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Psychological Defence Mechanisms

Last Updated on Mar 26, 2019
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What are Psychological Defence Mechanisms?

A defence mechanism is an innate response that the mind unconsciously uses to cope with a situation that causes anxiety or distress. The mind manipulates, denies or distorts the reality of the situation that may be perceived as potentially harmful or painful to the individual. The mind tricks the person into believing or acting in a certain way that he or she can avoid or put off the situation.


The concept of defence mechanisms is better understood with the explanation of Freudian theory that describes the psyche of an individual. Sigmund Freud presented a model of the working of the mind which describes the interplay of the id, ego and the super ego to determine the personality and behaviour of an individual.

Psychological Defence Mechanisms

“Id” is the unconscious reservoir of pleasure gratification. The selfish and pleasure-oriented part of the personality is described as id. Id strives for immediate gratification, without any inhibitions. Uncontrolled id impulses are considered to be inappropriate in the civilized society.

The “super ego” is ruled by the concept of “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong”, and follows the rules and standards set by the society and family. Most of these rules are followed consciously while some are followed unconsciously or habitually.


“Ego” maintains the delicate balance between the pleasures sought by id and the moral values of super ego. Ego has a tendency to compromise between id and super ego.

A Freudian defence mechanism is explained in terms of the strategy used by the ego to cope with a situation that can cause anxiety. Sigmund Freud originally conceived the idea and the concept was later much more researched by Anna Freud.

Anxiety is a condition of bodily and mental tension felt in response to an anticipated danger. The term “danger” in a situation can range from those that cause feelings of guilt, shame and embarrassment to those that can be life-threatening. A defence mechanism is the ego’s way of presenting the id impulses in a more polished or civilized way. This is done by unconscious blockage of the id impulses.


Why do we need Ego Defences?

Some of the unpleasant memories of actions and thoughts are pushed into the unconscious. However, they do not disappear and keep resurfacing as actions and behaviour. This everlasting battle between the id and the super ego is managed by the ego to act or think in a certain way. These actions are called defence mechanisms.

Defence mechanisms aim to protect us from feeling guilty, anxious or stressed in a threatening situation. Ego defence mechanisms are common and can explain most of the behaviour patterns in any individual. However, when the id or super ego impulses become unmanageable by the ego, they manifest as neurosis and psychosis.

Types of Defence Mechanisms

The list of defence mechanisms is very large and it is not possible to list all the ways in which the mind plays tricks with the body. Various classifications have been developed based on the understanding of the behaviours and the causal factors of those behaviours.

In 1936, Anna Freud listed some of the defence mechanisms, which are as follows:

  • Repression (consiously excluding one’s desires towards pleasurable instincts)
  • Projection (denying one’s own unpleasant impulses while attributing them to others)
  • Sublimation (transforming socially unacceptable desires into socially acceptable ones)
  • Regression (reversion to behaviors associated with earlier stages of development as opposed to behaving in a mature manner)
  • Reaction formation (repressing an undesirable behavior by exaggerating the exact opposite behavior)
Reaction Formation
  • Introjection (unconcious incorporation of the behavior of others)
  • Isolation (creation of a gap between unpleasant or threatening thoughts)

Most of the above mentioned defence mechanisms can be categorized as four levels of severity. The four categories of Vaillants’ categorization of defence mechanisms are:

  • Level I – Psychopathological defence mechanisms
  • Level II – Immature defence mechanisms
  • Level III – Neurotic defence mechanisms
  • Level IV – Mature defence mechanisms

Level I - Psychopathological Defence Mechanisms

These types of defence mechanisms include genetic, biological, psychological and social manifestations. The person distorts and manipulates external experiences to cope with the difficult situation. Such a person may exhibit psychotic symptoms in extreme cases.

Psychopathological Defence Mechanisms
Name BehaviourExample
Delusional projectionHaving a false belief that compensates the wrong act or thought.A husband has an extramarital affair and thinks that his wife is constantly following him to spy him.
ConversionThe conflict of the mind creates a stress and manifests as bodily symptoms such as numbness, blindness, paralysis or fits.A person who is guilty of “bad” thoughts and ideas may stop speaking and present as an inability to speak.
DenialRefusing to accept external reality as it causes stress. The fact or situation may to too uncomfortable to accept and so the person rejects it instead.A father of an army officer refuses to believe that his son is dead in war, and that he may return any time.
Cognitive distortionTo overcome depression or anxiety, the person perceives reality in a way that is more comfortable to him or her.After a presentation, the person will remember only the good comments and avoid critical comments so that he feels happy.
SplittingThe person views everything as shades of black and white, good or bad, virtuous or evil, etc. They do not understand the in-between characteristics.An adolescent who fears responsibilities of adulthood may believe that adulthood is a world of bad things and hypocrisy.
Extreme projectionDefending oneself against negative instincts or impulses by attributing the same to others.A person who is very rude himself may accuse others around him to be rude.

Level II – Immature Defence Mechanisms

Immature defences are often used by most adults at mild levels, but excessive use of these defences to reduce anxiety and distress may be abnormal. Immature defences are difficult to deal with and the person cannot see reasoning. Most of the time immature defences lead to severe psychotic symptoms and conditions such as major depression and personality disorders.

Name BehaviourExample
Acting outPerson acts out his or her mental conflicts. When his impulse or thought is not socially acceptable, the person acts out aggressively. Acting out is usually anti-social and may result from acting on the impulses under drug or alcohol effect.Instead of saying, “I am angry with you”, the person throws something or punches. This acting out releases the stress and the person becomes calm and peaceful. However, it can be dangerous.
FantasyDaydreaming of the event or impulse that they want to happen. Fantasy can be conscious or unconscious. A person who is introverted and wants to gain friends fantasizes that he is very popular and successful in his job and social contacts.
Wishful thinkingForming beliefs and taking decisions that are pleasant or give pleasing results, rather than what they really are. Rationality, adjustments or evidence is not taken into consideration. The person is blind to unintended consequences.A boy wants to be a basketball player and believes that his height is good enough for the game, while actually it is not.
Idealization Seeing self or others as excessively good person, who can be an ideal of how one must behave.A school boy idealizes his brother and tries to copy him. He also boasts about his brother to his friends.
Passive aggressionExhibiting passive behaviours of hostility like stubbornness, sullenness, procrastination or deliberate failures.A person who performs well in his job, but does not receive his due promotion. He will then become stubborn and would stop working as well as he used to.
ProjectionDenying the presence of unpleasant impulses in self and attributing them to others.A boy may be attracted to several girls, but attributes this instinct and believes that girls are looking at him.
Projective identificationIn a close relationship, parts of self may be projected and seen in the other person. The person unconsciously looks for or induces the other to become the way he believes them to be.A lover attributing his feelings of being loyal and devoted to his partner.
SomatizationPhysical symptoms manifest in the body in response to the instincts and impulses that he or she has.When a child is not happy at school, he may vomit after reaching the school so that his parents take him back home.

Level III – Neurotic Defence Mechanism

Neurotic defences are usually used for short-term advantages in coping and more common in adults. However, long time use of the defences may cause problems in work, relationships and enjoying life as a whole.

Name BehaviourExample
DisplacementShifting of sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable and less threatening target. The person redirects his emotion to a safer outlet.A mother may show her anger on her child while she is really angry with her boss or husband.
DissociationUnpleasant memories and perceptions are temporarily blocked from conscious mind.A person who is a witness to a heinous crime and had been very scared may not remember the details of the event.
HypochondriasisThe affected person worries about having a serious or fatal illness and is excessively preoccupied with the same. A minor cough may be considered to be a sign of fatal illness like throat cancer and the person gets a lot of attention and pampering.
IntellectualizationThere is a separation of emotions from ideas and the person sees the intellectual components of the situation. He is thus distancing himself from the emotions that may cause distress and anxiety.A person who has been diagnosed of a fatal illness turns towards learning more factual information about the disease rather than thinking about his death and worrying about it.
IsolationThe person detaches from the thought or feeling emotionally. Views the thought or event in a third person’s perspective.When you dislike someone, you remain aloof and avoid them.
Rationalization (making excuses)Using faulty reasoning to convince self that what they thought or did was right.A student blames his poor performance in exams on his instructor or teacher rather than accepting his lack of preparation.
Reaction formationOver-compensation of unwanted impulses by doing the opposite of what is being felt by the person.A man hates his subordinate who is really good. So, he does not criticize him, but rather grants him special privileges.
RegressionThe person reverts back to an immature act and reacts in a less mature way of handling stress.Stomping out of the room after an argument.
RepressionExclusion of a painful thought or impulse from consciousness, but the repressed emotions usually surface in another indirect way.Not remembering a funeral of a loved one, friend or family.
UndoingActing in a way that is opposite to the unwanted feeling.You may be jealous or hate someone, but would praise them or give them gifts to “compensate”.
WithdrawalWithdrawal is a severe form of isolation in which the person removes oneself from events and interactions that remind painful or unwanted thoughts. Severe form of withdrawal is stupor, where one stops reacting to the surroundings.A socially popular person may withdraw himself from all activities and public appearances after facing a severe failure.
Upward or downward social comparisonsSelf-evaluation of oneself in comparison to someone who is better or worse off.A school boy compares himself with his friend who is better in studies and feels inadequate.

Level IV – Mature Defence Mechanisms>

Mature defence mechanisms are general virtues that are expected out of an adult who is considered to be mature, cultured and civilized. Emotionally mature adults have a more “civilized” way of coping with their unwanted thoughts. These defences are found in emotionally healthy adults and have been adapted to be successful in human society and relationships. These individuals are virtuous, mature and confident and handle any kind of situation or persons.

Mature defence mechanisms involve the super ego taking over the ego, without feeling guilty of the id impulses. They are practiced with deliberation so as to lead a peaceful and content life.

NameWhat it is?
RespectThe person is willing to show consideration or appreciation towards others.
ModerationSelf-restraint imposed by oneself on own feelings, thoughts and impulses.
PatienceMore tolerance for negativity. Patience is considered to be a great virtue.
CourageThe ability to mentally face a conflicting situation like fear, pain, obstacles and dangerous situation.
HumilityThe person has a very humble opinion of oneself although he may be a highly talented person.
MindfulnessConcentrating on present moment and task at hand. It involves alertness, curiosity, acceptance and openness to change or obstacle.
AcceptanceA person recognizes the reality of the situation and does not try to change or manipulate it to suit their convenience.
GratitudeFeeling of appreciation of what one has rather than focusing on what is not there.
AltruismBeing useful to others gives a person satisfaction and contentment.
ToleranceAllowing or permitting an unacceptable act from others.
MercyA person in a powerful position shows compassionate feeling for the less privileged.
ForgivenessStop feeling angry or resentment towards another person who has committed an offense or mistake.
AnticipationReady for any future discomfort.
HumourLaugh over their negative points and make jokes about them.
IdentificationConsidering another person as a role model and following their footsteps.
IntrojectionTaking on the attributes of a person who is able to cope better with a negative situation or thought.
Sublimation Channeling the unwanted energies of negative thoughts and aggression towards healthy activities like sports.
Suppression A conscious effort of delaying their own attention towards that unwanted emotion or action.
Emotional self-regulationResponding to ongoing demands with socially acceptable emotions.
Emotional self-sufficiencyIndependently satisfied with one’s own actions. The person does not depend upon the approval or disapproval of others.


  1. Wikipedia - Defense Mechanism - (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanisms)

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