What are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are psychological reactions to things in life that are difficult to get through. The mind can automatically develop a defense mechanism to deal with a difficult period in a person's life, such as loss, grief, stress or change.

Most forms of psychological defense are unconscious - they happen without the person realising it.  Some of the more primitive forms of defense, such as denial, are played out by children. However, sometimes adults who have not learned to deal with stress very well can also display primitive defense mechanisms.[1] Psychoanalysis can help people to deal with their stresses and traumas in a more mature way.


Denial is an outright refusal to admit or recognize that something has occurred or is currently occurring. It is one of the most 'primitive' forms of psychological defense. Drug addicts or alcoholics often deny that they have a problem, while victims of traumatic events may deny that the event ever occurred.  Denial can also occur after a tragic loss, such as a close relative dying in a fatal accident.[2]

Until the patient or client accepts that there is a problem, or that something has occurred, it is not possible for them to start to accept it and move on. So acceptance is an important part of the healing process for someone displaying signs of denial.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is taking things which cause you problems in life and expressing feelings as the opposite. For example, you might hate your boss, but express that you really enjoy your job and love working with her! This is also primitive form of defense.[1]


Projection is a primitive psychological defense that involves taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might instead believe that he or she does not like you. Projection works by allowing the expression of the desire or impulse, but in a way that the ego cannot recognize, therefore reducing anxiety.[2]


Repression acts to keep information out of conscious awareness. However, these memories don't just disappear; they continue to influence our behavior. For example, a person who has repressed memories of abuse suffered as a child may later have difficulty forming relationships. Counseling and therapy can help a person to deal with repressed emotions.[2]


Displacement involves taking out our frustrations, feelings and impulses on people or objects that are less threatening. Because some people cannot express their opinions in a safe and open manner, they hold up the negative feelings and project them onto somethng else.  Displaced aggression is a common example of this defense mechanism. For example, someone might be angry with their boos at work, but project that onto their partner or children when they get home.[1]


Sublimation is a defense mechanism that allows us to act out unacceptable impulses by converting these behaviors into a more acceptable form. It is a more mature defense mechanism and may involve, for example, a person experiencing extreme anger might take up kick-boxing as a means of venting frustration.[2]

The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense
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Anna Freud's book is the best that I have found - It is well explained and discusses the diffferent types of defense in detail.