People use a variety of defense mechanisms, also called coping styles, to keep anxiety in check.   These coping styles are usually automatic and though some people are quite aware of the process as it happens; others are completely unaware.  While defense mechanisms can be helpful at times; some can be obstacles to good mental health and social interactions.  Mental health professionals observe several levels of defense mechanisms when assessing clients. 

Suppression and Denial 

Defense Mechanisms in the high adaptive level are used to handle stressors with optimal adaptation.  Gratification and awareness of feelings, ideas and their consequences are often the results of these coping styles.   This level of coping styles is generally accepted as healthy ways to help handle stressors.  Examples of this level include:

  • Anticipation:  predicting possible reactions and/or consequences oDefense Mechanisms Include Preparation and Anticipation – photo courtesy of United States ArmyCredit: photo courtesy of United States Armyf events and considering alternative responses or solutions.
  • Affiliation: seeking help or support from others.  Though problems are shared; individuals retain responsibility for them.
  • Altruism:  focusing on meeting the needs of others.
  • Humor:  emphasizing the amusing or ironic aspects of the situation.
  • Self-assertion:  communicating thoughts and feelings about the situation directly without coercion or manipulation.
  • Self-observation:  examining thoughts, feelings, motivation, and behavior, and responding appropriately.
  • Sublimation:  channeling maladaptive feelings or impulses through socially acceptable behavior such as a contact sport to cope with feelings of anger.
  • Suppression:  intentionally avoiding thoughts about disturbing problems, feelings, or experiences. 

The disavowal level is characterized by keeping anxiety provoking stressors, feelings, ideas, thoughts, impulses or responsibilities out of awareness.  Examples of this level of defense mechanisms include:

  • Denial:  refusing to acknowledge some aspect of external reality or subjective experience that would apparent to others.
  • Projection:  falsely attributing own unacceptable feelings, thoughts, or impulses onto others.
  • Rationalization:  elaborately reassuring or self-serving with incorrect explanations, the true motivations of feelings, thoughts or actions 

Acting Out and Repression 

Mental inhibitions level of defense mechanisms keep potentially threatening feelings, ideas, memories, or fears out of awareness.  These include:

  • Displacement:  transferring feelings about one object to another, usually less threatening object.
  • Dissociation:  breaking off part of memories, consciousness, or perception of self or the environment.
  • Intellectualization:  excessively using abstract thinking or making generalizations to control or minimize disturbing feelings.
  • Reaction formation: substituting feelings, thoughts or behaviors with the exact opposite; such as treating someone rudely when feeling love for the person.
  • Repression:  removing thoughts or experiences from consciousness; though the feeling component may remain conscious, detached from the associated ideas.
  • Undoing:  Using words or behaviors that are designed to negate or symbolically make amends for unacceptable thoughts, feelings or actions.  

Action level of defense mechanisms is characterized by functions that deal with stressors by action or withdrawal.  These include:

  • Acting out:  Contrary to first thought, this does not simply mean “bad behavior.”  As a defense mechanism, this is used when the individual copes with stressors with actions rather than reflection or feeling.
  • Apathetic withdrawal:  non-reaction to external stimuli (similar to a trance).
  • Help-rejecting complaining: complaining or making repetitious requests for help that disguise covert feelings of hostility or reproach; the feelings are then expressed by rejecting the suggestions, help, or advice offered by others.
  • Passive aggression:  indirectly and unassertively expressing aggression toward others.  There is a façade of overt compliance that masks covert resistance, hostility or resentment. 

Defense Mechanisms of Distortions 

Distortions in regards to defense mechanisms are broken down into three separate levels; minor, major and dysregulation.  Minor image-distorting level is characterized by distortions in the image of self, body, or others that may be used to maintain self-esteem.  Examples include:

  • Devaluation: attributing exaggerated negative qualities to self or others.
  • Idealization:  attributing exaggerated positive qualities to self or others.
  • Omnipotence:  acting as if self is possessed with special powers or abilities and is superior to others. 

Major image-distorting level is characterized by gross distortion or misattribution of the image of self or others.  Examples of this level include:

  • Autistic fantasy:  excessive daydreaming as a substitute for human relationships, more effective action, or problem solving.
  • Projective identification:  falsely attributing to another the feelings, thoughts or impulses of self; differing from simple projection by the fact that the individual doesn’t fully disavow what is projected; rather misattributes them as justifiable reactions to the other person.   Frequently the individual induces those very feelings in others that were believed to be there, making it difficult to untangle the situation.
  • Splitting of self-image or image of others:  compartmentalizing opposite affect states and failing to integrate the positive and negative qualities of self or others into cohesive images. Self and object images ten to alternate between polar opposites. 

The more severe level of distortion, defensive dysregulation, is characterized by a failure of defensive regulation in individuals’ reactions to stressors, which lead to a pronounced break with objective reality.  Examples of this level include:

  • Delusional projection: attributing non reality-based thoughts, emotions and impulses to others.
  • Psychotic denial: gross impairment in reality testing.
  • Psychotic distortion:  gross impairment in perceiving reality differently than others. 

This is not exhaustive of the multitude of defense mechanisms that individuals use to communicate.  Interactions can be complex and though an understanding of defense mechanisms is helpful; when impaired, it is wise to leave it to professionals to conduct in depth analysis of another’s words or actions. 



American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2000. 



The copyright of the article “Common Defense Mechanisms & Those that Impair Mental Health”  is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.