What are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are by definition mental processes initiated unconsciously to avoid experiencing conflict or anxiety.

Defenses start off as healthy and creative adaptation and continue to work adaptively throughout life. The person using a defense will either try to avoid or manage some sort of strong and threatening feeling which usually is anxiety but sometimes could also be feelings of extreme grief, shame, envy or any other uncomfortable feeling or otherwise try to maintain self-esteem to stay strong and have a positively valued sense of self. It is normal to defend and necessary for survival. If we would not be able to defend ourselves in certain ways, we would be characterized as pathologically borderline or psychotic. 

We all have our own preferred defenses that we use to cope which result because of an interaction of our constitutional temperament, the nature of the stresses we suffered in early childhood, the defenses our parents and other significant caregivers modeled to us and the experienced consequences of overflowing particular defenses. In grown ups they are used as ways to experience the world. 

What are their functions?

The defenses function outside of awareness, develop in predictable order as children mature, are present in normal personality, become increasingly used in times of stress, reduce the conscious experience of negative emotions, operate via the autonomous nervous system and when used excessively are associated with psychopathology (Phoebe Cramer, 2008). Denial occurs very early, projection develops later and identification arrives later (Cramer 2006). Defenses referred to as “primary, immature or primitive” involve the boundary between the self and the outer world, those conceived as “secondary, more mature, advanced or higher order” deal with the internal boundaries (internal conflicts) or between the observing and the experiencing part of the self.

Primary defenses function in global, undifferentiated ways fusing cognitive, affective and behavioral dimensions, more advanced ones make specific transformations of thought, feeling, sensation, or behavior or some combination of these.

What Primitive Defenses are there?


Withdrawing into a different state of consciousness is an automatic response that protects the self which can be seen in the smallest of human beings. An infant that is distressed will simply fall asleep. Those babies more sensitive in temperament are more likely to withdraw and generate a rich internal fantasy life, regarding the external world as problematic. Emotional intrusion by caregivers reinforces withdrawal, neglect and isolation leaving a child dependent on what it can generate internally for stimulation. As adults, those who withdraw from social or interpersonal situations may replace the stimulation of their internal fantasy world for the stresses of relating to others. One example would be the need to use chemicals to alter ones consciousness.

Advantage of this defense is that one is retreating from reality to protect the self. Traits may include high perception of feelings in others, creativity found in artists, writers, theoretical scientists, philosophers, highly talented onlookers giving them a unique capacity for original commentary. 

Disadvantage is that it removes the person from active participation in interpersonal problem solving and stops them from being able to show any kind of emotional responsiveness. 


Insisting that everything is always fine or for the best. Infants will refuse to accept things are happening if they perceive an unpleasant experience with the egocentric belief that“If I do not acknowledge it, it isn’t happening“. As adults, most of us will deny every now and again in order to try to make life less unpleasant and to deal with certain stresses. Examples would be in situations where feelings get hurt where it would be inappropriate to cry, it would be more pleasant to deny than to cry in public. For example if a person rejects you, you belief that this person really liked you but was just not ready to fully commit. 

Advantage is to use this in situation of crisis where survival is at risk, thus denying is lifesaving allowing the most effective and heroic actions to be permitted.

Disadvantage are examples of spouses that for example deny that their abusive partner is dangerous or alcoholics that insist they have no drinking problem, mothers who ignore that their daughters are evidently being sexually molested, elderly people who do not give up their driving liscence despite clear impairment. 

Omnipotent control

A feeling that one is able to influence ones surroundings, has agency and is a critical dimension of self-esteem that may start with infantile and unrealistic but developmentally normal fantasies of omnipotence. As a baby, the fantasy that one controls the world is normal which over time shifts as the child gets older the child belief that one or more caregivers are believed to be all powerful, and later on the child understands the fact that one’s potency is unlimited. As adults, partial infantile omnipotence remains in all of us that are healthy and allow us to have the feeling of competence and effectiveness in life.

Advantage: For example the belief that people can do anything they set their mind to is a piece of american ideology that appears to be common sense but nevertheless is a powerful positive and self-fulfilling fiction. 

Disadvantage: Disregard the subjectivity of others, finding it harder to have empathy for others.

Idealization and Devaluation

The belief that someone is in charge that is all-powerful and has all authority, is more wise and powerful than ordinary humans. Over time the tendency will lead to devalue those we used to idealize as children which is part of the normal part of the separation-individuation process. Believing that an attachment figure is somehow omnipotent results in the belief that one is safe and to be free of shame which is usually a by-product of idealization and the belief in perfection is that imperfections in one self are more difficult to accept. A young child will believe that their parents can protect them from all dangers of life and as we get older we realize that they are not super heroes that can rescue us no matter what. 

Advantage: It feels great to idealize and keeps you away from the bad things and can also lead you to strive and motivate yourself to become the best version of yourself. 

Disadvantage: The more dependent one feels, the more likely one is to idealize. People that are searching for perfection and generally like to rank aspects of human condition according to how comparatively valuable they are and compare themselves to idealized objects and will compare themselves with devalued alternatives have narcissistic personalities. These will search for constant reassurrance of their attractiveness, power, fame, value to others (i.e. perfection). They rather need to perfect the self rather then accept it and usually have low self-esteem. The more someone is idealized, the more likely that they will later be radically devalued thus the bigger ones illusions, the harder they fall. 

Projection and Introjection

Projection is the process whereby that what is inside is misunderstood as coming from outside, when a person projects his feelings onto others. Introjection is the process whereby that what is outside is misunderstood as coming from inside, in other words when a person internalizes the beliefs of other people. An infant will not be able to differentiate these two yet and cannot distinguish between internal pain like colic and external discomfort like pressure from diapers that are too tight. 

Advantage for this is the basis for empathy as we would not be able to put ourselves in the shoes of others if we were not to project in some form thus we need to be able to understand someone elses subjective world.

Disadvantage are that it can lead to dangerous misunderstandings and interpersonal damage. 


One cane be in either a good or a bad state toward another. Infants see their caregiver as one or the other but there is nothing in between. As adults we split to make sense of complex experiences, especially when they are confusing or threatening. 

Advantage: Mechanisms of splitting can be very effective in reducing anxiety and maintaining self-esteem.

Disadvantage: Splitting always involves distortion which can be dangerous. 


The process by which emotional states become expressed physically. Our earliest reactions to stresses of life are somatic and many of these reactions stay basic to our responsiveness. For example blushing is an automatic aspect of shame. When young children do not get helped by their caregiver to state their feelings in words they express in bodily states (illness) or actions.

Acting out

Putting into action what one lacks the words to express is a preverbal operation. Young children express unverbalized states of mind by acting them out. Some labels fall under general headings of acting out when they are unconsciously motivated: exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, masochism, perversion. Our masochistic and sadistic strivings may find position expression in acts of personal sacrifice or dominance, respectively.

Advantages: These tendencies can be integrated into pleasurable sexual experiences.

Disadvantage: But when they are understood as defensive they underly fear or other unexpressed feelings. Freud said that when we act out what we do not remember, especially if we assume that the reason that we do not remember is that something painful happened that went along with the unremembered new-enacted state. 


Sexual activities and fantasies are sometimes used defensively to master anxiety, restore self-esteem, offset shame or to distract from a sense of inner deadness. Many children masturbate to reduce anxiety. A child’s fear of death by abandonment, abuse or other dreaded calamities may be mastered psychologically by turning a traumatic situation into a life affirming one. Women are more likely to sexualize dependency where as men will sexualize aggression. 

Advantage: Most of us use it somehow to cope with and spice up difficult aspects of life. It is not problematic or destructive in fact peoples individual sexual fantasies, response patterns and practices are probably more idiosyncratic than almost any other psychological aspects. What turns one person on may turn another off. 

Disadvantage: If one sexualizes the experience of being scared of abusive males and have repeated affairs with abusive men who beat one up, professional help should be considered.


The overwhelming shock-trauma versions of defense. A matter of degree that separates one person’s pain from another’s trauma and that dissociation exists on a continuum from normal and minor to aberrant and devastating. If we are confronted with a catastrophe that overwhelms the capacity to cope, especially if it includes unbearable pain and/ or terror, we might dissociate. Out-of-body experiences during war that are life threatening or major surgery are often reported. Those that are subject to horrific abuse repeatedly as children may come to dissociate as their habitual reaction to stress. Those might develop dissociative identity disorder which used to be known as multiple personalities. If you are interested in movies about this disorder watch Sybil and Identity (a horror movie). 

Advantage: The person cuts off pain, terror, horror and conviction of immediate death. The preference to be outside rather than inside the sense of impending obliteration like in out of body experiences. 

Disadvantage: Dissociated states are essentially psychotic. 

What secondary defense processes are there? 


Motivated forgetting or ignoring. Impulses and affects want to be released but have to be held in check by a dynamic force. Repression only becomes a problem when it fails to do its job of keeping disturbing ideas out of consciousness so that we can go about the business of accomodating to reality, or gets in the way of certain positive aspects of living or operates to the exclusion of other more successful ways of coping. 


Reverting to an earlier stage of development in face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses. For example a woman that lapses unwittingly into compliant, little-girlish ways of relating after realizing some ambition or a man that thoughtlessly lashes out at his wife after attaining some new level of intimacy. 

Isolation of Affect

Isolating feelings from knowing in order to deal with anxieties and other painful states of mind. It can be of great value for example for surgeons who need to cut into someones flesh, while that they do not focus on their own revulsions, distresses or sadism. It is used to handle traumatic overstimulation. 


This person typically reports feelings that strike the listener as emotionless for example „Ofcourse I will feel angry about that“, expressed in a casual, detached tone which suggests that while the idea of feeling angry is theoretically acceptable to the person, the actual expression is still inhibited. It is used to handle emotional overload. 


May be used when we failed to get something we wanted and conclude in retrospect that it was actually not so desirable or when something bad happens and we decide that it was not so bad after all eg. the house was too big for us that we could not afford or another, saying well, it was a learning experience, valuing education. The more intelligent and creative, the more likely to be a good rationalizer. 

Advantage: When it allows someone to make the best of a difficult situation with minimal resentment.

Disadvantage: People rarely admit to doing something just because it feels good; they prefer to surround their decisions with good reasons.The parent who hits their child and rationalizes aggression by doing it for the child’s „own good“. 


Seeks ways to feel it is one’s „duty“ to pursue a course, converts what the person already wants into the realm of the justified or morally obligatory. A negative example would be Adolf Hitler who indulged his own murderous fantasies by persuading followers that the obliteration of Jews and other devalued groups was necessary for the ethical and spiritual improvement of the human race. 


Its function is to permit two conflicting conditions to exist without conscious confusion, guilt, shame or anxiety. He or she holds two or more ideas, attitudes, or behaviors that are essentially and definitionally in conflict, without appreciating the contradiction. To an observer it is indistinguishable from hypocrisy. Examples are the principles of looking out for number one, where open communication is so important while defending the position of not speaking to somebody. As for individuals on the more pathological end there are people who are great humanitarians in the public sphere, yet defend the abuse of their children in the privacy of their homes.


The unconscious effort to counterbalance some affect – usually guilt or shame – with an attitude or behavior that will magically erase it. Eg. A spouse coming home with a gift every day to compensate for their temper outbursts the day before. It is unconscious and counted as undoing if they are not aware of their shame or guilt and thus cannot consciously own their wish to expiate it. Religious rituals for undoing the effort to atone for sins are another example. 

Turning against the self 

The redirecting of some negative affect or attitude from an external object toward the self. For example if one is critical of an authority whose goodwill seems essential to one’s security, and if one thinks that person cannot tolerate criticism, one feels safer aiming the critical ideas inward. It may be more pleasant to feel self-critical than to acknowledge a realistic threat to one’s survival under conditions in which one has no power to change things.


The redirection of a drive, emotion, preoccupation or behavior from its initial or natural object to another because its original direction is for some reason anxiety ridden. For example a man is kicked out by his boss, he then goes home and yells at his wife, she scolds the kids the kids kick the dog. Another example of displacement is when a husband cheats on his wife and she displaces her anger onto the „other“ woman instead of directly onto him. 

Reaction Formation

When we turn something into its polar opposite in order to render it less threatening. The conversation of a negative into a positive affect or vice versa. Transformation of hatred into love, or longing into contempt, or envy into attraction. By children it happens in their third or fourth year, if a new baby arrives at this time, the displaced older sibling is likely to have enough strength to handle its anger and jealousy by converting them into a conscious feeling of love toward the newborn. Observation maybe be able to sense there is something a bit excessive or false in the conscious emotional disposition. For example a preschool girl loves her baby brother to death and hugs him too hard, singing to him too loudly, bouncing him too aggressively etc. Another form maybe be denying ambivalence. We can hate the person we love or resent the person to whom we feel grateful; our emotional situation does not reduce to one or the other position. 


Enacting a scenario that switches one’s position from subject to object or vice versa. Eg. if one feels that being cared for by someone else is shameful or dangerous, one can satisfy one’s own dependency needs by taking care of another person and unconsciously identifying with that person’s gratification in being nurtured. 

Advantage: One can shift the power aspects of a transaction so that one is in the initiating rather than the responding role. 

Disadvantage: The defense operates constructively when the scenario being reversed is a benign one and destructively when the reversed situation is intrinsically negative for example when other abusive rites of passage in fraternity hazing result in ones experience of persecution during ones own initiation that is transformed later into a situation that is felt as positive by virtue of its being a switch from passive to active, from victim to victimizer. 


A mature level of deliberately, yet at least partly unconsciously, becoming like another person. This capacity has the quality of swallowing the other person whole, to more subtle, discriminating person’s characteristics (Cramer, 2006). Identificatory potential is assumed to evolve and modify throughout life and to be the emotional basis of psychological growth and change. It is a neutral process; it can have positive or negative effects depending on who is the object of identification. 


The „good defense“ the one that represents a creative, healthful, social acceptable or beneficial resolution of internal conflicts between primitive urges and inhibiting forces. Refers to someone finding a creative and useful way to express problematic impulses and conflicts.


The compulsion to be funny can be extremely defensive; most of us know someone who, when invited into a sincere conversation, cannot stop making jokes. A driven need to be constantly funny and to avoid feeling life’s inevitable pain is a feature of hypomanic personality, a personality type that is most commonly found at the borderline level of severity. Much humor is defensive in a positive way, performing welcome functions such as holding objects of fear up to ridicule, acknowledging harsh realities with a light touch, transforming pain into pleasure. A sense of humor, especially a capacity to laugh at one’s own idiosyncrasies, has long been considered a core element of mental health. 


McWilliams, N. (2011). Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis Second Edition. New York. The Guilford Press.

Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the self: Defense mechanisms in action. New York: Guilford Press. 

Cramer, P. (2008). Seven pillars of defense mechanism theory. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1-19. 

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