from committed misconduct. The mechanism is assigned to the psychotic group, since this protection is based on the psychophysiological level, on the level of psychosomatics.

Infantile level is passive aggression (passive-aggressive behavior) - an attempt to shift guilt and responsibility onto others. It manifests itself in deliberate procrastination, sabotage, or in obsessive care that hinders more than helps. It is also a provocative behavior to attract everyone's attention, exposing oneself as a scapegoat, creating a sadomasochistic relationship. The individual shows irritability and stubbornness, claims that others place increased demands on him, does not fulfill obligations, referring to external circumstances, believes that he does a job much better than it is estimated by others, creates obstacles for the actions of others, and also despises or criticizes bosses and those in power. Presumably, this mechanism is activated in the case of pathological fixation on the conflict between a sense of duty and unwillingness to fulfill this duty. The mechanism is assigned to the infantile group, since it is based on emotionally immature forms of response.

On a neurotic level, this is reaction formation , when a sense of duty and responsibility is carefully demonstrated, masking a deep sense of guilt for true desires. Thus the individual outwardly expresses something contrary to his deepest needs. For example, this is an excessive expression of love and care by an older child for a younger one, despite the fact that inside he feels jealousy and envy towards him due to a lack of attention from his parents. The manifestation of this mechanism is expressed in demonstrative benevolence towards a hated or dangerous object, when there is no way to avoid contact. The formation of this mechanism most likely occurs in childhood under the influence of patterns transmitted by a significant environment. When a parent, himself using such a defense mechanism, exposes excessive criticism and condemnation of any deviation from socially approved norms of behavior, the child, feeling guilty for his own instinctive desires, first uses this mechanism in order not to be criticized and condemned by society, and later to rid himself of his own condemnation.

At the adaptive level, this is altruism (altruism), which allows leveling the feeling of guilt by real socially significant actions. This mechanism belongs to the group of mature adaptive mechanisms by many researchers, since it has a high level of adequacy, improves self-esteem well, contributes to the growth of awareness of behavior, it is socially approved. Nevertheless, dramatic childhood experiences often contribute to the formation of this mechanism, when by its existence the child created problems for parents or other significant relatives for any reason, for example, in the family there was no readiness or desire to have this child, not the desired gender, or the child’s illness and etc. And he was forgiven his presence only when he managed to be useful to his significant environment. The child gets used to compensating for this deep feeling of guilt for his “imposition” with good deeds and transfers such a pattern into his adult life.

Avoidant type of overcoming frustration: repression - denial - avoidance - suppression

The basis of this group of mechanisms is the subjective annulment of disturbing factors at various levels of psyche in complexity.

At the psychotic level, this is repression (repression) — complete removal of traumatic factors from consciousness. By forcing traumatic experience or negative information into the subconscious, the individual protects his psyche from pain, fear and suffering. Nevertheless, unpleasant moments forced out of consciousness latently affect his state of mind and behavior, he becomes anxious, cautious and withdrawn. Sometimes the repressed information emerges to the level of consciousness, but most often it manifests itself in the form of reservations, unpleasant dreams, as well as inexplicable negative sensations, phobias from outwardly harmless objects, images, sounds, smells that are somehow connected with the repressed experience. The mechanism is attributed to the psychotic level, since it functions at the deepest level of the psyche, before the connection of emotional and cognitive structures. The formation of this mechanism is supposedly due to acute traumatic events that once endangered the very existence of the individual and undermined his basic trust in the environment.

At the infantile level, this is the mechanism of denial (denial), in which anxiety factors are recognized, but their danger is rejected. For example, among individuals using this mechanism, there are people who refuse to undergo a medical examination, despite their symptoms of the disease; people with alcohol dependence who deny having problems with alcohol; mothers ignoring evidence of sexual abuse of their daughters; elderly people who do not refuse to drive a car, despite a clear weakening of their ability to do so, etc. People around often perceive these individuals as frivolous and careless people. The mechanism is assigned to the infantile group, since the basis of its functioning is mental immaturity in the approach to solving the problem. Presumably, the fixing of the mechanism occurred in cases where ignoring the problem instead of solving it led to a favorable outcome.

At the neurotic level, this is the avoidance mechanism (avoidance) — avoiding situations that pose a potential threat to self-esteem. This mechanism describes the case of A. Freud: she was drawing with her little patient, and the boy, as soon as he saw that she was drawing better, refused to draw [Freud A., 1992]. Such individuals are characterized by a too painful perception of defeat, a fear of making a mistake, of being not up to par. They diligently avoid competition in cases where they have no guarantee of victory, and give up the initiative whenever they are not sure of their decision. If such a person cannot be the best in some activity, then he will refuse this activity, so as not to expose his self-esteem to blows by watching more successful competitors. The formation of this mechanism is presumably due to the atmosphere of increased criticality and sarcasm on the part of significant relatives.

At the adaptive level, this is suppression (suprepression) - temporary mental cancellation of the situation until the most favorable moment for conflict resolution. A person, with the help of willpower, postpones the realization of trouble until the moment when he is psychologically ready to face this fact. A classic example of this mechanism is given by G. Vaillant: in the book Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara, in a situation of frustration, says to herself: “I will think about it tomorrow” [Vaillant G.E., 1992]. Many researchers refer this mechanism to the highest adaptive level, since it includes the control of emotions, willpower, the ability to prioritize, correctly assess and use one's mental resources.

Rationalizing type of overcoming frustration: dissociation - substitution/transfer - rationalization - humor

to the highest level of self-control.

At the psychotic level, it is a mechanism of dissociation (dissociation) that allows the brain to jump into "another dimension" due to a temporary splitting of consciousness, with a certain set of actions, thoughts, attitudes or emotions becoming separated from the rest of the person's personality and functioning independently [ Reber A. S., Gullickson T., 1996]. This mechanism is characteristic of people who have received deep psychological trauma and have lost confidence in the world around them. The mechanism is manifested in the fact that people tend to react to ordinary stress as a danger to life, falling into amnesia or becoming completely different. They describe the dissociated state with the phrases "as if it were not happening to me", "as if I were looking at myself from the side." The "dissociated" position protects against excessive, unbearable emotions. Since dissociation functions at the deep level of psychophysiology, preventing the traumatic event from reaching the level of emotional reaction, this mechanism is referred to the psychotic level.

At the infantile level, the mechanisms of substitution (displasement) and transfer (transfer) are used, when the subject foresees in advance the danger of reacting to a significant object and uses a less significant or “harmless” object to express his feelings and emotions. In this case, these mechanisms are combined, since the essence of their action is the same - this is the movement of feelings from the real object, to which they were originally addressed, to the substitute object. The difference between them is that as a real object in case substitution is usually a currently emotionally significant person (boss, tyrant spouse, or any other person who directly inflicted trauma on the individual), and in the case of transference the real object is usually a significant object of the past period, the relationship to which has not outlived its usefulness at one time and now reproduced in a relationship with a new partner. From the point of view of psychoanalysis, substitution affects the energies of thanatos, i.e. this is the transfer of feelings of fear and hatred, and the transfer is on the energies of the libido, i.e. is the movement of the feeling of love. The action of the mechanism is expressed in unexpected and inappropriate behavior, for example, in an outburst of aggression against an innocent object or, conversely, in an expression of affection that does not correspond to these relationships. A classic example of such a defense is when a person who has been yelled at by superiors takes out anger in the family or on his subordinates. Or also a frequent case of transference - when a person transfers unresolved problems from a child-parent relationship to a partner with whom he is in a relationship. The mechanisms are assigned to the infantile group, since they are inherent in individuals who occupy an emotionally immature, subordinate position in relationships, and function at the level of emotional response.

At the neurotic level, this is rationalization (rationalization), in which the resources of the intellect are used to distort information and find self-justification in order to maintain self-esteem. Usually this mechanism is used by an individual whose behavior has been subject to increased demands since childhood, from whom high results were expected in all areas of activity. For example, excellent study in the family of such an individual was not considered a subject for encouragement, but only the norm, but the slightest failures were recorded and criticized and condemned by significant persons for a person. These are people with the so-called excellent student complex, who are used to making high demands on themselves, and it is too painful for them to realize that they acted stupidly, short-sightedly, did not solve the task, solved it worse than others, or did not show the necessary qualities to achieve the goal. This mechanism is attributed to the neurotic group, since it works at the cognitive level and is closely related to the self-esteem of the individual.

At the adaptive level, this is humor (humor), the essence of which is an attempt by the mind to transform the negative perception of the situation into a positive one, which allows not to avoid the conflict, but to use its positive moments. This mechanism belongs to the group of higher adaptive mechanisms by many researchers; nevertheless, its formation often occurs under rather dramatic conditions of ontogeny. For example, if a child grows up in a traumatic family: in a family of alcoholics, tyrants and brawlers, etc. , where there is no peace and security that guarantees him mental health, spiritual growth and the opportunity to be himself [Moskalenko V., 2014]. Such a “talisman child” from childhood gets used to feeling responsible for the psychological state of others, since it is he who acts as a climate regulator in the family. Its function is to smile, joke, entertain and thereby distract people from aggression and negativity. Humor is a way to survive in difficult circumstances by transforming a frustrating situation into a funny and non-threatening one.

Controlling type of overcoming frustration: isolation - projection - omnipotent control - anticipation

This group includes individuals with a deep need to control any situation. The level of adaptability of these mechanisms depends on the degree of the individual's ability to control the situation, as well as on how much the situation is, in principle, controllable.

At the lowest psychotic level, this is isolation (isolation), which is triggered when an individual with a high level of need for control of what is happening cannot control the situation and when it does not depend on him. In this case, he uses insensitivity and ignorance in order not to "let" the situation too close to himself, into his emotional sphere. S. Freud believed that an individual puts himself in an active position instead of a passive one when he fakes his own disappearance in response to a traumatic event [Freud S., 2000]. Externally, the mechanism manifests itself as withdrawal into oneself, disconnection from the outside world, loss of emotional interest in real impressions, transfer of emotions to imaginary events. This mechanism is characteristic of individuals of the schizoid, autistic type. It is assigned to the psychotic group, since its functioning is carried out at the pre-emotional level of response.

At the infantile level, this is the mechanism of projection (projection), which allows the individual to attribute his own shadow content (unacceptable feelings, desires, motives, ideas, etc.) to other people. The consequence of this is excessive criticism, condemnation, prejudice, hypertrophied vigilance, suspicion and control of those who "possess" such qualities and this "violates" his rights, although the object to which the projection is directed may have nothing to do with what is on it is projected. For example, a husband, projecting onto his wife his desire to have a connection with other women, accuses her of non-existent betrayals. Egocentric people usually consider everyone around them to be selfish, stingy people accuse others of being stingy, those who dream of everyone's attention consider others to be upstarts, etc. The mechanism is assigned to the infantile group, since its functioning is carried out on an emotional level and is associated with emotional immaturity and the transfer of one's own responsibility to others.

At the neurotic level, this is the mechanism of omnipotent control (omnipotence). Individuals using this mechanism attempt to control the situation using real or imaginary power and manipulation, sincerely considering it their own prerogative and ignoring the opinions and interests of others. The mechanism is based on the unconscious conviction of a person that he is capable and must control all the events that occur. Such individuals are very intolerant of criticism and advice, because they consider only themselves competent to judge their actions and make decisions. For them, such phrases as “do as I tell you”, “here I decide what to do”, etc. are typical. The mechanism is assigned to the neurotic group, since its functioning is closely related to self-esteem and self-affirmation and is carried out at the cognitive level. The formation of the mechanism is explained by J. Piaget [Piaget J., 1977] fixation in the child's psyche of egocentrism, which consists in the perception of oneself as the center of the universe, the cause and effect of everything that happens in the world.

At a mature level, this is a mechanism of anticipation (anticipation) - a realistic foresight or development of plans to overcome possible uncomfortable situations in the future, includes mental playback of all options for an upcoming event, which allows the individual to be more prepared for the future and self-confident. This mechanism was classified by many researchers as a group of higher adaptive defenses, since it functions at the level of self-control, includes a sober assessment of the situation, effectively adapts the personality to possible frustrating situations and allows it to maintain control over the situation in any scenario.


This classification is proposed for use in consulting and therapeutic work by practicing psychologists and psychotherapists as a tool for diagnosing the style of psychological defense of a person, having the optimal number of defense mechanisms, fairly clear criteria for their definition, their location in the structure of psychological defense and the basis for their functioning. For the daily practice of counseling and psychotherapy, the identification of 20 defense mechanisms provides sufficiently complete and high-quality information about the style of the client's psychological defense.


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