Defense Mechanisms (Definition and Examples)

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Published by:
Practical Psychology
Andrew English
Reviewed by:
Andrew English, Ph.D.

What do you do when you encounter failure? You probably have a preferred way of dealing with failure. You may have been taught to confront the issue, learn from it, and move on. This is an ideal reaction to bad news, but sometimes, our brains have other plans for us. Without our knowledge, the brain may deploy “defense mechanisms”.

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are cognitive processes that allow us to avoid dealing with bad situations, at least temporarily. The bad situation may be failure, lifelong insecurities, you name it. We are rarely aware that we are using these defense mechanisms, even if they are painfully obvious to others.

In many cases, we can categorize people based on which defense mechanisms they commonly use, putting this topic in personality psychology.

Get to know these defense mechanisms; you’ll recognize quite a few immediately.

History of Defense Mechanism Theory

It should not be surprising that Sigmund Freud is the man behind the theory of defense mechanisms. They play right into the pleasure-pain principle, which states that humans will do anything to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We may not always be aware of how we avoid pain and discomfort. Our ego takes over, and we unconsciously act through defense mechanisms and other methods.

People may not be aware that they are using these defense mechanisms, even if it’s obvious to the people around them. As we go through the main defense mechanisms, we may be able to point to a person or an event where these were used to avoid bad news, insecurities, or other negative situations.

Defense Mechanisms are very closely linked to the Ego, as Freud noted. Our egos are very precious to us, and our brains will do all kinds of things to protect them, and that's exactly what these mechanisms are below:

Examples of Defense Mechanisms

Common Defense Mechanisms

There seem to be around 9 defense mechanisms that are common in the worldwide population, no matter the culture, age group, gender, or sex differences. This is important to psychologists because it shows that how we deal with pain and trouble seems to be similar on a biological level. Throughout more research, we have found many more than 9. However, some are culturally related, and others are quite rare.

1) Denial

We have all seen denial play out as a defense mechanism. Denial is the process of refusing to receive information or a bad situation. If you can convince yourself that the bad situation is not present, you won’t need to deal with the situation.

Examples of Denial as a Defense Mechanism

Someone may be in denial that a family member died or that their boyfriend broke up with them. They go about life as if the person is still alive or that they are still in the relationship.

In another example, Reddit users discuss how men in power may deny pressing issues like climate change as a defense mechanism.

2) Repression

Maybe the person has internalized the negative situation and is aware of its presence. But rather than completely denying its existence, the person just refuses to think about it consciously. This is repression. It is similar to denial, but it is simply pushing the negative situation away rather than completely refusing to acknowledge it.

Example of Repression as a Defense Mechanism

Your friend just lost their grandparent. When this happened to you, you experienced a hard time. Out of concern for your friend, you ask them how they are doing. They brush off your concerns. Every time you want to bring up their grief, they try to change the subject or let you know tersely that it's tough, but everything is just fine. They may not be denying their grief or the death of their grandparent, but they are not allowing themselves to experience their full emotions about the situation.

3) Displacement

Displacement directs emotions or frustrations toward an unrelated subject during a challenging situation. For instance, imagine someone is frustrated because they missed an important meeting due to heavy traffic. It's neither possible nor reasonable to direct their anger at every driver on the road or the traffic itself.

Instead, they might come home and unfairly snap at a family member over a minor issue. In this case, the family member becomes an "easier" target for the displaced frustration, even though they had nothing to do with the original situation. This phenomenon often occurs when confronting the source of frustration is not feasible or seems too daunting.

Example of Displacement As a Defense Mechanism

Let’s say you work at the gift shop of an amusement park. In the middle of the day, it starts to pour. None of the guests can enjoy the rides or be outside in the park, so they enter the gift shop and start unleashing their frustration on you. They start to yell and scream, even though you have nothing to do with the rain.

This is an example of displacement, and anyone who has worked retail during the holidays knows the ineffectiveness and frustration of this defense mechanism.

4) Projection

A person may take feelings that they are uncomfortable with and project them onto another person. While this is commonly viewed as a “subtle” defense mechanism, it can be painfully obvious when an angry person is dealing with insecurities or questions they don’t want to answer about themselves.

Example of Projection as a Defense Mechanism

Have you ever watched a movie where the ruthless school bully ends up being insecure? Maybe you can name a few of these ruthless bullies in real life. They tell someone that they are fat or ugly - but only because they feel those things about themselves. This is a prime example of projection.

5) Reaction Formation

Another sometimes painfully obvious defense mechanism is reaction formation. A person may not want to come across as feeling some type of way, so they form a reaction that makes them feel completely different. They may feel upset on the inside but claim that they are super excited and happy to avoid confrontation or admitting their true feelings.

Example of Reaction Formation As A Defense Mechanism

Let’s say a man has feelings for another man, but he doesn’t know how to handle the possible humiliation of coming out of the closet. To compensate for these feelings, he tries to charm every woman. He begins behaving in macho ways to prove how super “straight” he is so no person could ever think he had opposing feelings.

6) Regression

Adults cannot be blamed for envying children; it appears that children don't have a care in the world without insecurities or responsibilities. They cry, pout, and whine to get their way and solve a “bad” situation. Adults are expected to “be more mature” and not use these methods to get what they want.

Regression is the process of “regressing” back to these childhood methods of expressing emotion. You might cry, whine, pout, name it. Regression doesn’t always work, but it’s a way of pushing your responsibilities away and reverting to a childlike state where you could more easily express feelings in an “immature” way.

7) Rationalization

If you want to “appear” that your behaviors are justified, you might use rationalization. This process involves using false reasoning to get what you want or explain away your behavior. The classic “dog ate my homework” lie exemplifies rationalization.

Example of Rationalization

Let's say you double-book yourself and stand up someone that you're supposed to go on a first date with. Your friends remind you of that date and ask why you stood them up. You begin to rationalize. "People stand me up all the time." "He didn't confirm the time and date soon enough." "We didn't communicate today, so maybe they didn't show up, either." These rebuttals are a way to rationalize your behavior instead of owning up to what you did.

8) Sublimation

Not all defense mechanisms are unhealthy. Sublimation is considered to be one of the more productive defense mechanisms. When a person confronts a desire they have not achieved or expectations they feel they cannot fulfill, they put their energy into constructive activities. These activities may or may not be related to their insecurity. When these activities aren’t as constructive as the person thinks, they could fall into an obsession, addiction, or just plain unhealthy habits.

Examples of Sublimation

For example, a woman may work out excessively to cover up insecurities about her weight. A man may study hours and hours a day to cover up for insecurities of unitelligence or unsuccessful.

9) Compensation

People use compensation as a way to cover up for perceived shortcomings. They take actions or display traits to come across as the thing they are insecure about. For example, an employee may flaunt all of their awards or recognition because they feel that they are not adequate. The list goes on and on. It is similar to sublimation, but rather than growing and building themselves to become what they are not, compensation usually involves pretending that they already are that thing they are insecure about.

Example of Compensation as a Defense Mechanism

Remember in Shrek, when Shrek sees Lord Farquad’s tall, phallic-shaped tower and says to Donkey, “Maybe he’s compensating for something?” We all have encountered compensating for a specific type of insecurity, but compensation covers more than just the size know.

If you deploy these tactics regularly, it’s time for some self-reflection. What can you do to confront negativity and learn from mistakes?

Are There Mature Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are often painted in a bad light, but not all of them will ruin your life or keep you from acknowledging your feelings in an unhealthy way. Knowing the difference between suppressing and processing your emotions at your own speed can determine whether your mechanisms will contribute to your growth or stunt your emotional development.

If you recognize that a friend uses defense mechanisms to try and cope with negativity in an unhealthy manner, you might just want to share what you have learned. Defense mechanisms aren’t always unhealthy, but in the long run, they can prevent people from facing problems, solving them, and growing in the process.

Defense Mechanisms vs. Coping Mechanisms

Learning about defense mechanisms can help us recognize when we are using them. Defense mechanisms are largely unconscious behavior patterns that occur when we want to avoid stress. As you may have gathered, this doesn't always help the stress go away. Sometimes, the only way to eliminate stress is to face it head-on and eliminate it. This is where coping mechanisms come into play.

Coping mechanisms are behaviors that help us reduce or overcome stress. We perform these behaviors intentionally. Not all coping mechanisms are healthy, but they can be. And they don't require deep inner work, either! You can safely eliminate stress in fun ways. Try the following coping mechanisms the next time you feel stressed:

  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Exercise
  • Bubble bath or spa day

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2019, February). Defense Mechanisms (Definition and Examples). Retrieved from

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