Defense Mechanisms

Our learned defensive behaviors that shape our responses to the world.

Anna Freud
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Have you ever thought that everyone around you was annoyed when it was actually you who was feeling frustrated?

Or have you ever lashed out at a loved one in anger, even though you were upset with someone else?


These might have been your personal defense mechanisms at work!

Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that we use to protect ourselves from uncomfortable or threatening thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Although Freud had described many of the defense mechanisms, he never produced a comprehensive list. Instead, it was his daughter, Anna Freud, who wrote a book on the topic.


Defense mechanisms tend to be instinctual and unconscious, and often involve distorting reality to some extent. They also vary in maturity levels. Some – such as humor – promote healthy coping, while others – such as denial – hinder personal growth and prevent us from fully engaging with what is happening.

Primitive versus mature defense mechanisms

There is a distinction between primitive defense mechanisms and higher-level ones.

Primitive defense mechanisms are the first to develop. They are created when we are still very young and often have negative consequences for both ourselves and others.


For example, denial is a primitive mechanism where someone refuses to accept a painful reality, such as the death of a loved one or their own addiction.

In contrast, higher-level defense mechanisms tend to be more helpful and sophisticated. They are more mature and inflict less harm. Sublimation is one such mechanism: it channels negative emotions into socially acceptable outlets like art or exercise.

The more primitive the defense mechanism, the less effective it is in the long run. They can be very effective in the short term, though, causing many people, especially children, to rely on them. And if we don’t learn better coping mechanisms growing up, we may continue to resort to these primitive defenses long into adulthood.


Projection is a primitive defense mechanism in which we attribute our unwanted thoughts or feelings to others. It is a way of avoiding uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and impulses, by making someone else the “bad guy.”

Imagine a person who feels intense envy but accuses their friends of being envious instead; this deflects self-blame and preserves self-esteem.


Similarly, a cheating spouse might accuse their partner of infidelity, even though they are the ones sneaking around.

So, why do we do this? Sometimes it is because we feel like we can’t handle certain thoughts or feelings about ourselves. It is easier to attribute them to someone else and distance ourselves from them. Other times, we lack insight into our motivations and feelings. Projection can serve as a way of protecting ourselves from uncomfortable truths. But in the end, it’s not a healthy way to cope. The first step to overcoming projection is becoming more aware of it and taking responsibility for our thoughts and feelings.


Avoidance is a primitive defense mechanism that allows us to avoid confronting difficult emotions or situations. It is a bit like hitting the snooze button on a problem, hoping it will go away on its own.


Avoidance can take many forms, from dodging phone calls and emails to avoiding certain people or places altogether.

While it can be an effective way to cope with challenges in the short term, it can lead to more serious problems if used excessively over time. By avoiding certain situations, we are unable to learn how to manage our feelings and develop healthy coping strategies which could help us better deal with challenging circumstances in the future. This can lead to a snowball effect, causing the problem to grow and become even more overwhelming.

Avoidance can also manifest in procrastination or substance abuse. A student fearing academic failure might put off studying until the last minute, while someone coping with emotional pain could turn to alcohol for solace. Both scenarios show how avoidance offers short-term comfort at the expense of addressing underlying issues.


Denial is a common, primitive defense mechanism that involves the refusal to acknowledge the reality of a situation. It can give us a temporary escape from the truth, while simultaneously trapping us in a cycle of self-deception.

It can manifest in various ways, such as ignoring warning signs or rationalizing away negative consequences.

For example, someone struggling with addiction may deny they have a problem to avoid facing the consequences of their behavior. Similarly, someone who has experienced severe trauma may deny that the event ever happened to cope with their feelings of fear and anxiety.


By refusing to accept the reality of our circumstances, we avoid dealing with difficult or overwhelming situations. But the other side of the coin is that it can prevent us from taking necessary actions.


Splitting is a defense mechanism in which individuals perceive things in absolute terms. Situations, people, and even themselves are seen as either all good or all bad. The world is black and white, and there is no place for shades of gray.


An example would be viewing one’s partner as either perfect or terrible, depending on how someone feels at any given moment.

This abrupt shift in perception stems from an inability to integrate positive and negative aspects.

Research suggests that this defense mechanism arises from early attachment issues and serves as a means to cope with emotional instability. It may be an attempt to avoid the complexity of reality by simplifying it into two distinct categories.

Splitting is a common symptom for people with borderline personality disorder (BPD), and it can lead to severe difficulty in forming meaningful relationships.


Displacement involves redirecting our unacceptable thoughts or feelings onto a less threatening target.

It allows us to manage difficult emotions while avoiding direct confrontation with the source of those emotions. This can be seen as an attempt to avoid the consequences of expressing these emotions directly.

For example, someone who is angry at their boss may take out their frustration on a colleague instead. In this way, they can express their anger without risking repercussions from their employer.


Similarly, a teenager might be having issues with a bully at school, but because they are too afraid to confront them, they instead come home and take out their anger on their younger sibling or pet.

Rationalization and Intellectualization

Rationalization and intellectualization may sound similar, but they are not exactly the same.

Rationalization is what we do when we try to justify our thoughts or behaviors by covering them up with excuses and alternative reasons. It involves creating false but seemingly logical explanations, often by blaming external factors such as luck, fate, or other people. This can be seen as an attempt to avoid taking responsibility for our actions.

Intellectualization, on the other hand, is a process of distancing ourselves from emotions through excessive analysis and abstract thinking. The focus gets shifted to facts and logic instead of feelings.


While both mechanisms involve reasoning as a means of coping, rationalization focuses on justifying one’s actions while intellectualization emphasizes detachment from emotional responses.

For example, a person who has just lost a loved one may use intellectualization to discuss the concept of death philosophically, rather than acknowledging their feelings of grief.

On the other hand, a person who has been caught cheating on a test may use rationalization by blaming the difficulty of the exam or the teacher’s unfairness, rather than admitting to their own dishonesty.


Sublimation belongs to the category of mature defense mechanisms.

Through sublimation, we channel our aggressive or unacceptable impulses or emotions into healthier ones.


This process involves redirecting energy related to our inner turmoil into more productive and creative outlets like art, sports, or volunteer work. For example, someone who has difficulty controlling their anger may take up boxing as a way to express their frustration and aggression. Similarly, someone might delve into painting after losing a loved one, channeling their grief into art.

Sublimation can be a powerful tool for managing difficult emotions and avoiding maladaptive behaviors. It also provides an opportunity for personal growth by allowing us to explore new interests and develop skills.


Humor can be a powerful, mature defense mechanism. It is often used as a way of deflecting attention away from uncomfortable topics or feelings by finding amusement in difficult situations.

It can manifest through jokes, witty remarks, or lighthearted banter. For example, medical professionals often use dark humor to navigate the emotional challenges of their work.


The benefits of humor as a defense mechanism are numerous. It provides temporary relief and allows us to take control of our emotional responses by redirecting our focus to something more positive or humorous. It also fosters resilience and promotes social bonding among those sharing laughter.

There are some potential drawbacks, however. If taken too far it may lead to mocking others which could damage relationships rather than strengthen them. Furthermore, if we rely on humor too much it may prevent us from dealing with underlying issues and prevent us from moving forward emotionally and psychologically.



Compensation is a mature defense mechanism with which we try to make up for perceived weaknesses or shortcomings by emphasizing our strengths. It involves focusing on our positive qualities and abilities to counterbalance any perceived flaws or feelings of inadequacy.

For example, someone who feels insecure about their math skills might focus on their creativity or social abilities instead, thus boosting their self-esteem.


Similarly, a person who is not physically strong may compensate by developing a strong sense of humor or wit – using it to gain popularity among peers.

Recognizing and accepting that we can’t be perfect at everything can be very liberating. Compensation also offers us a way to build ourselves up and feel more confident in our abilities, without pretending to be someone we’re not.

Finally, overcompensation is when compensation is taken too far. Think of a person struggling with social anxiety who immerses themselves in work to avoid interpersonal interactions but ultimately suffers from burnout and isolation.

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