Mental defense mechanism

Top 10 Defense Mechanisms and Why We Use Them

Defense mechanisms refer to psychological strategies or behaviors that people may use to cope with difficult feelings, thoughts, or events.

Defense mechanisms are behaviors that people use to separate themselves from unpleasant events, actions, or thoughts.

The idea of defense mechanisms comes from psychoanalytic theory, a psychological perspective of personality that sees personality as the interaction between three components: id, ego, and super-ego. These psychological strategies may help people put distance between themselves and threats or unwanted feelings, such as guilt or shame.

First proposed by Sigmund Freud, this theory has evolved over time and contends that behaviors, like defense mechanisms, are not under a person’s conscious control. In fact, most people do them without realizing it.

According to these theories, defense mechanisms are a natural part of psychological development. Identifying which type you, your loved ones, and even your co-workers use may help you in future conversations and encounters.

Defense mechanisms are ways you react to situations that bring up negative emotions. According to psychoanalytic theory, when you experience a stressor, the subconscious will first monitor the situation to see if it might harm you. If the subconscious believes the situation might lead to emotional harm, it may react with a defense mechanism to protect you.

Usually, you are unaware of the defense mechanism, though the behavior may appear odd to others around you.

Many researchers place defense mechanisms on a continuum, with more mature defenses improving cognitive processes and less mature ones causing harm.

In the long term, mature defense mechanisms may not be particularly detrimental to your emotional or mental health. Using more mature mechanisms may help you face the anxieties and situations that might normally cause stress and emotional duress.

Other defense mechanisms, however, are not as mature and helpful. Prolonged use of these defenses can lead to lingering problems. In fact, they may prevent you from ever facing emotional issues or anxieties because they block you from seeing the root cause.

Some signs that defense mechanisms are getting in the way of your everyday life and mental health may include:

  • feeling sad or depressed
  • having difficulty getting out of bed
  • avoiding usual daily activities, things, or people that once made you happy
  • having difficulty forming or maintaining healthy relationships
  • communication problems that hinder your professional or personal life

Dozens of different defense mechanisms have been identified. Some are used more commonly than others. Here are a few common defense mechanisms:

1. Denial

Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms. It occurs when you refuse to accept reality or facts. People in denial may block external events or circumstances from the mind so that they don’t have to deal with the emotional impact. In other words, they avoid painful feelings or events.

This defense mechanism is one of the most widely known, too. The phrase, “They’re in denial,” is commonly understood to mean a person is avoiding reality despite what may be obvious to people around them.

2. Repression

Unsavory thoughts, painful memories, or irrational beliefs can upset you. Instead of facing those thoughts, people may unconsciously choose to hide them in hopes of forgetting them entirely.

That does not mean, however, that the memories disappear entirely. They may influence behaviors, and they may impact future relationships. You just may not realize the impact this defense mechanism is having.

3. Projection

Some thoughts or feelings you have about another person may make you uncomfortable. When people project those feelings, they misattribute them to the other person.

For example, you may dislike your new co-worker, but instead of accepting that, you choose to tell yourself that they dislike you. You start to interpret their words and actions toward you in the worst way possible, even though they don’t actually dislike you.

4. Displacement

You direct strong emotions and frustrations toward a person or object that doesn’t feel threatening. This allows you to satisfy an impulse to react, but you don’t risk significant consequences.

A good example of this defense mechanism is getting angry at your child or spouse because you had a bad day at work. Neither of these people is the target of your strong emotions, but your subconscious may believe reacting to them is likely less problematic than reacting to your boss.

5. Regression

Some people who feel threatened or anxious may unconsciously “escape” to an earlier stage of development.

This type of defense mechanism may be most obvious in young children. If they experience trauma or loss, they may suddenly act as if they’re younger again. They may even begin wetting the bed or sucking their thumb as a form of regression.

Adults can regress, too. Adults who are struggling to cope with events or behaviors may return to sleeping with a cherished stuffed animal, overeat foods they find comforting, or begin chain-smoking or chewing on pencils or pens. They may also avoid everyday activities because they feel overwhelmed.

6. Rationalization

Some people may attempt to explain undesirable behaviors with their own set of “facts.” This allows you to feel comfortable with the choice you made, even if you know on another level it’s not right.

For example, someone who didn’t get a promotion at work might say they didn’t want the promotion anyways.

7. Sublimation

This type of defense mechanism is considered a mature, positive strategy. That’s because people who rely on it choose to redirect strong emotions or feelings into an object or activity that is appropriate and safe.

For example, instead of lashing out at your coworkers during a stressful shift, you choose to channel your frustration into a kickboxing class. You could also funnel or redirect the feelings into music, art, or sports.

8. Reaction formation

People who use this defense mechanism recognize how they feel, but they choose to behave in the opposite manner of their instincts.

A person who reacts this way, for example, may feel they should not express negative emotions, such as anger or frustration. They choose to instead react in an overly positive way.

9. Compartmentalization

Separating your life into independent sectors may feel like a way to protect many elements of it.

For example, when you choose to not discuss personal life issues at work, you block off, or compartmentalize, that element of your life. This allows you to carry on without facing the anxieties or challenges while you’re in that setting or mindset.

10. Intellectualization

When you’re hit with a trying situation, you may choose to remove all emotion from your responses and instead focus on quantitative facts.

You may see this strategy in use when a person spends their days creating spreadsheets of job opportunities and leads after they are let go from a job.

Defense mechanisms can sometimes be viewed as a type of self-deception. You might be using them to hide emotional responses that you don’t want to deal with from yourself. However, it’s done mostly on an unconscious level. You’re not always aware of the way your mind or ego will respond.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t modify or change the behaviors. Indeed, you can transform unhealthy defense mechanisms into ones that are more sustainable. These techniques may help:

  • Find accountability. Friends and family members can help you recognize defense mechanisms you may be using. By drawing attention to the self-deception, they can help you identify the moment you unconsciously use self-deception. That allows you to then decide in the conscious state what you really want to do.
  • Learn coping strategies. Therapy with a mental health expert, such as a psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychoanalyst, may help you recognize the defense mechanisms you use most often. They can then help you learn active responses to make choices on a more mindful level.

Defense mechanisms are natural. They are often used without any long-term complications or issues.

However, some people do develop emotional difficulties if they continue to use these mechanisms without coping with the underlying threat or anxiety. Treatment focuses on helping you address issues from a mindful place, not an unconscious one.

10 Common Defense Mechanisms in Mental Health

Humans are resilient creatures and the human brain is a wonderfully complex structure. The instinct of self-preservation is deeply rooted in the human psyche. As our brains develop, through time and experience, our self-preservation instincts can become stronger, for better or for worse. This is not only the case for physical self-preservation, it also applies to protecting our mental health from negative outside forces and trauma.

Defense mechanisms are a set of actions, thought patterns, and behaviors that people use to separate themselves from harmful thoughts, events, or actions. The human brain uses these psychological strategies in order to distance itself from unwanted feelings and threats, such as guilt or shame.

The idea of psychological defense mechanisms was first proposed by pop-psychologist Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century. While many of his theories have been criticized and even debunked, Freud’s work on this particular subject is broadly agreed upon as accurate. His daughter, Anna Freud, expanded upon this subject and wrote the very first definitive book on defense mechanisms, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense in 1936.

The Freudian theory of mental defense mechanisms argues that these behaviors are not always under conscious control. Many people exhibit one or more of these mechanisms without even realizing they’re doing so.

It is also important to realize these defense mechanisms are a natural and normal part of psychological development. By being aware of the signs of each defensive behavior, it can help you better understand what a loved one, and even yourself, is going through.

The Top 10 Most Common Psychological Defense Mechanisms

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Psychologists have categorized defense mechanisms based on a scale of how “primitive” they are. The more primitive the defense mechanism, the less effective they are for the individual in the long-term. Primitive defense mechanisms are typically very effective in the short term, that’s why they are favored by many people, especially children. Adults who never learn more effective and healthy coping strategies may also rely on these primitive defense mechanisms as well.

Since Freud’s initial work on the subject, many more types of defense mechanisms have been identified but the following 10 have been shown to be the most commonly exhibited by people.

1. Projection

This first common type of mental defense mechanism occurs when a person attributes their feelings of shame or insecurity to another person. This also occurs when any thoughts or feelings they may have about someone make them uncomfortable. Rather than confronting their feelings of insecurity, they may subconsciously convince themselves that the other person is the issue, not themself.

A common example of this phenomenon occurs in the schoolyard. We’ve all seen, in movies or real life, the school bully picking on kids for one reason or another. This bully may target another child with constant taunting and insults, but in reality, that bully is projecting his feelings of insecurity and inadequacy upon the other child. Most cases of school bullying involve projection, or one of the other common defense mechanisms, in some capacity.

2. Denial

Perhaps the most common psychological defense mechanism of them all is denial. When someone refuses to face or accept reality or facts, despite being presented with hard evidence, they are said to be in denial. This occurs when a person blocks external circumstances or events in order to avoid dealing with any emotional impact that they may carry.

This is commonly seen in people who are suffering from addiction or substance use issues. While a person may be fully aware of their substance use issues, they may be in denial about the negative consequences of their actions. They’re avoiding reality despite the negativity of the situation being obvious to the people around them.

3. Repression

Repression occurs when a person blocks out troubling events or experiences from entering their conscious thought. Painful memories, troubling thoughts, or irrational beliefs can be upsetting. Rather than face them, a person may unconsciously choose to block them in an attempt to forget them entirely.

An example of this may include someone experiencing a traumatic event as a child, only to push that memory back into their subconscious. This memory is not gone entirely, it’s simply gone from conscious thought. Think of it like putting something away in a closet. The item still exists, although it may not be directly in your line of sight. 

Repressed memories can show themselves in any number of ways. They can still influence behaviors and relationships, leading to issues with trust and other things. Many people that are repressing memories aren’t even aware they are doing it, that’s where seeking guidance from a mental health professional can be beneficial.

4. Regression

While most commonly experienced by children, regression occurs when someone regresses to an earlier stage of maturity or development when faced with situations that cause anxiety or make a person feel threatened. 

Regression as a defense mechanism is most noticeable in young children. Many children who experience traumatic events or loss may begin to act as if they’re in an earlier stage of development. Some examples of regression behavior in children may include sucking their thumb or wetting the bed.

Regression in adults can be similar but also has its own set of symptoms. An adult who is having trouble coping with trauma may regress to sleeping with a childhood stuffed animal, or binge-eat foods from their childhood that make them feel comfortable. Many psychologists believe that for people suffering from substance use issues, relapsing may be a form of regression. The person is regressing to using a substance that once made them feel happy or comfortable.

5. Rationalization

One common defense mechanism occurs when a person explains negative behaviors by presenting their own set of logical reasons or explanations. This allows the person to feel comfortable with their actions or choices while realizing, on some level, that they aren’t correct.

One example of this in the workplace may involve one worker lashing out at a co-worker for missing a deadline on an assignment, while completely ignoring they are frequently late on deadlines as well.

This also occurs in people who suffer from substance use disorders. For example, a person may have arbitrary rules and tell themselves “my substance use isn’t an issue because I’m still able to pay all of my bills.” This rationalization may be completely ignoring how the person is neglecting their relationships or other aspects of their life.

6. Compartmentalization

Not all mental defense mechanisms are inherently unhealthy. Compartmentalization can be an effective way to manage multiple stressors if done in a healthy way. It involves a person separating their life into independent sectors to keep stress from one part of their life from leaking into the other parts.

It can also be potentially unhealthy as well. Compartmentalization entails a person building mental walls to prevent inner conflict. This can often lead to logical contradictions with a person’s personality. For example, consider a scientist who is also a deeply religious person. Because they can block off parts of their mind into cognitive compartments, they can have complete faith while at church but question the logic of everything while in the laboratory.

The most common form of this defense mechanism occurs when someone prefers to keep their work-life separate from their home life and vice versa. While at home, a person may block off, or compartmentalize, their stresses from work in order to avoid anxieties at home.

7. Intellectualization

Intellectualization involves focusing on the intellectual rather than emotional consequences of a situation. This removal of all emotions allows a person to use reason and logic in order to avoid anxiety-inducing or uncomfortable situations.

For example, if a person’s partner were to move out unexpectedly, they may respond by forming a detailed financial plan for the next six months rather than addressing how their partner leaving makes them feel. The negative emotional feelings of the breakup may manifest themselves in ways that a person doesn’t even realize.

While this defense mechanism can be useful in certain situations, it can also cause people to downplay or not realize the importance of their own emotions and feelings. Rather, this person may treat all difficult situations as objective problems that must be solved.

8. Sublimation

Sublimation is another common defense mechanism that can be positive if utilized in a healthy way. It requires a slightly more self-aware approach to be done correctly. It occurs when a person channels their socially unacceptable impulses or behaviors into socially acceptable actions and behaviors. In many cases, this can result in the long-term conversion of the initial unhealthy impulse into something more acceptable.

This type of behavior is often found in people who suffer from addiction, either substance or sexual. Many people in recovery channel their negative urges into things such as exercise and other physical activities.

One example of sublimation as a defense mechanism involves intrusive sexual urges. Consider a married man going out of town on business who experiences strong urges to have an affair and cheat on his wife. A way to sublimate these feelings would be to channel them into learning more about the city, his industry, or expanding his network of business associates.

9. Displacement

Displacement as a defense mechanism involves redirecting an emotional reaction from the rightful recipient to another person altogether. Typically this is a child or another person that poses no threat. This allows a person to satisfy their need to react while avoiding the potentially awkward confrontation with the person they’re angry with.

Someone who uses displacement as a strategy may have a difficult day at work and not deal with it appropriately. The natural reaction to being treated unfairly at work would be to address the situation with the human resources department or another higher authority. Rather than react appropriately, our subject opts to take his aggression out on his spouse and child. Neither of these people deserves to be the target of his strong negative emotions, but the consequences of taking his anger out on them are lesser than the consequences of lashing out at his boss.

10. Reaction Formation

This defense mechanism involves expressing or behaving in a manner that is the opposite of a person’s true feelings. Typically, the person is fully aware of how they feel but chooses to act in a manner that is opposite of their instincts. Think of this as denial taken to an extreme point. A person who uses reaction formation as a defense mechanism may start to show conscious behaviors to overcompensate for the anxiety they feel regarding unconscious thoughts or emotions that they deem as socially unacceptable.

A classic example of reaction formation can occur in the workplace. Consider that a person has a particular distaste for a coworker, but rather than allow these feelings to become public knowledge, they choose to treat that person in a saccharine or overly-courteous manner.

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  • What are defense mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are strategies that our brains use to protect themselves from negative feelings such as guilt or anxiety. The idea was first introduced by Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century and it is concluded that these thoughts often occur subconsciously, or without us even realizing it.

  • Why do we use defense mechanisms?

We’ve developed different strategies for self-preservation. This applies to physical self-preservation, such as reaction instincts when we fall, but it can also apply to psychological instincts. Our brain develops defense mechanisms to protect itself from negative feelings such as shame, guilt, or anxiety. 

10 Mental Defense Mechanisms We Use Every Day - T&P

The human psyche is equipped with mechanisms that help us instinctively protect our Self. Using them helps to make our experience less traumatic, but at the same time reduces our chances of successfully interacting with reality.

According to Anna Freud, the author of The Psychology of the Self and Defense Mechanisms, Sigmund Freud's daughter, each of us uses about five of these strategies every day. T&P explains why sublimation is not always associated with creativity, how projection causes us to criticize innocent people, and why auto-aggression is associated with family problems. nine0003

Denial: no recognition of the problem

Denial is one of the simplest defense mechanisms of the psyche. This is a complete rejection of unpleasant information, which allows you to effectively fence yourself off from it. The classic example here is when you drink several glasses of wine or beer every day for a long time, but at the same time you remain confident that you can give up your habit at any time. Denial is characterized by a sharp reaction to the problem statement: if someone in this case hints to you that you have become addicted to alcohol, this person is likely to suffer from your tantrum. nine0007

Denial is often the first reaction to the pain of loss and is the first "stage of grief" according to some experts (however, in this case it is also called the "stage of distrust"). A person who unexpectedly loses his job will say: “It can’t be!” A witness to a car accident trying to help the victims may not immediately come to terms with the fact that one of them has stopped breathing. In this case, this mechanism does not protect anyone except the person who unconsciously uses it - however, in situations where a cold mind is needed, denial of danger or one's own shock can be very useful for all participants in the events. nine0007

Projection: Taking Out

Projection allows us to project our destructive or unacceptable thoughts, desires, traits, opinions, and motives onto other people. The goal is to protect yourself from yourself or delay the solution of the problem. For example, a person may think that a partner is critical of his earnings - while in fact there is nothing like that from the partner's side. If such a person overcomes his projection and becomes aware of the situation, he will see that the criticism comes from himself, and it is based, say, on the negative opinion of his parents, who insisted on his failure. nine0007

A negative consequence of the projection may be the desire to "correct" the object that allegedly serves as a carrier of unpleasant traits, or to get rid of it altogether. Moreover, such an external "carrier" sometimes has nothing to do with what is projected onto it. At the same time, the projection mechanism underlies empathy - our ability to share their feelings with others, to delve deeply into what is happening not to us, and to achieve mutual understanding with those around us.

Auto-aggression: blame yourself

Self-aggression, or turning against oneself, is a very destructive defense mechanism. It is often characteristic of children experiencing difficult moments in relations with their parents. It can be difficult for a person to admit that his parent is being dismissive or aggressive towards him, and instead he assumes that he himself is bad. Self-blame, self-humiliation, self-harm, self-destruction through drugs or alcohol, overindulgence in the dangerous aspects of extreme sports are all results of this mechanism. nine0007

Self-aggression occurs most often when our survival or well-being depends on an external object that caused its appearance. But, despite the many negative consequences of this process, from an emotional point of view, it can be better tolerated than aggression directed at the original target: a parent, guardian, or other important figure.

Sublimation: the basis of pop culture

Sublimation is one of the most widely used psychological defense mechanisms. In this case, the energy of unwanted, traumatic or negative experiences is redirected to achieve socially approved constructive goals. It is often used by people of creative professions, including famous ones. Songs about unrequited love or books about dark periods of life often become the fruits of sublimation. This is what makes them accessible to understanding - and ultimately popular. nine0007

However, sublimation can be more than just literary or "pictorial". Sadistic desires can be sublimated in the course of surgical practice, and unwanted (for example, from the point of view of religion) sexual desire - in the creation of brilliant works of architecture (as was the case of Antonio Gaudí, who led an extremely ascetic lifestyle). Sublimation can also be part of the psychotherapeutic process, when the client splashes out his internal conflicts through creativity: he creates texts, paintings, scripts and other works that allow him to bring the personality into balance. nine0007

Regression: return to childhood

The mechanism of regression allows you to adapt to a traumatic situation of conflict, anxiety or pressure by returning to behavioral practices familiar from childhood: screaming, crying, whims, emotional requests, etc. This happens because we, as a rule, we learn early that they guarantee support and security. Demonstration of defenselessness, sickness, inferiority very often brings psychological "dividends" - after all, people, like other living beings, at the neurophysiological level tend to protect the weak and small - that is, offspring, and not only their own. nine0007

Regression allows you to throw off the burden of responsibility for what is happening: after all, in childhood, instead of us, parents are responsible for a lot. This defense mechanism can be called very effective and fairly hassle-free. Difficulties arise when he works too long. The abuse of regression leads to the appearance of psychosomatic diseases, hypochondria, the lack of a successful life strategy, and the destruction of relationships with people around.

Rationalization: explanations for everything

Rationalization is the ability to carefully select appropriate reasonable causes for a negative situation. The goal here is self-belief that we are not to blame, that we are good enough or significant enough and that we are not the problem. A person who was rejected for an interview may convince himself and those around him that he did not need such a job or that the company turned out to be too “boring”, while in reality he experienced the strongest regret. “I didn’t really want to” is a classic phrase for rationalization. nine0007

Passive behavior can be rationalized by caution, aggressive behavior by self-defence, and indifferent behavior by the desire to give others more independence. The main result of the work of this mechanism is the imaginary restoration of a balance between the desired and real state of affairs and the degree of self-esteem. However, rationalization often does not completely remove the negative effects of the traumatic situation, so that it continues to hurt for a long time.

Intellectualization: theoretical feelings

Intellectualization allows us to neutralize anger, grief or pain by redirecting attention to a completely foreign area. A man who has recently been abandoned by his wife can devote all his free time to studying the history of Ancient Rome - and this will allow him "not to think so much" about the loss. This psychological defense mechanism is based on the desire to abstract from feelings and intellectualize them, turning them into theoretical concepts.

The behavior of an intellectualizing person is often perceived as adult and mature, and this makes this form of defense socially attractive. It also has another plus: intellectualization allows you to reduce dependence on your own emotions and “clear” behavior from them. Nevertheless, prolonged use of this mechanism is fraught with the destruction of emotional ties with the outside world, a decrease in the ability to understand and discuss feelings with other people. nine0007

Rocket formation: fight instead of hugging

Rocket formation is a kind of behavioral magic. This defense strategy allows you to turn the negative into the positive and vice versa. We often encounter its effects, harmless and not so. Boys pull the braids of the girls they like; older people speak with condemnation about the promiscuity of youths and seek to humiliate them, when in reality, revealing clothes and provocative style attract them. Reactive formation often betrays its inadequacy of the situation and periodic “breakthroughs” of true feeling through the mask. nine0007

Homophobia, anti-Semitism and other forms of rejection of social and national groups are also sometimes the result of reactive education. In this case, with the help of a defense mechanism, one's own attraction or one's own connection with a national group, which for some reason is considered unacceptable, is neutralized. This application of a defense mechanism harms other people, but it does not eliminate the internal conflict in the person who uses it, and does not increase his level of awareness. nine0007

Substitution: transference of anger

Substitution allows you to transfer unwanted feelings (especially anger and irritation) from one object to another for the purpose of self-defense. The person who was yelled at by the boss may not answer him anything, but yell at his child at home in the evening. He needs to take out the anger that has arisen, however, it is dangerous to do this in communication with the boss, but the child can hardly give a worthy rebuff.

A random object can also become a replacement object. In this case, the result of this protection mechanism is, for example, rudeness in transport or rudeness at the workplace. An unfinished drawing torn in anger is also a form of substitution, however, much more harmless. nine0007

Fantasy: Brave New World

Fantasy allows you to temporarily improve your emotional state through the use of imagination. Dreaming, reading, playing computer games, and even watching porn give us the opportunity to move from a difficult situation to where we feel more comfortable. From the point of view of psychoanalysis, the emergence of fantasies is due to the desire for the fulfillment, satisfaction and fulfillment of desires that cannot yet be satisfied in the real world.

Fantasies absorb suffering and help calm the personality. Nevertheless, the psyche is not always able to fully recognize where reality ends and the imaginary world begins. In the era of information technology development, a person can enter into a relationship with a media image, dreaming of a favorite actress or interacting with a computer game character they like. The destruction of such relationships due to unsuccessful contact with the real content of the image or unpleasant situations will be experienced as a real loss and will bring emotional pain. Fantasies can also distract a person from the real world. At the same time, they often become fertile ground for creativity and form the basis of successful works, bringing positive results in reality. nine0007

Psychological defense mechanisms: types of mental defense mechanisms

What is psychological defense and what psychological defense mechanisms do we use most often? Forbes Life spoke with psychoanalyst Anna Eliseeva about the types and functions of defense mechanisms and whether psychological defense can have a negative impact

According to Freud: psychological defense mechanisms and psychoanalysis

Finished reading here

The concept of psychological defense mechanisms originates in psychoanalysis. It was first formulated by Sigmund Freud: his work was later continued by his daughter Anna, who became the author of the book The Ego and Defense Mechanisms. “The concept of the defense mechanism of the psyche is primarily associated with the structural theory of Freud, according to which the psyche has a tripartite structure. It is represented by the “Ego structure”, “Super-ego structure” and “It structure,” explains psychoanalyst Anna Eliseeva, emphasizing that each of them is responsible for its own functions. nine0007

Thus, the "super-ego" is responsible for the moral qualities of a person, for what he evaluates as acceptable or unacceptable, unacceptable. “It” is the unconscious in a person, something that he can hardly or is not able to control at all: impulses, attraction, sexuality, aggression. It is the "Ego" that connects these two structures. “The Ego structure performs a regulatory function between these two structures and acts as a “negotiator”. The defense mechanisms of the psyche relate primarily to the "Ego". It may be regulated by some unconscious, perhaps aggressive or threatening impulses within us, some drives, perhaps forbidden by society or family, desires, or some external threats, especially threats to self-esteem and the very moral existence of the individual. Simply put, the "Ego" is a relatively stable group of functions that organizes, integrates and, as it were, connects the mental and mental processes of the individual. nine0007

Nancy McWilliams, an American psychoanalyst, contributed to the study of psychological defense. She singled out at least four influences that form a certain protective mechanism or even a set of them in a person. “The first is temperament, or mental constitution, the second is the nature of the stress that the child experienced in early childhood, the third is the defense mechanisms that parents or caring adults modeled. And the fourth is the consequences that a person has experienced from the use of certain protective mechanisms. That is, it is, as it were, what a person has learned using certain mechanisms, ”says Eliseeva. Defense mechanisms in psychology are unconscious functions that the person himself is not aware of. If he manages to do this, then these defense mechanisms cease to be stable: in other words, he can modify them through therapeutic work that leads the person to the integration of his personality. nine0007

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How do defense mechanisms actually work in psychology?

  • Rationalization: an intellectual explanation of emotions

“Suppose a person has developed a protective mechanism, in which he analyzed many times, found an intellectual explanation for emotions. For example, a wife left her husband: he is very upset, but unconsciously does not allow this disorder, so as not to feel terrible, and begins to rationalize her departure, saying that the institution of marriage has long been depreciated and this is not so important. In therapy, a person begins to become aware of his emotions, the protective mechanism of rationalization, as it were, loses its positions, and, having lived the sadness and longing that his wife left, in this way a person can resolve this internal conflict (“I am a weakling if I am upset, but I am upset ”) and feel better, ”Eliseeva gives an example. nine0007

  • Reaction to criticism, shame and fear

A similar scenario can occur when receiving criticism of our actions. “Someone can criticize us, and although at the level of awareness we can tell ourselves that we are completely normal about constructive criticism, it still becomes very unpleasant for us at the moment of its voicing, the mechanism of denial is triggered,” explains the psychoanalyst. Denial in general is a primitive-level defense mechanism that is most common in children. For example, if a child breaks a cup and denies it, then in this way he tries to protect himself not so much from the general words of his parents or conditional punishment, but from the fact that the very words of his parents or their criticism may endanger his idea of ​​himself, that is, his integrity. If a child is criticized, he may feel that he is bad, and this is the very threat from which we seek to protect our psyche. Such threats can be different: the threat that we are not smart enough, educated or good, the threat to feel guilty towards someone - we also defend ourselves very strongly against this. There is the threat of shame, the threat of dependence on other people - that is, the understanding that we really need other people in our lives and so on, and finally, the threat of feeling powerless. nine0007

The defense mechanisms of the psyche help us remove the feeling that we are bad, guilty of something. The area where the defense mechanism will work particularly strongly is our self-image. These may be real threats to our self-esteem or an imaginary threat: for example, you are afraid that you are not attractive enough and therefore will not communicate with people so as not to find out that they do not like you. The avoidance mechanism is activated: you decide not to go anywhere at all and not to communicate. Thus, defense mechanisms help, if not the person himself, then his inner ego to resolve the psychological conflict and maintain the integrity of his personality. If it is not possible to resolve it, and the conflict itself continues to persist, then the protective reaction characteristic of it can become more and more pronounced and constant. nine0007

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Deny, forget, suppress: types of psychological defense

There are many options for psychological defense - researchers divide them into groups and levels based on different classification principles. Among them there are pathological, neurotic and not only. According to the classification of Nancy McWilliams, defense mechanisms in psychology are divided into two main groups - primitive and more mature.

Primitive types of psychological protection:

  • Withdrawal, such as trying to sleep to escape stress or reality;
  • Denial, in which people prefer to believe that everything is in order and everything will always be fine;
  • A projection that allows you to convince yourself that something bad and unpleasant is experienced by someone else, and not you, and that it has a certain negative, negative characteristic;
  • Splitting, in which everything is divided into black and white, that is, only bad and only good, positive. nine0108

Mature types of psychological defense:

  • Suppression: attempts to forget, erase from memory what upset you, that is, in fact, the displacement of unpleasant memories and experiences in the past;
  • Regression: return to the behavior characteristic of us at an earlier stage of development: for example, for children - to wet your pants when stressed, and for adults - to get sick, that is, these are mainly somatic manifestations;
  • Isolation: isolation of emotions from events, numbness; nine0108
  • Rationalization and intellectualization: resorting to a rational or intellectual explanation of stressful emotional events, as well as one's feelings;
  • Moralization: the unconscious search for acceptable grounds for some kind of action. For example, a negative event could even be a war, which is perceived as an opportunity to "build character" or a great "learning experience".
  • Acting out: if a conditional dispute or conflict cannot be resolved verbally, then physical actions, such as a fight, become a psychological form of defense. nine0108

Protective mechanisms exist rather "on a certain spectrum", which stretches from pathological to more healthy manifestations. “One defense mechanism in its pathological, too frequent use, interferes with us, affects our behavior, our relationships with people. The same defense mechanism, but in its milder manifestation, serves its function, that is, it protects us from unbearable internal psychological conflicts or feelings, ”explains Eliseeva. Denial is a primitive defense mechanism: if you deny something constantly and everywhere, then you can say that your psyche is working pathologically. But if you are experiencing severe stress, then denying some difficult events can save your psyche and work precisely in a protective function. All people have defense mechanisms of one kind or another, which manifest themselves to one degree or another. And the degree of manifestation of protective mechanisms will determine the very degree of mental health. Thus, psychological defense itself is normal and understandable, but if it becomes constant, turns into a characteristic feature of human behavior and is often not caused by any objective factors, then it can become dangerous primarily for the person himself. nine0007

Related material

When do psychological defense methods become dangerous?

If psychological defense, especially primitive one, becomes regular, unchanging and unique, and its cause is not a real threat, but an internal conflict, then in this case a person runs the risk of being unable to adequately perceive reality and cope with it. For example, there is a conflict between the need to be good (the Superego structure) and to be oneself, to express anger (the It structure). If the conflict is not resolved, then the defense is likely to become fixed and may become part of the personality structure and lead to such a concept as a personality disorder, such as narcissism. With a personality disorder, defense mechanisms are not at all realized, they are not flexible and primitive. nine0007

You can solve the problem through awareness of the problem in behavior and relationships, understanding the conflict and methods for resolving it. This is not only therapy, but also spiritual practices, work on oneself, overcoming a personal crisis and getting out of it, meditation.

However, in general, the defense mechanisms of our psyche do help us cope with stress or survive severe trauma. “This refers to dissociation or derealization, for example, when the victim of violence, as it were, disconnects from his emotional experiences. The victim seems to "leave" his body and does not feel anything. This is how powerful protection works, which preserves the psyche, ”says Eliseeva. nine0007

Is it possible to change the form of psychological protection?

Forms of defense mechanisms change as a person grows up. So, for children, the method of denial becomes the most characteristic, and for adolescents, for whom the main conflict is to identify themselves, it is idealization, that is, the search for someone different from their parents, from whom you can take an example and build your own identity. Defense mechanisms protect us from certain conflicts inherent in this stage of development. Under a favorable scenario for the development of a person's personality, the defense mechanism is transformed from a more primitive to a more complex one: for example, from denial to sublimation, in which some activity, such as drawing, becomes a defense against conflict. nine0007

It is possible to change the methods of psychological defense with the help of psychotherapy, the task of which, according to the expert, is to realize what defense mechanisms a person already has and how they affect his behavior and relationships with people around. Together with a specialist, a person tries to understand what kind of conflict worries him and what exactly his psyche is protected from. The next stage is an attempt to get another experience that can modify this conflict and offer a more productive way to deal with it. nine0007

Such work is necessary for those who have experienced a divorce or the loss of a loved one. The experience of loss is too strong for our psyche, it also undermines our identity. And here a protective mechanism can be formed, for example, the denial of the death of the departed: although at some everyday level this is recognized, psychologically it is rejected.

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