What is… a Defense Mechanism

Defense mechanisms, e.g. denial, displacement, distortion, projection, rationalization

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is defense mechanisms.

The concept of defense mechanisms was originally proposed by Sigmund Freud. They’re strategies that are used unconsciously in order to protect the ego when faced with uncomfortable feelings.

Freud identified a number of defense mechanisms, as did his daughter Anna Freud and other researchers in later work. Here are a few examples.


Conversion involves transforming mental distress into physical symptoms. Conversion disorder, now known as functional neurological symptom disorder, involves neurological symptoms that occur as part of a mental disorder rather than arising from physical causes.


I’d say this is probably the rockstar go-to for many of us. However, when it becomes less conscious it can start to predominate and become pathological.


Strong feelings towards one person are acted out on someone else who is seen as a more acceptable target. Displacement happens when the id (the source of primitive drives) wants X, the superego (the conscience) won’t allow X, so the ego substitutes Y as a compromise.

This could occur if you were angry at your boss, but since showing this anger would be inappropriate, you end up taking it out on your spouse when you get home after work.


Distortion involves reshaping reality into something very different from what it actually is.


Hypochondriasis involves being overly preoccupied with fear that one has a serious illness.


Idealization is exactly what it sounds like – magnifying someone’s strengths and minimizing their weaknesses.


Introjection involves adopting the characteristics of others we identify with. An extreme version of this is identifying and empathizing with an abuser, as occurs in Stockholm syndrome.


Passive aggression involves indirectly expressing hostility.


The ego views it as unacceptable to have a certain feeling, so that feeling is projected towards another person so it no longer belongs to the ego. In a conflict with another person, this could take the form of accusing the other person of feeling something that’s actually what you yourself are feeling.


Most of us rationalize (using logic to justify unconscious impulses) to some extent, but the more sensitive the ego, the more unconsciously this happens.

Reaction formation

This occurs when your natural reaction to something is unwanted or unacceptable. Instead, the mind forms a reaction that’s very much the opposite of the natural reaction.


As we grow older we tend to develop more advanced and adaptive coping strategies. When things get difficult, though, people can start to retreat from stressful situations by reverting to the coping strategies that worked at an earlier stage of development.

Unfortunately, when childlike behaviours emerge, that often doesn’t go over all that well with others. In my work as a nurse, I’d say I’ve seen regression most often in people with borderline personality disorder who are in significant distress. I’ve also seen staff interpret this behaviour as very willful rather than arising from an unconscious defense mechanism. Having a stuffed animal while on a psych ward is sometimes (although of course not always) an indicator of regression.


Repression automatically pushes difficult thoughts and feelings into the unconscious. However, that doesn’t make the associated distress disappear, and Freud believed the thoughts would bubble up into the subconscious in the form of dreams or so-called Freudian slips.

Suppression is similar but occurs consciously rather than automatically. There’s more on these defense mechanisms in the post What Is… Repression vs. Suppression.


Splitting involves classifying people/things as all good or all bad. This is common in borderline personality disorder.


Sublimation involves morphing something unacceptable into something acceptable. Simply Psychology offers this oh-so-Freudian example: “fixation during the anal stage may cause a person to sublimate their desire to handle faeces with an enjoyment of pottery.” There was also this delightful observation: “Sublimation for Freud was the cornerstone of civilized life, as arts and science are all sublimated sexuality.” Why not, right?

Wishful thinking

Wishful thinking involves acting based on the way we’d like things to be rather than the way they are.


Withdrawal involves removing oneself from a situation/context that stirs up thoughts and feelings we wish to avoid.

Is it all about the sex?

While I would agree that these are strategies that we use to protect ourselves psychologically, I’m not all that keen on Freud’s tendency to reduce everything down to sex. There’s nothing wrong with sex, but I don’t think it underpins everything in our minds all of the time.

Or who knows, maybe that’s just because I’m not getting laid. Or maybe I’m just repressing my penis envy and Electra complex.

Do you recognize any of these defense mechanisms as ones that you use yourself?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

21 thoughts on “What is… a Defense Mechanism”

  1. I love me some Freud! I may not understand it all correctly but I do enjoy his theories very much. As for the defense mechanisms, I use them all. Not all in a pathological way and not all at once. For me, I understand the Eros and the Thanatos as the life-drift and the death drift. And sex falls under the Eros.
    I believe very much in sublimation, I think my will to create is my strongest point, that is able to fight down its opponent. Although something went wrong along the way as the Eros diminished and the other one has a bigger playground now.
    Regression, yes, I do that. I remember once we went for a hot chocolate in a very famous bar. They had the best hot chocolate in the whole country, it was also not cheap. We went on a cold winter evening. I was all dolled up and after waiting in line for this ‘specialty’ I trip and the chocolate fell on the floor. That was bad. But then I started to cry in the middle of the bar! So yes, my ‘inner child’ was strong there 😄 ah yes, I was 25 at the time.

    1. I don’t think that inner child ever goes away. And yes, Freud is certainly quite the character. Imagine how fascinating it would be to be a fly on the wall during one of his sessions with a client.

      1. Ha! We would know much more and understand the theory more. I once red a letter between him and a mother, asking for his help in regards to her homoseksual son. He declined with such grace and assured the lady that there was nothing wrong with her son. That was around the 1900!

  2. I have a lot of “things” in this area and I like to believe I’m pretty aware of them and why they exist. Forex, I can be very (internally) judgmental in a sour grapes way of others, when in fact I’m really just envious. Like if I see a PDA couple I’ll think eww they’re just publicly overcompensating for their shitty home life. But they might have a fabulous home life! Etc.

  3. A lot of my recurring dreams seem clearly related to repression, but I tend to be quite a skeptical person. A therapist I saw briefly was asking me about my dreams, insisting that all dreams have meaning. I said “Really? One time, I dreamt that my mom bought me some socks. What does that mean?” A little too snarky, perhaps.
    I like to say my most prominent defense mechanism is humor. If I don’t laugh, I’ll cry, and I really hate crying in front of people.

  4. Excellent post, Ashley. Definitely, coped with Denial for many years. Regression today. Aging, as you’ve suggested. Avoidance of conflict. A general passivity is probably not the best defence mechanism.

  5. Love your “what is” series so much! Is it weird that I recognize every single one of these defense mechanisms as things that I do?? Some resonate a lot more than others, but I do all of these to a degree.

  6. I have done a few of these. I do experience denial and taking my feelings out on others. I also will attempt pushing people away. I often times feel like going back to harming myself. It is usually the first thought that comes in my mind because it’s what I know that works. I thankfully have been good not to.

    The last thing you said about sex is something I haven’t heard of before. It isn’t always on my mind and not what I would turn to.

  7. These are all so interesting. I am not surprised most of us need to find some ways to protect ourselves in what can be a harsh world at times.

    I have a very close friend who is very special to me. We spent a lot of time together as teenagers when she and her siblings were involved in a court case. Two people (formerly “friends” of their family) were sent to prison for the acts of sexual abuse they committed towards my friend and her siblings.

    In her twenties, she developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Almost everyone ascribed this to the level of stress she had been under for years in connection with that abuse and the court case.

    I spent time with her and her husband. What a beautiful creature she was. Her personality was so fascinating. I always felt I wanted to protect her from anything else the world would throw at her.

    One day we nipped into the supermarket and when we went to pay for the shopping we headed to the checkouts where there were two banks of cashiers back to back (four cahiers in total, facing different directions. There seemed to be four separate queues. We wandered to what we believed was the back of one of the queues. Next moment a woman started screaming at my friend swearing at her for pushing in front of her. I could not believe my eyes! My poor friend just froze.

    I intervened and apologised to the lady saying we had not realized and asking her to go ahead of us. But she continued to rant at the other customers in the queue in front telling them how rude we were.

    When we face that kind of situation, I can imagine most of us would unconsciously display one of strategies you mentioned just to protect ourselves from being belittled in such an unbalanced manner.

    I don’t think much of that has anything to do with sex in all honesty. But I wouldn’t want to argue with anyone about Freud.

    1. I think anytime we’re faced with acutely stressful situations we’re bound to fall back on unconscious mechanisms because it happens too fast to put together another response.

  8. I missed this on Friday because WordPress unfollowed me. I repress a lot. I think I’m a very repressed person. There’s a LOT of repressed anger, repressed sexuality, repressed hatred and maybe more because I don’t allow myself to feel these things because I find them too dangerous. I probably used academic work as displacement activity for many years until I got too depressed to work at all. I used to be a workaholic; now, I feel I can’t function much of the time. I’ve probably been in denial in the past and certainly I regress when very stressed. And I rationalise a lot of stuff that seems logical to me, but not to other people. That’s partly autistic rigidity.

    It’s easy to mock Freud, but I think he had some interesting ideas even if they don’t all stand up to modern scrutiny and are rarely falsifiable in a Popperian sense. And he took the mind, and talking therapy, seriously when many people did not.

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