What Are Your Defense Mechanisms? 5 Common Reactions You Will Relate to

By Tatenda


Last Updated: October 18, 2022

In an 1894 paper, one of the most influential people in psychology, Sigmund Freud, introduced the concept of defense mechanisms.

This was later refined by his daughter, Anna Freud.

When faced with an uncomfortable or stressful situation, our brain does the best it can to escape the negative feelings and cope.

If you touch a hot stove, you will immediately remove your hand without even thinking about it. In the same manner, our brain protects itself from feelings such as guilt, shame or anxiety. 

One way we do this is through defense mechanisms.

As these are subconscious, we often do not realize their existence and overall impact. Self-awareness will help us understand ourselves more and override these defense mechanisms so we can effectively face our true feelings and responsibilities. 

Moreover, getting a clear understanding of these mechanisms will also improve how we interact with others. 



5 Common Defense Mechanisms You Might Relate to

1. Dissociation 

This mechanism is centered around mentally escaping a traumatic experience.

When using dissociation, we separate our mind from the body or the environment. This way, we protect our mind from the trauma and stress. Eventually, we might have difficulties remembering details of a traumatic experience. 

When employed in the long-term, one can have challenges staying present.

For instance, a nurse working in an ICU might protect herself from secondary trauma by imagining herself working in another less traumatic section of the hospital or even a whole different profession. Because the mind is separate from the body, she could start making mistakes she otherwise wouldn’t. 


2. Displacement

This happens when we are unable to direct negative emotions towards the appropriate individual and end up directing them to someone else.

You transfer your frustration from the target because of several reasons that differ depending on the situation. 

This is common for adults and working people. An example would be after having a stressful day at work where you had a meeting and no one seemed to be listening to your ideas despite them being the best and most effective ones, you become very frustrated.

Instead of telling your colleagues how you feel, you let out your anger on your partner or kids, or other drivers on the road. 

It is not always easy to directly communicate with the target, but displacement can result in you ruining other relationships. Learning how to effectively communicate can help solve misunderstandings and conflicts more effectively without hurting others. 


3. Denial

When in denial, we refuse to acknowledge the existence of a stressful or uncomfortable experience despite the presence of evidence.

This is one of the most common defense mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from having to deal with pain. 

An example could be someone suffering from drug addiction but refusing to acknowledge that the habit is getting in the way of their quality of life. Despite things like losing their job and constantly taking the drug, they are convinced that their drug use is for recreational purposes only.

Avoiding reality will allow them to continue taking the drug. 


4. Intellectualization 

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you use logic and reason to avoid involving your emotions? That is intellectualization. 

A person who is going through a divorce might focus on how they are going to rearrange the apartment and planning how they are going to handle the finances alone. This will distract them from processing the emotions around the divorce. 

While this can help us effectively come up with solutions, it also results in us undermining and ignoring our emotions. 


5. Rationalization

This is often confused with intellectualization.

However, unlike intellectualization, when rationalizing, one tries to justify uncomfortable experiences with rational ‘facts.’ When using this defense mechanism, we do not take accountability for our actions; hence we won’t work towards improving them.

For example, someone who cheats on their partner will refuse to acknowledge that what they did was wrong. Rather, they rationalize their action by stating that their partner was not giving them attention, so their actions are justified. 


There Are More Defense Mechanisms

Keep in mind, these are just 5 of the common defense mechanisms.

The others not discussed here include: 

  • Repression
  • Projection
  • Regression
  • Sublimation 
  • Reaction formation
  • Compartmentalization 



Treatment for Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms can help you escape negative emotions in the short term.

However, in the long run, they can be damaging and can foster conditions like: 

  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction disorders
  • Personality disorders 
  • PTSD 

Depending on the defense mechanisms you commonly use and related mental health conditions you might have, there are several treatment options available. 


Talk therapy

This will help you recognize the existence of particular defense mechanisms and the thoughts and feelings you could be burying. 



Medication can be effectively used to deal with underlying issues that could be facilitating the use of defense mechanisms. 


Stress management and coping strategies

Learning how to manage stress will help you open up to dealing with potentially stressful situations as you will be equipped with ways to effectively deal with the stress. 

Coping strategies are a natural part of our being, and they are subconscious, but they can be changed. It is important for us to be in a position to effectively and consciously deal with issues; something that defense mechanisms avoid.

Feelings and emotions should not be ignored, but, they should be positively addressed in a mindful manner. 

Photo by Liza Summer


8 comments on “What Are Your Defense Mechanisms? 5 Common Reactions You Will Relate to”

  1. I want to let you know how your daily motivations have helped me. I start my day feeling content and realize I can face my challenges,and self imposed barriers.I’m going to copy the daily motivations so I can review them on a daily basis.Thank you so much!

    1. Thank you Mae, we always appreciate hearing from our wonderful community! Sometimes that little extra boost in the morning is all we need to remind ourselves that we CAN do it. 🙂

  2. Great article. Would like brief definitions about the other common defense mechanisms mentioned also. VERY helpful to see and contemplate which defenses I am using.

    1. Thanks Andrea, we will hopefully do a future article about the other common defense mechanisms as well! So happy you enjoyed it. 🙂

    1. Awesome to hear Jo, thank you for the feedback and support, we're so happy you are getting something out of it!

  3. in such a world with wrong "programmed" perceptions, people are UNABLE to see the right solutions. Therefore, "the way how and what you perceive defines the way of the solution..." If a person absorbs ways of defense without knowing these, it will only bother subconcious and will be able to become a problem. 🙂

    1. Thanks AJP, it is hard to change things that frustrate us if we can't see another perspective that allows us to find an alternate solution.

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