Defence mechanism

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In psychoanalytic theory, a defence mechanism (American English: defense mechanism) is an unconscious psychological operation that functions to protect a person from anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings related to internal conflicts and outer stressors.[1][2][3]

Defence mechanisms (German: Abwehrmechanismen) are unconscious psychological processes employed to defend against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses at the level of consciousness.[4] These processes include: repression, the exclusion of unacceptable desires and ideas from consciousness, though in certain circumstances they may resurface in a disguised or distorted form; identification, the incorporation of some aspects of an object into oneself, employed by the ego and superego to fortify the personality by attracting libido (sexual energy) away from objects and toward themselves;[5] rationalization, the justification of one's behaviour by using apparently logical reasons that are acceptable to the ego, thereby further suppressing awareness of the unconscious motivations;[6] and sublimation, the process of channeling libido into "socially useful" disciplines, such as artistic, cultural, and intellectual pursuits, which indirectly provide gratification for the original drives.[7]

According to this theory, healthy people normally use different defence mechanisms throughout life. A defence mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behaviour such that the physical or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. Among the purposes of ego defence mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety or social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.[8]

Theories and classifications[edit]

In the first definitive book on defence mechanisms, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936),[9] Anna Freud enumerated the ten defence mechanisms that appear in the works of her father, Sigmund Freud: repression, regression, reaction formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against one's own person, reversal into the opposite, and sublimation or displacement.[10]

Sigmund Freud posited that defence mechanisms work by distorting id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious or conscious blockage of these impulses.[9] Anna Freud considered defense mechanisms as intellectual and motor automatisms of various degrees of complexity, that arose in the process of involuntary and voluntary learning.[11]

Anna Freud introduced the concept of signal anxiety; she stated that it was "not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension".[9] The signalling function of anxiety was thus seen as crucial, and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension, and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows for the possibility of taking defensive action regarding the perceived danger.

Both Freuds studied defence mechanisms, but Anna spent more of her time and research on five main mechanisms: repression, regression, projection, reaction formation, and sublimation. All defence mechanisms are responses to anxiety and how the consciousness and unconscious manage the stress of a social situation.[12]

  • Repression: when a feeling is hidden and forced from the consciousness to the unconscious because it is seen as socially unacceptable
  • Regression: falling back into an early state of mental/physical development seen as "less demanding and safer"[12]
  • Projection: possessing a feeling that is deemed as socially unacceptable and instead of facing it, that feeling or "unconscious urge" is seen in the actions of other people[12]
  • Reaction formation: acting the opposite way that the unconscious instructs a person to behave, "often exaggerated and obsessive". For example, if a wife is infatuated with a man who is not her husband, reaction formation may cause her to – rather than cheat – become obsessed with showing her husband signs of love and affection.[12]
  • Sublimation: seen as the most acceptable of the mechanisms, an expression of anxiety in socially acceptable ways[12]

Otto F. Kernberg (1967) developed a theory of borderline personality organization of which one consequence may be borderline personality disorder. His theory is based on ego psychological object relations theory. Borderline personality organization develops when the child cannot integrate helpful and harmful mental objects together. Kernberg views the use of primitive defence mechanisms as central to this personality organization. Primitive psychological defences are projection, denial, dissociation or splitting and they are called borderline defence mechanisms. Also, devaluation and projective identification are seen as borderline defences.[13]

In George Eman Vaillant's (1977) categorization, defences form a continuum related to their psychoanalytical developmental level.[14][non-primary source needed] They are classified into pathological, immature, neurotic and "mature" defences.

Robert Plutchik's (1979) theory views defences as derivatives of basic emotions, which in turn relate to particular diagnostic structures. According to his theory, reaction formation relates to joy (and manic features), denial relates to acceptance (and histrionic features), repression to fear (and passivity), regression to surprise (and borderline traits), compensation to sadness (and depression), projection to disgust (and paranoia), displacement to anger (and hostility) and intellectualization to anticipation (and obsessionality).[15]

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by the American Psychiatric Association (1994) includes a tentative diagnostic axis for defence mechanisms.[16] This classification is largely based on Vaillant's hierarchical view of defences, but has some modifications. Examples include: denial, fantasy, rationalization, regression, isolation, projection, and displacement.

Different theorists have different categorizations and conceptualizations of defence mechanisms. Large reviews of theories of defence mechanisms are available from Paulhus, Fridhandler and Hayes (1997)[17] and Cramer (1991).[18] The Journal of Personality published a special issue on defence mechanisms (1998).[19]

Vaillant's categorization[edit]

Psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant introduced a four-level classification of defence mechanisms:[20][21] Much of this is derived from his observations while overseeing the Grant study that began in 1937 and is on-going. In monitoring a group of men from their freshman year at Harvard until their deaths, the purpose of the study was to see longitudinally what psychological mechanisms proved to have impact over the course of a lifetime. The hierarchy was seen to correlate well with the capacity to adapt to life. His most comprehensive summary of the on-going study was published in 1977.[22] The focus of the study is to define mental health rather than disorder.

  • Level I – pathological defences (psychotic denial, delusional projection)
  • Level II – immature defences (fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out)
  • Level III – neurotic defences (intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression)
  • Level IV – mature defences (humour, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation)

Level 1: pathological[edit]

When predominant, the mechanisms on this level are almost always severely pathological. These defences, in conjunction, permit one effectively to rearrange external experiences to eliminate the need to cope with reality. Pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear irrational or insane to others. These are the "pathological" defences, common in overt psychosis. However, they are normally found in dreams and throughout childhood as well.[23] They include:

  • Delusional projection: Delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature
  • Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it does not exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality
  • Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs

Level 2: immature[edit]

These mechanisms are often present in adults. These mechanisms lessen distress and anxiety produced by threatening people or by an uncomfortable reality. Excessive use of such defences is seen as socially undesirable, in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defences and overuse almost always leads to serious problems in a person's ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in major depression and personality disorders.[23] They include:

  • Acting out: Direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse in action, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives the expressive behavior
  • Hypochondriasis: An excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness
  • Passive-aggressive behavior: Indirect expression of hostility
  • Projection: A primitive form of paranoia. Projection reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one's own unacknowledged, unacceptable, or unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice and jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and "injustice collecting", all with the aim of shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations are perceived as being possessed by the other.
  • Schizoid fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts
  • Splitting: A primitive defence. Both harmful and helpful impulses are split off and segregated, frequently projected onto someone else. The defended individual segregates experiences into all-good and all-bad categories, with no room for ambiguity and ambivalence. When "splitting" is combined with "projecting", the undesirable qualities that one unconsciously perceives oneself as possessing, one consciously attributes to another.[24]

Level 3: neurotic[edit]

These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one's primary style of coping with the world.[23] They include:

  • Displacement: Defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening.
  • Dissociation: Temporary drastic modification of one's personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.
  • Intellectualization: Excessively analytical or abstract thought patterns, potentially leading to increased distance from one's emotions. Used to block out conflicting or disturbing feelings or thoughts.[25]
  • Isolation of affect: The detachment of emotion from an idea, making it "flat." Frequently observed in obsessive–compulsive disorder, and in non-disordered people following traumatic events.[26]
  • Reaction formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or unacceptable into their opposites; behaviour that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety
  • Repression: The process of attempting to repel desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if the desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness;[27] seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent[28]

Level 4: mature[edit]

These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature, even though many have their origins in an immature stage of development. They are conscious processes, adapted through the years in order to optimise success in human society and relationships. The use of these defences enhances pleasure and feelings of control. These defences help to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous.[23] Mature defences include:

  • Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction
  • Anticipation: Realistic planning for future discomfort
  • Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about directly) that gives pleasure to others. The thoughts retain a portion of their innate distress, but they are "skirted around" by witticism, for example, self-deprecation.
  • Sublimation: Transformation of unhelpful emotions or instincts into healthy actions, behaviours, or emotions; for example, playing a heavy contact sport such as football or rugby can transform aggression into a game[29]
  • Suppression: The conscious decision to delay paying attention to a thought, emotion, or need in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible later to access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them

Other defence mechanisms[edit]

Diagram of selected ego defence mechanisms


  • Conversion: The expression of an intrapsychic conflict as a physical symptom; examples include blindness, deafness, paralysis, or numbness. This phenomenon is sometimes called hysteria.[30]


  • Idealization: Tending to perceive another individual as having more desirable qualities than they may actually have.[31]
  • Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person. For example, introjection occurs when we take on attributes of other people who seem better able to cope with the situation than we do.
  • Projective identification: The object of projection invokes in that person a version of the thoughts, feelings or behaviours projected.
  • Somatization: The transformation of uncomfortable feelings towards others into uncomfortable feelings toward oneself: pain, illness, and anxiety.
  • Wishful thinking: Making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality.


  • Isolation: Separation of feelings from ideas and events, for example, describing a murder with graphic details with no emotional response.
  • Rationalization (making excuses): Convincing oneself that no wrong has been done and that all is or was all right through faulty and false reasoning. An indicator of this defence mechanism can be seen socially as the formulation of convenient excuses.
  • Regression: Temporary reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way, for example, using whining as a method of communicating despite already having acquired the ability to speak with an appropriate level of maturity.[29]
  • Undoing: A person tries to 'undo' an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by acting out the reverse of the unacceptable. Involves symbolically nullifying an unacceptable or guilt provoking thought, idea, or feeling by confession or atonement.
  • Upward and downward social comparisons: A defensive tendency that is used as a means of self-evaluation. Individuals will look to another individual or comparison group who are considered to be worse off in order to dissociate themselves from perceived similarities and to make themselves feel better about themselves or their personal situation.
  • Withdrawal: Avoidance is a form of defence. It entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, and interactions under the threat of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings.

Relation with coping[edit]

There are many different perspectives on how the construct of defence relates to the construct of coping; some writers differentiate the constructs in various ways, but "an important literature exists that does not make any difference between the two concepts".[32] In at least one of his books, George Eman Vaillant stated that he "will use the terms adaptation, resilience, coping, and defense interchangeably".[33]

Coping and defense mechanisms have been extensively studied in relation to various mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders.[34] Research indicates that these mechanisms often follow specific patterns within different disorders, with some, like avoidant coping, potentially exacerbating future symptoms.[35] This aligns with the vulnerability-stress psychopathology model, which involves two core components: vulnerability (non-adaptive mechanisms and processes) and stress (life events).[36] These factors interact to create a threshold for the development of mental disorders. The types of coping and defense mechanisms used can either contribute to vulnerability or act as protective factors.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Mariagrazia DG, John CP, Ciro C, Omar CG, Alessandro G (December 2020). "Defense Mechanisms, Gender, and Adaptiveness in Emerging Personality Disorders in Adolescent Outpatients". The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 12 (208): 933–941. doi:10.1097/NMD.0000000000001230. PMID 32947450. S2CID 221797283.
  2. ^ American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press
  3. ^ Schacter, Daniel L. (2011). Psychology (2 ed.). New York: Worth Publishers. pp. 482–483]. ISBN 978-1-4292-3719-2.
  4. ^ Defense+Mechanisms at the U.S. National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
  5. ^ Chalquist, Craig. "A Glossary of Freudian Terms" Archived 2018-12-28 at the Wayback Machine 2001. Retrieved on 05 October 2013.
  6. ^ "Rationalization". American Psychological Association.
  7. ^ "Sublimation". American Psychological Association.
  8. ^ "defence mechanisms -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2008-03-11.
  9. ^ a b c Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis. (Revised edition: 1966 (US), 1968 (UK))
  10. ^ Lipot Szondi (1956) Ego Analysis Ch. XIX, translated by Arthur C. Johnston, p. 268
  11. ^ Romanov, E.S. (1996). Mechanisms of psychological defense: genesis, functioning, diagnostics.
  12. ^ a b c d e Hock, Roger R. "Reading 30: You're Getting Defensive Again!" Forty Studies That Changed Psychology. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2013. 233–38. Print.
  13. ^ Kernberg O (July 1967). "Borderline personality organization". J Am Psychoanal Assoc. 15 (3): 641–85. doi:10.1177/000306516701500309. PMID 4861171. S2CID 32199139.
  14. ^ Vaillant, George E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown. ISBN 978-0-316-89520-0.
  15. ^ Plutchik, R., Kellerman, H., & Conte, H. R. (1979). A structural theory of ego defences and emotions. In C. E. Izard (Ed.), Emotions in personality and psychopathology (pp. 229–-257). New York: Plenum Press.
  16. ^ American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
  17. ^ Paulhus, D.L., Fridhandler B., and Hayes S. (1997). Psychological defense: Contemporary theory and research. In Briggs, Stephen; Hogan, Robert Goode; Johnson, John W. (1997). Handbook of personality psychology. Boston: Academic Press. pp. 543–579. ISBN 978-0-12-134646-1.
  18. ^ Cramer, P. (1991). The Development of Defense Mechanisms: Theory, Research, and Assessment. New York, Springer-Verlag.
  19. ^ Special issue [on defense mechanisms], Journal of Personality (1998), 66 (6): 879–1157
  20. ^ Cramer, Phebe (May 2006). Protecting the Self. The Guilford Press. p. 17. ISBN 9781593855284.
  21. ^ Vaillant, George (1994). "Ego mechanisms of defense and personality psychopathology" (PDF). Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 103 (1): 44–50. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.103.1.44. PMID 8040479.
  22. ^ Vailant, George (1977). Adaptation to Life. Boston: Little Brown. ISBN 0-316-89520-2.
  23. ^ a b c d Vaillant, G. E., Bond, M., & Vaillant, C. O. (1986). An empirically validated hierarchy of defence mechanisms. Archives of General Psychiatry, 73, 786–794. George Eman Valillant
  24. ^ McWilliams, Nancy (2011). Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process, Second Edition. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. pp. 60, 63, 103. ISBN 978-1609184940.
  25. ^ Bailey, Ryan; Pico, Jose (2022), "Defense Mechanisms", StatPearls, Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, PMID 32644532, retrieved 2022-06-28
  26. ^ "isolation of affect". Oxford Reference. Retrieved 2022-06-28.
  27. ^ Laplanche pp. 390, 392[full citation needed]
  28. ^ Psychological Defenses from DSM-IV (see Repression), Virginia Commonwealth University. Retrieved on December 12, 2014.
  29. ^ a b Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner (2011), Psychology (2nd edition), Worth Publishers, p. 483
  30. ^ Carlson, Neil R.. "Chapter 14." Psychology: the science of behaviour. Fourth Canadian Edition ed. Toronto, Ont.: Pearson Education Canada Inc., 2010. 456. Print.
  31. ^ Vaillant, George Eman (1992). Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers. American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 238. ISBN 978-0-88048-404-6.
  32. ^ Kramer, Ueli (June 2010). "Coping and defence mechanisms: What's the difference? - Second act". Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. 83 (Pt 2): 207–221. doi:10.1348/147608309X475989. PMID 19883526.
  33. ^ Vaillant, George E. (2012). Triumphs of experience: the men of the Harvard Grant Study. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p. 262. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674067424. ISBN 9780674059825. OCLC 792887462. S2CID 253146866.
  34. ^ Felton, Barbara J.; Revenson, Tracey A. (1984). "Coping with chronic illness: A study of illness controllability and the influence of coping strategies on psychological adjustment". Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 52 (3): 343–353. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.52.3.343. ISSN 0022-006X. PMID 6747054.
  35. ^ Bornstein, Robert F.; Bianucci, Violeta; Fishman, Daniel P.; Biars, Julia W. (2014-04-01). "Toward a Firmer Foundation for DSM-5.1 : Domains of Impairment in DSM-IV/DSM-5 Personality Disorders". Journal of Personality Disorders. 28 (2): 212–224. doi:10.1521/pedi_2013_27_116. ISSN 0885-579X. PMID 23786269.
  36. ^ Nuechterlein, K. H.; Dawson, M. E. (1984-01-01). "A Heuristic Vulnerability/Stress Model of Schizophrenic Episodes". Schizophrenia Bulletin. 10 (2): 300–312. doi:10.1093/schbul/10.2.300. ISSN 0586-7614. PMID 6729414.
  37. ^ Yank, Glenn R.; Bentley, Kia J.; Hargrove, David S. (1993). "The vulnerability-stress model of schizophrenia: Advances in psychosocial treatment". American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 63 (1): 55–69. doi:10.1037/h0079401. ISSN 1939-0025. PMID 8427312.

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