Defense Mechanisms

Ad Disclosure: Some of our recommendations, including BetterHelp, are also affiliates, and as such we may receive compensation from them if you choose to purchase products or services through the links provided

Defense Mechanisms

We go through many, many changes as we move from infancy through childhood to adulthood. The one that came to mind for me the other day as I was holding a friend's new born baby in my arms and thinking about the psychological distance between his infant mind and my own, was a consciousness of all the personality defenses and coping strategies we learn while growing up; how important these things are for keeping us safe from the more predatory elements of our world, but also the openness we can lose as these defenses get built.


Personality defenses (coping techniques, defense mechanisms) are important things in that they strongly influence the ease with which people are able to form and maintain healthy relationships and reject unhealthy relationships. Developing organically in response to frustrating, difficult and painful situations and experiences, they function as the human equivalent of a computer firewall, helping to defend against hurtful and abusive relationships, while hopefully also allowing healthy and nurturing relationships to pass. Discriminating when to be defensive and when not to be defensive is key for health. You need defense to keep you safe from those who would mess with you, but you also need to know when to relax and let your defenses down so as to retain the capability for innocence, openness and healthy relationships. Defenses are important, an immune system unto themselves. They're worth spending an essay talking about.

Mapping the world and the self

Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs

Explore Your Options Today


Becoming defensive is all about learning to identify and avoid painful and dangerous situations. We are born mostly open and undefended. We learn to avoid painful and dangerous situations by learning to map or represent (in our heads, not on paper) the world and where the dangerous, painful things exist in the world. We start doing this even as very young children and continue it with ever increasing sophistication as we mature. As our representation of the world becomes more sophisticated, our ability to control, tolerate or avoid pain also becomes similarly sophisticated.

The first pains we become aware of are internal - having to do with instinctual drives such as hunger, elimination and emotion. These drives create tensions in our infant bodies that over time we learn to represent and react to. For example, we instinctually cry when we are hungry but probably can't initially distinguish the pain of hunger from other pains. Over time we learn to recognize and represent hunger pains as a distinct sort of painful signal that can be avoided by eating. More time goes by and we learn to request food, thereby cutting hunger pains off before they become compelling. This sort of self-knowledge and control is easy for adults, but it is a major learning project for infants and toddlers.

In addition to mapping our internal environment, we also start mapping our external social environment. We learn, for instance, that our initial infant-centric map of the world ("It's all about me") doesn't predict what other people will do with great accuracy. In response, we develop a social map of the people we are in relationships with and what they are likely to do for us. Our social map helps us to avoid people who are likely to hurt us and approach people who are likely to help us. As before, most adults can make this discrimination more or less easily, but children take years to properly master such discrimination.

The degree to which representation or mapping of the self and the social world takes place is always in relationship with a person's developmental level. Infants and young children (who are not very developed, physically or mentally) have representations of the self and of others that are more primitive, while older children and adults tend to have more sophisticated self and other representations. A person's developmental level is influenced both by biology and by experience. Children act in childlike ways both because they are inexperienced, and because their brains are literally immature and not fully physically developed. The biological aspects of children's brain development work themselves out by the teen years, and thereafter (assuming everything else has gone well), further development and maturity is mostly a function of experience and personality. Not everyone is able to benefit from experience, however. Most everyone has probably met someone chronologically adult who functions to one degree or another in an immature, child-like and primitive way.

I've spent some time talking about children's representation of danger because that is where personality defenses start. All people are motivated to avoid (or at least control) pain (physical and psychological both), and they do this by developing representations of themselves and their world that help them to predict when pain will occur. People use these personal representations of self and world to come up with a stable of strategies for avoiding pain. Such strategies (like the representations they are based on) start out primitive and flawed and tend to become more sophisticated, functional and adaptive as maturity occurs. At each stage of development people use their representations of self and other to cope as best they can. As people age and mature more sophisticated means of coping tend to be developed and older, less sophisticated and less effective means of coping tend to be discarded. At least, this is what happens in theory. In reality, many people get stuck, fail to move past particular developmental milestones in particular areas of their lives, and to not develop more effective means of coping in those certain areas. While they will have aged chronologically and may even function as adults in most aspects of their lives (holding down a job, being responsible, etc.), they may also show surprisingly child-like and primitive means of coping when stressed.

Mental health professionals differ on what to call these personality defenses. Psychoanalyst types (followers of Freud & company) have tended to call them 'defense mechanisms', emphasizing the more primitive and less functional means of coping people have come up with. Other writers refer to 'coping methods' and tend to emphasize the more functional, sophisticated and effective means of coping that people use. I and many other mental health professional types just know that there is a spectrum of coping strategies/defense mechanisms varying from the primitive to the sophisticated. I'm here calling them 'personality defenses', to emphasize their defensive (pain avoiding) nature and to also call attention to the fact that people often tend to use their favorite defenses habitually, incorporating them to a very great extent into their personalities.

I've arranged the following descriptions of personality defenses so that more primitive strategies for defense (based on more primitive representations of self and other) are featured first, and more sophisticated strategies are featured last. It's not a complete or perfect list and the placements I've chosen are not necessarily definitive. The list is close enough for the purposes of this essay, however. As you read through these descriptions, think of them as strategies that make sense in the context of particular stages of development. Also, think about how use of each defense strategy would influence people's ability to maintain healthy adult relationships and reject bad ones. An adult's use of a primitive-seeming defense offers an archaeological window into that adult's self/world representation, perhaps suggesting that something happened to interrupt or delay their development (abuse, trauma, loss, addiction, etc.), or alternatively that there is something else exceptional about them which has led them to act in primitive ways.

More Primitive Defenses

The most primitive (or developmentally early) defense strategies are often predicated on a mistaken or inaccurate representation of social reality - which is the major reason why we call them 'primitive'. Though they may work somewhat as a means of avoiding short term pain, they also generally do not usually result in constructive outcomes and aren't much help to someone looking for ways to solve problems. As a class, they are likely to be the defenses that are present during early childhood, and which may persist in adults who were harmed in some significant way during childhood.

Dissociation is the term given to a condition where memories and attention become unnaturally disconnected. Under normal conditions, people's memory and attention are fairly integrated and continuous (meaning that a person can move between memories without any trouble and that they are able to remember where they started and the route they took to get to a particular thought. In contrast, dissociated memories are isolated from each other with no clear association between them that leads from thought to thought. A certain amount of dissociation is normal; everyone dissociates to one degree or another even if it is just occasional forgetfulness. However, some people have a talent for dissociation, and they use it as a way of coping with emotion. In extreme cases, significant disorders based entirely on dissociative processes (such as what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder, fugues, or amnesia) can occur. More commonly, however, dissociation figures as a process upon which other defenses form.

A case in point is Splitting, which is said to be occurring when positive and negative representations of self and other are dissociated from one another inside a person's mind. It is often related to early abuse and appears to be a mechanism by which people can preserve some semblance of happiness in the face of very negative experiences. Unlike people with more integrated self and other representations who can represent people's complexity (their ability to have both good and bad aspects at once), people with split representations struggle with highly polarized "black or white, but not gray" views of others and self. They may substantially devalue someone for what others would consider minor failings, or unrealistically idealize someone else, perhaps expecting that person to save them.

In Projection people come to believe that other people are experiencing the feeling that they themselves have. This doesn't happen with all feelings, but rather, with feelings that are considered inappropriate or otherwise unacceptable. Owning that one feels an unacceptable feeling would be painfully anxiety-provoking, and defenses are all about avoiding pain, remember? Anger is frequently projected onto other people, for example, as many people have a hard time acknowledging that they are angry.

Projection involves a failure to appropriately distinguish between representations of self and other, and as such, represents a bit of a break with reality. Although a person's feeling is identified, it is inaccurately identified as originating inside a separate person, rather than being correctly identified as originating within the self. People make a very similar mistake in Reaction Formation, wherein people react strongly to their own unacknowledged desires by acting to suppress or even destroy those desires in others (all the while denying that they themselves have those desires). My favorite example of Reaction Formation is Roy Cohn, a politically connected lawyer who was gay and died of Aids, but who viciously persecuted gays during the middle 20th century because he was too cowardly to accept himself as he was.

Acting Out occurs when a person who is otherwise unable to articulate their feelings, acts those feelings out in a directly impulsive manner. Performing the acted out actions serves as a pressure release and in some way calms or reassures the actor, even if the actions are incomprehensible to outside observers. Self-mutilation ('cutting'), explosive tempers and abusive actions can fall into this category.

Denial is perhaps the most famous of the classical defense mechanisms, in part because it was an important concept as taught by Freud, but also because is has been emphasized by addiction recovery communities. In denial, a person simply refuses to accept that something which is true is in fact true. Examples of denial are legion and vary with regard to the depth of reality distortion present. Examples of greater reality distortion include the alcoholic who denies she has a drinking problem, and the battered wife who cannot make the connection that her life is in danger. Examples of lessor reality distortion include the lover who doesn't pick up on the subtle signs that his relationship is breaking apart.

In-Between Defenses

'In-Between' defenses also play somewhat fast and lose with social reality, but far less so than the primitive defenses (or in a less destructive manner). They are not necessarily constructive in nature, but using them probably won't make problems worse. Adults use these defenses all the time, but they're nothing necessarily to be proud about.

The concept of Repression has a history. Originally, Freud though of it as a sort of force holding uncomfortable thoughts beneath the surface of consciousness. Though such 'repressed' thoughts wouldn't rise into awareness, they would motivate behavior in round-about ways. The term Suppression has a similar but more voluntary meaning; where people are never conscious of repressed thoughts, suppressed thoughts are consciously pushed out of consciousness by people who decided they simply did not want to think about them.

More recently, the same term Repression has been used to describe a coping style designed to reduce anxiety by way of avoiding information that might provoke anxiety. An opposite conception, Sensitization, describes an anxiety coping strategy in which an anxious person seeks out more and more information, regardless of how anxiety provoking it might be, so that a more complete threat picture might be obtained.

Displacement is the classic "kicking the dog" defense. A person is upset about something they cannot control (such as a boss' bad review), and takes that upset out on something that they can control (the dog), in effect displacing their upset feeling, in the process, transforming their psychological position from one of powerless humiliation to dominant control.

In Intellectualization, people cope with painful or anxiety producing events by retreating into a cognitive analysis of the event, in so doing, creating a sort of insulating distance from the emotions surrounding the event. A very similar maneuver, Rationalization, occurs when people make up reasons post-hoc (after the fact) to explain away a course of action they have taken that they feel conflicted about.

Where Intellectualization and Rationalization use inventive thought to buffer painful emotion, Undoing uses compensatory behaviors to achieve the same end. In Undoing, conflicted actions and motives that one may or may not be conscious of are counteracted by other 'atoning' actions that, on the whole, attempt to balance things out.

Mature Defenses

The 'mature' defense strategies are based on a pretty solid and accurate understanding of social reality, and tend to be more constructive and adaptive in nature than their younger cousins. Using them may work to correct underlying problems rather than just gloss them over. Though helpful, they are difficult for people stuck in more primitive defensive modes to appreciate and engage.

Sublimation occurs when people consciously redirect energies away from unacceptable impulses and put them to productive use. While Freud originally had in mind the substitution of art work for deviant sexual urges, the strategy is far more flexible than that. Sublimation is in operation, for example, when a student grieving a significant loss pours her energy into school and pulls straight A's.

A number of mature defenses work by helping people to gain perspective on their problems. Humor works well to break up negativity, to inject silliness and laughter into what is otherwise serious and deathly, and to force people to look at a brighter side of their various predicaments. Humor simultaneously distracts (allowing distance from seriousness) and instructs.

Affiliation, or the drive to socialize with others so as to benefit from their company and counsel, is probably not a proper defense, but it is a perfect offensive strategy for effective coping with anxiety and pain. Being with others provides opportunities for venting, distraction, reality testing and a host of other helpful emotional supports. Self-Observation (such as through journaling) is an alternative to seeking out others that offers some of the same benefits, including venting of feelings, distancing and increased perspective.

Assertiveness is a communication posture that exists between aggressiveness and passivity. Passive postured people allow others to invade them, while aggressive postured people invade other people. Assertive postured people defend themselves against the invasions of aggressive people, but do not themselves become aggressive and invade others - not even those who try to invade them. Assertiveness seems simple enough, but actually requires considerable finesse, self-confidence and a healthy and accurate understanding of social dynamics to function, unlike passivity and aggressiveness which do not require a whole lot of thought.

Defensiveness, Maturity and Relationships

In reading through this brief and incomplete survey of the spectrum of defensive coping strategies you have hopefully picked up on the way relationship skills correlate with maturity of defenses. Being able to maintain reasonable relationships is a pretty necessary ingredient for a happy and functional lifestyle, inasmuch as relationships are a primary means for satisfying basic human needs for affection, attachment and economic support. Defenses based on more accurate understandings of social reality tend to enhance people's functioning and their ability to relate to others. Vice versa, defenses based on more primitive, distorted understandings of social reality tend to sabotage people's ability to distinguish good from bad relationships. Knowing this, it may strike you as ironic to note that relationships are perhaps the best means known through which people whose representation of social reality are faulty can receive correction (Such folk need to be in healthy relationships to mature, but they all too frequently sabotage those relationships to which they have access).

Fully functioning mature adults are flexible - they are capable of a range of defensive maneuvers ranging from reactive pain avoidance to constructive and adaptive efforts at problem solving. They are able to meet their needs through this flexibility - the need to protect themselves, and the need to connect with others to satisfy intimate and economic needs. An important part of a mature adult's coping flexibility has to do with their ability to know when to be which way. Since their fundamental understanding of social reality is sound, they are less likely to misjudge situations; trusting when trust is worthy and mistrusting when mistrust is appropriate. In contrast, people operating at a more primitive level tend to lack this important balance and instead fall into more rigid applications of their defenses.

A lot of ideas here, most of which I have not done justice to. But that is what tends to happen when you try to compress a topic worthy of a book into an essay. Hopefully you've found the reading to be worthwhile. Feel free to add comments and to share any ideas of your own so that others can read them.

Additional Resources

As advocates of mental health and wellness, we take great pride in educating our readers on the various online therapy providers available. MentalHelp has partnered with several thought leaders in the mental health and wellness space, so we can help you make informed decisions on your wellness journey. MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from these companies should you choose to use their services.

MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from the above-listed companies should you choose to use their services.