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Psychic Defense Mechanisms

Abstract: Every individual utilizes defense mechanisms. What makes us different is which and how many defense mechanisms we use.

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Psychic Defense Mechanisms

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Written by: Anton Åhrén, psychology student, Umeå University with guidance from Gunborg Palme, licensed psychologist and licensed psychotherapist, psychotherapy teacher and tutor. Translated to English by Ingrid Lang.
First version: 22 Jul 2008.
Latest revision: 23 Aug 2008.

What are the different psychic defense mechanisms and how do they work?


Handling stress

People use psychic defense mechanisms when internal or external stressors become too great. These are automatic processes limiting what we feel or take in to what we can handle at the moment. When the pressure is too great and we feel unable to handle the emotion or situation, our defenses kick in to protect us. The defenses are ranked from highly functional with full awareness of our feelings, ideas and consequences of the defenses, to a primitive level where feelings and thoughts and consequences are totally blocked. A primitive defense may also be functional given the situation at hand. Everybody utilizes defense mechanisms. What varies is what type and how wide a range of defenses we utilize. Using only one specific defense mechanism for every situation is not functional. However, it is important to remember that all defenses have a role (to protect us), but are more or less effective. Below are the different defense levels, from highly functional to the most primitive.

Highly adaptive (On this level, stressors are handled in a well-functioning manner with full awareness of one's thoughts and feelings)

  • Anticipation (Being able to anticipate what future events will bring, practically and emotionally. The individual considers different alternative behaviors and anticipate their consequences.)
  • Affiliation (Accepting help and support from others.)
  • Altruism (The individual handles his or her stressors by helping others.)
  • Humor (Choosing to focus on the comical aspects of the situation.)
  • Self-assertion (The individual expresses feelings or thoughts directly and appropriately.)
  • Self-observation (The individual considers and examines his or her own thoughts, feelings, motives and behaviors in order to choose a useful course of action.)
  • Sublimation (Transforming stressors into a socially acceptable behavior. For example, taking up boxing as a means to deal with one's aggression.)
  • Suppression (The individual deliberately avoids thinking about the unpleasant feeling or thought.)
  • Mental inhibition (Threatening thoughts, emotions, desires or fears are blocked out of the conscious mind.)

Inhibition level (Frightening thougts, feelings, memories, wishes and fears are kept below consciousness)

  • Displacement (The individual redirects his or her feelings toward an object onto another substitute object. For example, when stubbing a toe on a table one might displace the anger to the table rather than to oneself.)
  • Dissociation (Thoughts, feelings, perceptions or memories that normally function well, are disabled.)
  • Intellectualization (Avoiding painful emotions by generalizing and/or dealing with the problem through abstract thinking.)
  • Isolation of affect (The individual separates the cognitive and the emotional in his mind. The affective elements are lost; for example emotions following a sexual assault, while the cognitive elements remain, able to describe the assault in detail.)
  • Reaction formation (Dealing with forbidden thoughts and feelings by doing the opposite. For example, a homosexual person, unable to disclose his sexual orientation, argues fiercely that homosexuality is repulsive and should be banned.)
  • Repression (Discomfort is blocked from conscious awareness. The emotional aspect may remain, minus the related thought.)
  • Undoing (Using metaphors or behaviors that cover up unwanted thoughts, emotions or actions.)

Minor image-distorting (Protecting one's self-esteem by reshaping reality)

  • Devaluation (Attributing negative or inferior traits to self or others.)
  • Idealization (Playing up and crediting others with overly positive attributes.) More
  • Omnipotence (Overrating oneself and the belief of having special powers making one superior to others.)
  • Disavowal (The individual keeps unwanted events from the conscious mind.)

Denial (Denial of facts that are obvious to others.)

  • Projection (Attributing unwanted thoughts, feelings and impulses to others. For example, instead of dealing with one's own depression, he or she tells someone else that he or she is unhappy and should seek help for depression.)
  • Rationalization (The real reasons for the problem are too difficult to accept, so excuses are created; for example, a failed test is explained by external circumstances, such as noise or having a cold.)

Major image-distorting (The individual expresses his or her distorted view of reality)

  • Autistic fantasy (Indulging in fantasies to escape the real problem.)
  • Projective identification (Similar to "Projection" above, but here the recipient identifies with the mental content being projected. For example, the recipient begins to feel sad and depressed.)
  • Splitting (The individual is unable to integrate two conflicting feelings and splits everything up in black and white with nothing in between. The result is that the individual perceives himself/herself and others as either fantastic or worthless, etc. These opposites alternate depending on the individual's emotional state at the moment.)

Action (The individual either acts out or withdraws from stressors)

  • Acting out (Instead of dealing with the problem in a practical way, the individual acts out with aggression.
  • Apathetic withdrawal (The stressors are so severe that the body shuts down several functions. The individual does not react to external stimuli. The condition is similar to a state of trance.)
  • Help-rejecting complaining (The individual complains and says he wants help, but rejects it when it arrives.)
  • Passive aggression (Indirectly expressing aggression toward others, often with outward compliance.)

Defensive dysregulation (The individual has lost most or all contact with reality.)

  • Delusional projection (The individual attributes non reality-based thoughts, emotions and impulses to others.)
  • Psychotic denial (A more severe form of denial, with no or little contact with reality.)
  • Psychotic distortion (Perceiving reality differently than others. Individuals using this defense transform reality in order to deal with the pain.)
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