Defence Mechanisms – what are they?

Written by Hayley McAuley

June 21, 2024

Defence mechanisms – what are they and why do we have them?

You may hear people often talk about defence mechanisms and you may see them mentioned on social media or in articles you’ve come across – but what are they and how do they benefit us?

Defence mechanisms are unconscious strategies that protect us from distressing thoughts, feelings, or situations and they operate automatically, shielding us from anxiety, shame, or internal conflicts. While some defence mechanisms are adaptive, others can become maladaptive if overused.

Many defence mechanisms are commonly known and are used frequently in society, but individuals develop their own defences too, depending on what fears and anxieties their own experiences have caused in their lifetime.

In this article, I will explain the commonly known defence mechanisms and what purpose they serve and will then look at the less obvious defences that we may witness in people’s behaviour on a daily basis without realising that it is actually a defence mechanism.  Even though our defences are there to keep us safe, sometimes, they are outdated and can hinder us living our lives effectively, so I will also discuss how to manage or challenge these defences in order to address their effectiveness.

 

What are the most common defence mechanisms?

Denial – we’ve probably all experienced this one at some point in our lives. Maybe when we have experienced loss, or had an unexpected outcome to a decision we’ve made.  When in denial we refuse to accept reality or the truth.  The purpose of this defence is that is gives us imminent relief to distress, however, it doesn’t last and essentially it hinders our ability to problem solve and face the situation head on.  In order to manage this defence, we have to learn how to acknowledge the facts, and seek support in processing the motions that we are trying to relieve ourselves from.

Projection – this is when we attribute some of our own unacceptable feelings or traits to someone else.  When we feel shame for particular parts of us, or for some of our thoughts, we project them outwards rather than accept them inwardly.  For example, we may project if we have always been told that we talk too much and therefore feel annoyance towards other people who talk too much.  The purpose of this defence is to avoid self-awareness and guilt and to maintain self-esteem. However, it can actually damage relationships and lead to bullying, jealousy and victimisation.  When trying to address projection as a defence, the first and most important step in my opinion, is self-reflection.  Getting comfortable with those uncomfortable feelings we are experiencing and acknowledging that they belong to us is key.  Once we are aware of them, we can start to process them and doing this with a trained therapist is a really beneficial way of doing it safely.

Rationalisation – this is extremely common, especially for those who are more cognitively inclined when processing. Rationalising means finding a logical explanation for irrational behaviour.  For example, a student who does not succeed as well as expected in a certain subject may voice that they don’t actually need that subject for their future plans anyway, so are not concerned with the result.  The purpose of this defence is to justify actions (maybe not putting in much effort in that subject) and minimise distress but it reduces our ability to accept responsibility for our actions and also encourages suppression of emotions.  In order to challenge this defence, we must look at our recurring distorted thinking patterns and address what they are trying to hide.

Regression – this is where we revert to childlike behaviours during times of stress.  It allows us to go back to a time when we felt safe and secure.  We can all regress at any point in our lives, we all have the ability to go back to old behaviours.  For example, a young child may regress after trauma by sucking their thumb or wetting the bed.  An adult may regress to a child like tantrum if stuck in traffic.  Anything that induces stress has the ability to trigger regression as a defence mechanism in order to help reduce anxiety and create a sense of psychological safety.  If this defence becomes a consistent pattern of behaviour, it may cause problems in our lives, so in order to address it, we need to learn self-soothing techniques and develop alternative ways to cope with stress.   Identifying the triggers that induce this defence mechanism is really important to self awareness too, because once we can pin point what our triggers are, we can move forward in making changes.

Displacement – this is also a really common defence mechanism used as a way to express our feelings in a safer environment.  Displacement is when we redirect our emotions from the original target onto a much safer one.  So for example, we may feel extreme frustration and anger towards a colleague at work but by addressing this, there may be consequences, so instead, we may go home and shout at our partner instead.  In this example, the angered party feels safer shouting at their partner than they do at the colleague at work.  This process allows for the emotion to be expressed; however, it can also have repercussions on relationships if this becomes a regular way of dealing with emotions.  In order to address the emotion and direct it where it is intended, we need to first understand the trigger and then develop effective lines of communication with the target.  Communication is key to being able to resolve conflict or process emotions and also to communicate our boundaries.

Sublimation – this is the redirection of unacceptable urges onto something less harmful and possibly even helpful.  This defence mechanism is considered to be the most mature of the defences as it can be a conscious choice to use this defence.  It requires an acceptance of reality as it is, despite this maybe not being favourable and then consciously deciding how to change or redirect the feelings associated with reality, in order to minimise harm to ourselves.  For example, an angry teenager may decide to take up boxing, or someone who is married and is is tempted to flirt with a colleague, may decide to do jobs around the house to make their environment more appealing and comfortable.  Both of these examples, channels feelings that the person considers unacceptable, into something positive.  The purpose of sublimation is to channel negative energy into positive energy and in order to manage this, we first need to understand and accept our thoughts, feelings and behaviours and then make a conscious decision to do something with them to redirect them in a more positive direction.

Intellectualisation – this is a defence commonly used by people who have not developed emotional literacy or who have not been raised to embrace their emotions.  Intellectualisation is where we apply logic to situations, rather than deal with any emotions that may arise.  The purpose of this defence is to maintain emotional distance because we don’t know what to do with the emotions.  For example, someone may throw themselves into the logistics of organising a funeral of a loved one, rather than acknowledging their grief.  This allows them to focus on being practical and dealing with the event without having to look at how it makes them feel.  This defence hinders our connection with our emotions and this is an important part of healing.  In order to begin to connect with emotions and reduce the intellectualising behaviour, we need to become comfortable with those uncomfortable feelings.  Meditation and mindfulness practices can help us to connect with the here and now and how we are currently feeling.  When we learn to identify our feelings, we can start to listen to what they are trying to tell us.  Speaking to friends, family or a therapist can also help to process emotions and help us to understand them better.

 

Less known defence mechanisms

As mentioned previously, all individuals are capable to creating their own defence mechanisms that benefit them in times of distress or discomfort and there are a few less known defences used by some people,  that will be listed and briefly explained below:

  • Reaction formation – this is where we react to unacceptable behaviour by over compensating the opposite behaviour. For example, we may feel really angry or frustrated but instead we become overly affectionate towards someone.  The purpose of this is to suppress the true feelings as they may be uncomfortable and to maintain a façade that we are ok. 
  • Introjection – this is where we adopt the feelings, beliefs or opinions of others as our own and the purpose of this is to feel a sense of belonging and to avoid conflict. We will agree and even believe those ideas of others when we are trying to fit in.
  • Undoing – this is where we try to reverse an unacceptable thought or action by overcompensating with excessive apologising or grand gestures of kindness. The purpose of this is to alleviate guilt or anxiety within the individual.
  • Isolation – this is where separate thoughts from emotions. It is a form of emotional protection.  We may describe a traumatic event like we are telling a story and not engage or show any emotional response to it.
  • Altruism – although this behaviour is extremely common, sometimes it is not recognised as a defence mechanism. This is where we overcompensate for negative feelings about ourselves by excessively helping others.  It is what we would term people pleasing – boosting our self-worth by helping others.

 

How to manage defence mechanisms

Defence mechanisms are unconscious processes and they serve to provide coping strategies in times of stress.  However, excessive reliance on them can hinder personal growth, impact relationships and cause conflict in many areas of our lives

There are many ways to learn about your defences and how to manage them and everyone will encounter their own ways.  However, some of the methods below may be useful in promoting acknowledgement of defences and encouraging ways to manage them.

Firstly, self-reflection is so important.  If we can’t reflect upon our behaviour, analyse our interactions with others, then we will be blind to our defences.  Exploring our emotional reactions and patterns of behaviour helps us to recognise what particular ones are causing us problems in life.  Once we can acknowledge this, we can then start to address it.

Mindfulness and meditation help us to stay present and embrace our feelings in the here and now.  Listening to what those feelings are telling us can give us insight into what we feel uncomfortable about and recognise what our defences are trying to protect us from.  We can then find alternative ways to work through these uncomfortable situations.

Therapy is an extremely effective and productive way of working through your defences and finding healthier and more effective ways of coping.  Finding a therapist that can help you manage your reactions and help you to understand them can be really beneficial.  The therapist can also help you to develop emotional literacy.

Finally, and in my opinion, one of the most important points here, is self-compassion.  When we recognise patterns of behaviour derived from defence mechanisms that are causing conflict in our relationships, for example, all too often we can be at risk of self-criticism and judgement.  Being kind to ourselves, especially in times of challenge and recognising that we are not the sum of our behaviour, can help towards acceptance of our way of being.  Once we accept it, we can start to look at what behaviours are no longer serving us, what defences are outdated and need changing, in order to move forwards in life.

 

I hope that you have found this article useful and that is has helped you to recognise some of your defences whilst offering ways in which you can address your coping strategies if they are no longer being effective in your life.

 

Best wishes

Hayley McAuley

Psychotherapist and Author of The Curiosity Journal

Curious Counselling & Psychotherapy

Published : Jun 21, 2024