In an imperfect world, the defense mechanisms are our psychological painkillers used against anxiety and pain. Just as simple as that! There are many classifications and books available with descriptions of our defenses, but I will use a pragmatic outline below. I’m writing this article mainly as a reference for myself and other professionals, but I hope everyone can benefit from this, as there isn’t a single person in this world who doesn’t use defenses every day; life would simply be too painful without them. But just as any other things in life, if you overuse them, you get sick. Except for the mature defenses, which are OK to be used all the time.
The defenses are part of the psychodynamic or psychoanalytical school of psychotherapy. They are only against anxiety and pain. Apart from them, there are also existential defenses, employed by the existentialism (defenses against death, freedom or isolation), but they are a different story and use a different framework.
So, here we go!
Archetypal Psychotic-Level 1 defenses – usually found in schizophrenia-like diseases but also in dreams and in childhood.
DELUSION (Delusional Projection)
– delusions about external reality, usually of persecutory nature.
– interesting for psychiatrists but not for the general public.
– Reshaping of external reality to met internal needs (illusions & hallucinations).
– interesting for psychiatrists if Psychotic Distortions.
– interesting for each of us if they appear as Cognitive Distortions.
1. “all-or-nothing” thinking, no alternative.
– largely employed in Semitic religions (Mosaic, Islam, Christians) and often used as a reason for murder.
“You shall have no other gods before me” (The Bible, The Ten Commandments)
2. overgeneralization – isolated cases are used to make wide generalizations.
“Black people are stupid”.
3. focusing on one quality and overlooking the rest; focusing on the negative.
“Gypsies are just thieves”.
4. jumping to conclusions, with little (if any) evidence.
Often appears as:
– mind reading – “I know what’s best for you, my dear son!”
– fortune telling – “We all know what’s going to happen (before it happens)!”
5. minimization & magnification (including catastrophizing).
“I’ve just raped her, that’s all! Not big deal! I reckon she might have enjoyed it!”
“My job is a disaster!”
6. emotional reasoning – making decisions/arguments based on intuition or personal feeling rather than on objective rationale or evidence.
“My grandma enjoys taking care of her 3 grand-children, I’m sure! This gives her a meaning in life!” (no, she doesn’t, she’s just tired but doesn’t say 3 kids are too much for her)
“I’m sure there are extraterrestrials in contact with our government!” (lack of evidence)
7. labeling & mislabeling.
“She’s a schizophrenic!” (no, she’s only intoxicated)
“She’s just stupid!” (she’s not, but you don’t have time/the wish to know more about her)
8. personalization – attribution of personal responsibility for events over which the person has no control.
“They harass me every day!” (no, they “harass” everybody, not only you; and it’s not harassment, it’s taking care you do your job)
– refusing to accept reality because it is too threatening.
– interesting for psychiatrists if Psychotic Denial.
– common defense in general population.
“My problem doesn’t exist.” “It’s not true that I have problems.” (simple denial)
“I admit I have a problem, but it is not serious”. (denial of importance)
“I admit I have a problem, it’s serious, but I have no responsibility for it.” (denial of responsibility)
“I’ll never die! I can’t die!” (in incurable diseases) (denial of outcome)
“My partner didn’t die.” (in bereavement) (denial of reality)
“My heart disease is not so bad.” (after several heart attacks) (denial of emergency)
“I don’t feel guilty for this!” (denial of impact, of empathy)
– lying (by omission or just by plain lie) is a denial of fact.
Primitive Low-Level 2 defenses – mostly unconscious, usually found in personality disorders, but also in teenagers.
– temporary drastic modification of one’s personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress.
– typical in hysteria & histrionic personality, involves separating the conscious mind (rational side) from the unconscious mind (body sensations, emotions), so that the person can keep functioning.
– includes and is a mechanism for Repression and Intellectualization & Isolation of Affect.
– perceiving in the external world elements of one’s own personality (instinctual impulses, conflicts, etc.)
– includes and is a mechanism for Projection, Projective Identification, Sexualization.
– attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts and emotions to another person (my conflict becomes your conflict, my problems appear as if they are yours).
– primitive form of paranoia.
“What a nasty weather!” (the weather is neutral; you are worried or angry)
“What a horrible government!” (the government represents the society, you included)
“What a stupid car!” (it’s a lifeless object, so it can’t be stupid)
The projective mechanism – example:
1. I don’t like John. – says my unconscious mind
2. I can’t say that (I can’t accept that), so I project my dislike on John.
3. John does not like me. (this conclusion is my projection).
– the situation when the one we project our unacceptable thoughts on, begins to identify with our projected material, and becomes, at his/her turn, exactly what we projected on him/her
– in the example above, John really starts to dislike me, following my projective attitude.
“When I came as the manager of this company, I was a democratic boss. But I noticed that the employees were behaving like victims waiting for an oppressor to abuse them. They weren’t willing to participate in the work groups I tried to establish after my arrival as the manager of the department. They were very resistant in displaying this behavior and this filled my life with a lot of angst. Then, one day, I discovered I ceased to be a democratic boss; I became the tyrant they always wanted me to be.” (the manager reacted to his own angst by taking the behavior his employees projected on him, becoming despotic and identifying with the abuser they thought he was)
FANTASY (Autistic/Schizoid Fantasy)
– tendency to retreat into fantasy or an alternative reality in order to resolve inner or outer conflicts (escape reality, day-dreaming).
“I’m thinking about our next holiday…”
“I’m imagining a solution for our problem… listen to it: … ”
– frequently, fantasies are about impossible things (like magical powers):
“If I could fly… I could sit on a branch next to his window and catch him cheating me with my best friend… I could then pulverize them both in a blink of an eye…”
– transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings towards self, then re-channeling of repressed negative feelings into somatic (body) symptoms (connecting emotional pain to physical symptoms).
– typical in hypochondria and somatoform diseases.
“When I saw him smiling at me, after all he did to me, I suddenly felt a stomachache and wanted to throw up.”
– direct expression of an unconscious impulse into action, without the conscious awareness of the driving emotion (losing self-control without feeling anxious or guilty)
“Don’t freak out! Just do it!”
“Instead of thinking about it or feeling absolutely miserable, I thought I better act out.”
“When I saw my husband drunk on the sofa, I instantly took my sport clothes and landed at the gym. Spent there a couple of hours running on the treadmill.”
“When he told me those nasty words, I punched him directly between the eyes. I don’t know how this happened; it was too quick. Next moment he was lying on the floor. I watched him remorseless.”
– unconsciously choosing to perceive another individual as having more positive qualities then he/she may actually have.
“She’s an angel!” (no, she’s not)
“She’s the most beautiful woman in the Universe!” (unlikely)
“Everything will be fine.” or “I foresee no problems in the future.”
(if you don’t have reasons to believe this, you are idealizing the situation)
“Grandma knows it all!” (not likely)
“I know everything going on in my department.” (this type of self-idealization is also known as Omnipotence)
– attributing excessive negative qualities to self or others.
“I have the stupidest colleagues!” (probably not)
– tearing one’s personality in multiple egos.
– central defense in narcissist and borderline personality, involves unclear personal boundaries.
“I’m not shaking because I’m an alcoholic, but because I’m furious. And being furious most of the time explains why I’m so socially isolated”.
– reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses (age-regression).
“I want to throw water balloons!” (letting the inner child play when too stressed)
“The airplane crash left me speechless!” (regression to the age when the child can’t speak)
“I was so afraid and when, during the exam, the professor asked me, I couldn’t say a word, nor could I state my own name.” (regression to the age one can’t speak and doesn’t know one’s name)
“Come and see my collection of cars! I’m just a little boy when I enter the hangar where I keep them!”
– sugarcoating own hostility; aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively.
– common signs are:
Ambiguity & speaking cryptically
Chronically being late & forgetting things
Fear of competition
Fear of dependency
Fear of intimacy – guarding oneself against becoming attached
Making excuses for non-performance in work teams
Victimization – blaming others for own failures instead of recognizing one’s own weaknesses.
Neurotic Higher-Level 3 defenses – usually found in neurotic diseases, partly unconscious, partly conscious, have only short-term advantages in healthy individuals.
– internalizing the qualities of the other so that I can keep him/her next to me and not lose him/her
– identification is with Someone Real or his/her qualities.
“I try to become just like him…just as if I’d be him…”
“When my husband died, I took his wedding ring and put it on my finger, next to mine, so that we could still be together for the rest of my life”.
“We are the baby-boomers!”
“We are the generation of…”
“We are Canadians!”
“I am the State! (L’état, c’est moi!)”
– there is also Counter-identification; for instance, alcoholism of the father generates absolute abstinence of his son through counteridentification.
– identification is the other mechanism involved in projective identification, along with projection.
– internalizing the nasty aspects of the one in front of me so that I don’t lose his/her love or his/her person entirely (usually parents, but also loved one)
– introjection is of patterns/roles/ideas/dangers, of Something Abstract.
– In excessively mature children, the interdictions are introjected and act as own rules/standards/thoughts: “I mustn’t do that!” (Who says this? Who told you this for the first time? Your introjected mother maybe?)
REPRESSION (Inhibition, Blocking)
– a conscious chosen denial of my emotion; I resent the emotion but I don’t know the cause of my emotion as it’s not getting into my conscious mind (pulling back thoughts/impulses into the unconscious).
– rare defense mechanism, often in children, completely out of awareness.
– it’s the mechanism of repressed painful memories.
“There is something wrong with me… I don’t know where is this coming from, but there is something inside… I’m heavy-hearted…” (the emotion is conscious but the cause is absent).
ISOLATION OF AFFECT
– separating idea or event from the associated emotion so that I can keep the idea.
“I was watching the oncology nurses pushing the bed with the dead corpse and smiling at the same time… moments ago they were laughing… how can they do that!?!”
“He took the chainsaw and cut his head as slowly as possible; it was, however, quite a lot of blood, and it took him a couple of hours to clean everything. I reckon he should have chosen a different way to kill him, as the idea was to eliminate him, not to put up an expressionist show.” (all this being said using an even and detached cold-blooded voice)
INTELLECTUALIZATION (Flight into Reason)
– focus on the intellectual components of a situation (abstract ideas) so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions.
~ examples of I:
– a terminally-ill cancer patient asking info about treatment, although it’s obvious there is nothing that can be done and the end is near.
– a rape victim taking self-defense classes.
– a son that is talking in a indifferent way about how his father abused him in his childhood.
– a debtor who is about to be executed by a bank, making strategies of new loans and getting info about the current rates.
– a man who has trouble meeting women may buy a book on meeting women, research online or ask others for advice. The man may have his problem figured out in his mind, but in reality he still has no experience with women because he hasn’t actually attempted anything he has learned.
– emphasizing irrelevant details so as to avoid perceiving the whole or getting things done.
“I don’t love her, I only like her… we’re only good friends!” (but he bought her a house, a car, took care of her children after the death of her husband and comforted her ever since)
– translocation/shifting of a certain aggressive/sexual impulse or feeling from one person to the other that is less frightening but often resembles to the original (finding a scapegoat).
– there is always the danger of displacement on self (turning against self), at any level, resulting in depression or suicide.
– displacement of aggression can also be cast on innate objects – hitting one’s (or other’s) car in the car park, out of frustration, or going to the gym to hit a punching bag, or breaking things in the house (own or his/her house)
– displacement of sexual instinct is when you have sex with someone while you think you’re having sex with someone else (often your “true love”)
– aggressive impulses can be displaced into sexual impulses – sex becomes burdened with perverted, punishing or humiliating behavior patterns.
– the displacement mechanism – example:
1. the boss screamed at the husband;
2. the husband comes home and gets into a dispute with his wife;
3. the wife yells at her child because she’s angry with her husband;
4. the child hits his dog out of frustration;
5. the feeling of anger from the boss was displaced in cascade by the family until the dog got punished even if he didn’t do anything wrong.
– endowing an object or function with sexual significance that is did not previously have or possessed at smaller degree.
“Everything around me makes me think about sex!”
~ If you use this defense, you may notice that the image I used for this article resemble to something else. Colloquially, sexualization means you have a “dirty mind”.
TURNING AGAINST SELF
– hostility towards the other is re-focused on oneself.
For instance, mistakenly wounding oneself so as to escape a worse punishment (some sort of inner barter with oneself, trading the present suffering for a more severe future pain)
– most suicidal intentions are a homicidal impulse turned against own person or against own impulses or characteristics.
“I wanted to kill in me my impossible love for him, and the only solution I could find was to kill myself entirely”.
– converting/transforming initial unconscious wishes/impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites.
– this defense is often seen in phobias and is part of the Stockholm Syndrome (alongside the projective identification with the abuser).
~ examples of RF:
– sadism is transformed into unconditional pacifism;
– sexual desire is transformed into chastity, purity;
– sinfulness is transformed into piety;
– hidden unaccepted homosexuality is transformed into homophobia;
– alcoholics become active members or AA;
– selfishness is transformed into altruism;
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (The Bible)
– death is transformed into life;
“Live the day of today as if it would be your last day!”
– hate is transformed into love.
“These 2 people love each other a lot but quarrel all the time!”
(the difference between reactive love and true love is that RF love is exaggerated, compulsive and inflexible; “reactive love protests too much, is overdone, extravagant, showy, affected and counterfeit”)
– justifying one’s unacceptable attitudes or behaviors so that they become acceptable or tolerable to self.
– formulation of convenient excuses.
“My parents smoke until 90 years old and they died of a smoke-unrelated accident… Why should I cease smoking?”
“We lack democracy because the politicians are irresponsible.” (not because we didn’t do anything, as a community, to remove them from power)
“I am against building a hospital for AIDS in our area! I fear this disease might spread in our community!” (even if HIV does not spread by air, the person using rationalization will find other reasons to veto the idea)
– convincing oneself that no wrong was done and that all is/was all right through false/faulty reasoning.
“After hearing the news that I failed at my faculty entrance exam, I turned to my friends and said that I didn’t like the subject anyway and I didn’t want to have a career in that field of study”.
– the assumption that everything happens for the best and we should try finding the blessing in disguise.
“Thanks God for failing the exam! Now I can finally focus on pursuing my true vocation!”
– trying to deny one’s shameful thoughts/involvement through clarifications or by engaging in the contrary behavior (doing the opposite).
– often seen as a denial of the passing of time.
“Sometimes I beat my wife, but then I feel guilty and ashamed and I buy her flowers or take her to the mall and ask her to buy whatever she wishes. This clears things out.”
“The killer returned to the body of the victim and covered it with flowers.”
“You might imagine this is disturbing for me, but you’re wrong!” (it is disturbing)
“You think I thought about this, but you’re wrong, it isn’t so”. (in fact, it is so)
“I’ve got an idea, but it’s probably you the one who suggested it”. (no, it was his idea)
– covering up, consciously or not, weaknesses/frustrations/desires/feelings of inadequacy or incompetence, real or not, by excellence in another area of life.
– often found in narcissist personalities.
– there are 2 types of compensation:
1. overcompensation – striving for power or dominance. (it often fails in midlife crisis)
“She is a self-taught professor, an international expert in her field. But she never got married and doesn’t have any children. I don’t know if she regrets this now, near the end of her life…”
2. under-compensation – demand for help, lack of courage, fear for life.
“She doesn’t have Alzheimer’s disease. But she pretends she can’t remember anything. I guess she’s fed up with the amount of responsibility she had during her life and now wants to take it easy.”
– most superstitions are magical thinking defenses.
– believing in the ability of mind to affect the physical world
“Our good thoughts can materialize things!” (directly no, only through self-suggestion)
– believing in the power of magical symbols and metaphor.
“Nothing bad can happen to ma as long as I wear this protective talisman!”
– mistaking an imaginary/ideal connection with a real one.
“All priests are sacred persons because they are in contact with God.” (it depends)
– Sympathetic Magic – “like affects like”
“In Chinese traditional medicine, they say that consuming certain parts of wild animals, (like the tiger for example) make you just as powerful or strong as that animal”.
– Associative Thinking – correlation is mistaken for causation.
The mechanism of associative thinking is: if X is before Y results that X is the cause of Y.
“Most of the people lost their faith in God. Then, a storm came and destroyed their homes. Now the community is having renewed faith in God, believing that their lack of faith resulted in divine punishment”.
Mature High-Level 4 defenses – conscious, often chosen, always healthy and protective.
– offering to others what they want, waiting nothing in return.
– selfless concern for the welfare of others.
– constructive service to others that brings pleasure/personal satisfaction.
– removing pleasure from one’s life, as a sacrifice versus something, usually an ideal, without remorse and guilt (feeling great while doing this).
“I can bear cold weather while praying in the rain outside the temple!”
– belonging to a group while accepting some elements that bother me.
– asking for help or comfort.
– anticipating one’s reaction or the outcome of a situation and actively preparing a strategy in order to manage the conflict or situation.
– it’s realistic planning for future discomfort.
Living in advance your own emotional reactions.
Foreseeing the consequences.
Planning possible responses (own responses or others’ responses).
Searching for possible solutions.
– expression of ideas/feelings (mostly too unpleasant/terrible to talk about) in a way that gives pleasure to others.
– different from wit, which is a form of displacement (the thoughts are still distressing).
– transforming socially-unacceptable aspects (or negative emotions) into intellectual, socially-acceptable ones (positive actions/behaviors/emotions).
– often through art, music, painting, poetry, dance, writing, etc.
“I hugged her as tender as possible… thanks God she can’t read my mind!… it wasn’t an innocent hug at all but hey, what can I do?!… she’s my friend’s wife and hugging is as physical as we could possible get…”
– consciously postponing emotions/thoughts back into the subconscious and managing them later.
– conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality, making it possible to latter access uncomfortable or distressing emotions while accepting them.
– often seen in the obsessive-compulsive disorder
– different from repression, which is automatic and unconscious.
– when anxious, communicating directly one’s thoughts and feelings, non-manipulatively and non-aggressively.
“What you say to me makes me blush!” (I hate it when I blush, but saying this in an assertive way decreases my anxiety).