Defense Mechanisms


To understand defense mechanisms, it is important to understand Freud's topographic and structural models of the mind, which posit the presence of an unconscious, which interacts with the conscious to produce behavior.

The goals of defense mechanisms, which can be conscious or unconscious, include:

  • Reducing anxiety and conflict

  • Achieving gratification


Understanding the ideas of behavioral theorists, such as Freud, Mahler, Klein, and Kohut, can provide context for how defense mechanisms might work. Their theories present different models of the mind, specifically its components and interactions with the outside world, and ideas on how the mind produces behavior.


Psychological defense mechanisms are unconscious means of responding and adapting to emotional stressors, that serve to decrease anxiety and provide a sense of security or control.

You can divide defense mechanisms into three categories:

  1. Immature

  2. Neurotic

  3. Mature

People who resort to immature defense mechanisms generally have a low threshold for tolerating their anxieties and emotions.

Neurotic defense mechanisms can also generate tension and lead to anxiety, sometimes as dysphoria or other mental issues.


Key Defense Mechanisms


  • Acting out: Expressing unaccepatble feelings through actions

  • Controlling: Regulating external events to control anxiety

  • Denial: Behaving as if a part of reality does not exist

  • Displacement: Transferring feelings to a less threatening object or person

  • Dissociation: Temporary and drastic replacement of an unpleasant mood state or current personal identity with a more pleasant mood state or alteration in one's sense of personal identity

  • Intellectualization: Focusing on nonemotional aspects to avoid distressing feelings

  • Fantasy: An autistic retreat involving the creation of imaginary lives in order to avoid conflict and obtain gratification

  • Passive aggression: Avoiding conflict by expressing hostility covertly towards others (through passivity, masochism, and anger towards oneself)

  • Projection: Attributing one's own feelings to others

  • Rationalization: Justifying behavior to avoid difficult truths (rather than acknowledging true motives)

  • Reaction formation: transforming unacceptable feelings or impulses into their opposite

  • Regression: Reverting to earlier developmental stages

  • Splitting: Experiencing a person/situation as either all positive or all negative

  • Undoing: Attempting to reverse a situation by adopting a new behavior


  • Altruism: Managing unpleasant emotions through unselfish devotion or service to others

  • Sublimation: Channeling impulses into socially acceptable behaviors

  • Suppression: Putting unwanted feelings aside to cope with reality

Immature defense mechanisms are destructive in some way, while mature defense mechanisms are adaptive.


Note that the defense mechanisms of repression and suppression may be easily confused. Repression is unconscious, while suppression is conscious. Repression is considered an immature defense mechanism, while suppression is considered a mature one.