Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are one of the most intriguing topics that I find in psychology, as they can be seen in our everyday lives.

It’s an introspective milestone to be able to know about your defence mechanisms. It will not only help you understand yourself better, but it will also help you understand others.

And most importantly, you’ll stop taking things so personally because most of the time when others are hostile towards us, it has nothing to do with us and everything to do with them.

I used to take everything others said or did to me very seriously. Like if they said, “You are bad I must objectively be a bad person. But the thing is, most of the opinions others have about us, whether good or bad, are based on speculation or projection.

And figuring out my defence mechanisms is literally like making art. To get inside one’s mind and figure out how it works is truly beautiful.

Defence Mechanisms:

According to psychoanalytical theory, a defence mechanism is any of a group of mental processes that allow the mind to come up with workable compromises for problems that it is unable to resolve.

This process usually occurs unconsciously because the person portraying it isn’t aware of its existence. Before understanding defence mechanisms, we must understand the unconscious mind.

Unconscious Mind

ice berg img

Sigmund Freud divided the contents of the mind into three parts: the conscious mind, the preconscious mind, and the unconscious mind. As you can see in the picture above,

Conscious Mind: According to Freud (1915), the conscious mind consists of mental processes that occur in our awareness. Hence, it’s the tip of the iceberg.
For example, you decided to pick up a book from your side table and followed through with the decision.

Preconscious/Subconscious Mind: The preconscious mind stores thoughts and emotions that a person is not now aware of but that are easy to bring to consciousness (1924). To put it simply, we can refer to it as “available memory.”
For example, you might not be thinking about what you ate yesterday at lunch, but if someone asked you, you could recall it easily.

Now let’s get to the unconscious mind.

Milder experiences are stored in the preconscious mind, but traumatic and powerful negative experiences are suppressed and stored in the unconscious mind.

The unconscious mind comprises mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgment, feelings, or behaviour (Wilson, 2002).

While we’re fully aware of what’s going on in our conscious mind, we have no idea what’s happening in our unconscious mind.
It contains extremely uncomfortable feelings, memories, and experiences.

I would like to mention one more thing about the unconscious mind, as it is seen as unscientific by many folks.
“However, the gap between psychology and psychoanalysis has narrowed, and the notion of the unconscious is now an important focus of psychology.” For example, cognitive psychology has identified unconscious processes such as procedural memory (Tulving, 1972) and automatic processing (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Stroop, 1935), and social psychology has shown the importance of implicit processing (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). “Such empirical findings have demonstrated the role of unconscious processes in human behavior.”
-“Freud and the Unconscious Mind” by Dr. Saul McLeod

Finally, people use a variety of defence mechanisms (such as projection) to keep their unconscious motives and feelings hidden.

The mind comes up with defence mechanisms to protect itself from unconscious, uncomfortable memories and experiences.

Defense mechanisms aren’t inherently bad because they’re simply a way for our minds to protect us from unpleasant experiences.But using them very frequently can be problematic, especially if you’re not aware of doing it.

Anna Freud and Sigmund Freud came up with this concept. Yet many of Freud’s theories are impossible to validate through empirical studies and aren’t widely used in therapy nowadays; defence mechanisms still stand today.
His theories spurred the growth of psychology.

Let’s look at some of the defence mechanisms:
(P.S. Here, it is assumed that people in the example are suffering unconsciously; these examples might not apply to everyone.)

1. Projection

Projection occurs when someone projects their uncomfortable, unconscious thoughts and feelings onto other people.
Attributing those tendencies to others allows the person to place themselves above and beyond those urges while still being able to observe them from afar. [1]

For example:
• If a person is bullying and ridiculing someone to make them feel insecure. It might be the case that the bully is projecting his struggles with low self-esteem onto the other person.
• If A is judging B on their looks, it is likely that A is insecure about their own body and looks.
• A father who never built a successful career might tell his son, “You won’t amount to anything” or, “Don’t even bother trying.” He is projecting his insecurities onto his son, yet his son might internalise that message, believing that he will never be successful. [1]

2. Displacement

It happens when someone transfers the negative feelings they have for one person to another. It’s a fairly common defence mechanism.
For example:
• Someone’s boss might scold them at work, and when they go back home, they might scold their children or partner.
• If a student was unable to crack an entrance exam, they might blame reservations for their failed attempt. This causes prejudice.

3. Rationalisation

It occurs when a person justifies their problematic behaviour through logical reasoning or explanation.
For example:
• It can either be blaming someone: “The problem is the people around me.” “I hire badly.”
• Or minimising, “It’s not a big deal.”
• Or deflecting by saying, “That’s not the real issue here.”
• Or attacking: “I may have done X, but you did Y!” [2]

4. Isolation of Affect

It happens when a person avoids experiencing an emotion associated with a person, idea, or situation.
For example:
• A person who’s telling everyone their house has burned down as a fact without displaying any emotions.
• A victim describes abuse in graphic detail with no emotional response.

5. Reaction formation

It occurs when a person expresses the opposite of their true feelings.
For example:
• Someone who acts overly nice around someone they hate.
• A man who is insecure about his masculinity might show a lot of aggressiveness.
• Someone might act mean around their crush.

6. Intellectualisation

when someone focuses on the intellectual rather than the uncomfortable or anxiety-prone emotional consequences of a situation. It can cause a person to downplay their own emotions.
For example:
• If a person’s roommate has left, they are hyper-focused on the financial analysis rather than discussing their hurt feelings.
• Someone who loses their father but is extensively involved in the funerary procedures without shedding a drop of a tear.
• Someone diagnosed with a terminal illness does not show emotion after the diagnosis is given but instead starts to research every source they can find about the illness.

7. Denial

It occurs when a person refuses to acknowledge reality to avoid feeling uncomfortable.
For example:
• After hurting someone’s feelings, they might refuse to think about it or try to find a way to blame the other person for their behaviour, i.e., “I wouldn’t have said that if she hadn’t been acting that way!” By denying their actions, they shift the blame to the person who has been hurt.
• Someone with a substance abuse problem might not acknowledge it because they’re functioning all right.
• Someone with physical or mental health problems might not seek professional help. because they can function and do day-to-day activities. Not seeking help just worsens their symptoms.

As mentioned earlier, defence mechanisms aren’t inherently bad, but if people are engaging in them continuously, they might never be able to face their unconscious mind.

It is just a way for our brains to protect us from unwanted or uncomfortable feelings that we have. It helps us to survive. Some defence mechanisms, such as humour or sublimation, can be beneficial to a person by relieving them of unpleasant situations.

Sometimes these uncomfortable experiences or memories need to be resurfaced in the conscious mind to be processed well. Because not processing them might affect our relationships with others as well as our work life and overall happiness.

Defense mechanisms (like displacement or projection) can harm our loved ones and our relationship with them.

And if you’re on the receiving end of it, it’ll help you understand not to take everything (especially the negative things) the other person says about you personally. But that won’t act as an excuse not to hold them responsible for their problematic behaviours.

The thing is, the more knowledge you’ll gain about yourself, the more you’ll be able to understand where the other person is coming from. People can only meet you as deeply as they’ve met themselves.

“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”
-Carl Jung


•Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.
•Freud, S. (1924). A general introduction to psychoanalysis, trans. Joan Riviere.
•Wilson, T. D. (2004). Strangers to ourselves. Harvard University Press.


  1. I couldn’t help but notice that alot of those mechanism were used by my friends this whole time! It was helpful 👏👏

  2. Suppose if someone is in denial mode and doing all the things mentioned in the blog How can third person make them realise about what they are doing ? Is there any solution for such behaviour?

    • One can try to make someone come in contact with reality but it’ll depend on the person if they’ll get aware or not. You see defense mechanisms takes place subconsciously so the person isn’t consciously aware of their actions.
      Pointing is out on others might be hard but if we catch ourselves doing any of these, we can consciously try to make an effort to look beneath the surface try to figure out what’s going on in the subconscious mind. It is easier said than done, but therapy can help in adapting more healthy mechanisms.

  3. I an glad i came across this blog. I was deeply hurt by someone very very close to me and instead of accepting it they started nit picking things related to me to justify their wrong doings, and that ended up hurting me more.
    After reading this article i can see why that happened.


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