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Defense Mechanisms – Different Forms With Examples

A name well-known among most people even those from a non-psychology background is Sigmund Freud. He is known as the father of psychology. Although his theories were perceived as brazen and are not universally accepted by people due to their over-emphasis on sexual desires, he did leave behind a rich source of knowledge to extract from.

Of all his works, some of the most notable works are on the levels of consciousness, the structure of the mind, anxiety and defense mechanisms and the psychosexual development of personality. These concepts brought a whole new revolution in the field of psychology as they touched upon various aspects of the mind.

What Are Defense Mechanisms And Why Is It Important?

In simple words, defense mechanisms are coping strategies used by the unconscious mind to save itself from the debilitating anxiety experienced. For the most part, defense mechanisms are reality-distorting. Its role is to keep the matters of the unconscious mind from surfacing the conscious mind to protect itself from the harsh reality.

Levels Of Consciousness

The analogy of the Iceberg is what Freud employs to describe the levels of consciousness. He believed that the mind comprises three levels of consciousness: the conscious mind, the preconscious mind and the unconscious mind.

The conscious mind is what people use to perceive and understand the environment around them. This includes our current thoughts and sensory experiences. He believed that the conscious mind is just the tip of an iceberg.

“I hate being here”, “The weather is cozy”, “I wonder what happens if I leave the classroom right now”. These are all examples of the conscious mind as the person is aware of these thoughts and feelings.

Underneath the conscious mind lies the preconscious mind which holds access to memories which aren’t available readily yet can be retrieved when recalled.

i.e. the preconscious mind is at work when we think of certain incidents from the past.

For example, recalling the last day of school or trying to remember the information that you once read.

Much beneath the preconscious lies the biggest chunk of the mind which is the unconscious mind. This level of mind holds the most important memories and information which are extremely hard to surface. The unconscious holds access to desires, wishes, thoughts, fears, motives, needs and impulses which are considered unacceptable.

These thoughts are repressed from the conscious mind because of their offensive nature. Although such knowledge is not present at a conscious level, they are very well capable of influencing behaviors directly or indirectly.

Freud believed that many of the issues faced by his patients were nothing but matters of the unconscious disguised as different symptoms.

An example of the unconscious mind would be a woman who is attracted to her daughter’s boyfriend. This knowledge is repressed and hidden from the conscious mind but would manifest in different ways. The woman might choose to home him and fulfil his financial needs and treat him like her own son.

A human mind is a complex unit filled with intricacies. It is indispensable to know the human mind because knowledge will catalyze the process of becoming an emotionally intelligent person, enhances self-awareness, and it facilitates the overall transformation of a person.

Structure Of The Mind

Freud suggested that the human mind is made up of three parts: Id, Ego and Superego. These three parts reflect three different values and they majorly decide the behaviors of people.

1. Id:

The Id is the impulsive part of the personality which strives for immediate gratification. It has its sole objective of getting its desires and impulses fulfilled. Id is irrational and therefore doesn’t think through the consequences before taking on action. This works on the pleasure principle.

For example, a child demands to eat all the chocolates without leaving any for others.

2. Superego:

This is the part of the mind which does most of the moral policing. This works under the morality principle. It strives to elicit only those behaviors which are socially appropriate and considered acceptable in society. Superego tries to shun the demands of the id and envisions moral perfection.

For example, if the child feels that it is inappropriate to eat chocolates at all, then we know that superego is in action.

3. Ego:

The ego is the logical part of the personality which works on the reality principle. The ego is rational and acknowledges that every action comes with a set of consequences, unlike the id. This part of the mind strives to strike a balance between the unreasonable demands of the id and the stringent norms of the superego. It works on fulfilling the id’s demands while avoiding the negative consequences.

For example, if the child feels it is alright to eat a few and leave the rest for others, then it is the ego that is in function.

How Do Defense Mechanisms Resolve Anxiety And Stress

Now, what is the role of defense mechanism in this already existing chaos?

In this constant struggle between the impulses of the id and the conditions of the superego and having to juggle between the two, the ego faces a hard time. In most cases, the ego manages to tackle the situation well and comes out successfully. However, during some instances the demands of the id become too intense and threaten to unfold.

For example, Luke is a shopaholic when it comes to shoes. He has a hard time resisting the urge to buy expensive shoes, even if it means he has to borrow large sums of money for them. He feels guilty about it yet he ends up buying them every time.

In this example, Luke’s id makes an unreasonable demand to buy expensive shoes although he couldn’t afford them. Here, guilt personifies the struggle of the ego. But the efforts go all in vain every time he makes that purchase.

What Happens Next?

During this entire ordeal, to stabilize things and avoid being reprimanded for the reckless choices of the id, the ego experiences intense anxiety characterized by feelings of nervousness, fear and worry.

Anxiety is more like an alarm which prompts corrective actions to be taken. It tries to bring attention to the underlying conflict between the id and ego. Sometimes the ego manages to keep the anxiety under check and take the necessary actions.

However when the anxiety is intense and irrational, it is difficult for the ego to meet eye-to-eye with it. At this stage, the ego resorts to defense mechanisms to prevent the open expression of the id.

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are designed to keep the impulses of the id out of consciousness. These are irrational protective measures which distort reality in one way or another to help the ego balance out anxiety.

They help soothe momentary anxiety by pushing it down the unconscious rather than facing them directly. However, not every form of defense mechanism is distorting in nature.

For example, a night before an important exam Tina decided not to attend the exam because of her intense fear but she told herself that this exam wasn’t the most crucial one.

From the works of Freud, George Eman Vaillant (1977) derived five important characteristics of defense mechanisms.

  1. Defenses are unconscious.
  2. They are major means of maintaining equilibrium and managing effect.
  3. They are discrete from one another.
  4. Defenses are reversible and dynamic.
  5. They can be adaptive and pathological.

Different Forms Of Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms manifest themselves in many different ways. Some of the forms of defense mechanisms are:

  1. Denial: This is the kind of defense mechanism which leads to the denial of reality during an intense anxiety-provoking situation. An individual may witness a situation and believe it isn’t true to protect their ego from getting harmed. For example, Mila couldn’t believe the death of her mother for months together after the accident.
  2. Projection: This includes attributing one’s unacceptable behaviors and intentions to others and believing them to be the perpetrators and themselves as the victims.
    Alex bad-mouthed Greg saying that he was jealous of his good grades in math, but, he was envious of Greg for having a good social life.
  3. Regression: Regression refers to retreating to an earlier developmental stage by exhibiting immature behavior. A good example would be a woman saying she will not get up and get ready to go to the hospital because her husband came home late.
  4. Displacement: This involves redirecting an emotional response from a dangerous one to that of a less-threatening object or person. For example, a student displaces his anger onto a book by tearing out all the pages after being punished by a teacher.
  5. Rationalization: This refers to using rational explanations to cover up one’s unacceptable behaviors and motives. For example, a person saying smoking up is good because marijuana is also used for medical purposes.
  6. Sublimation: Sublimation refers to channeling repressed urges and desires onto productive and socially acceptable forms of behavior. For example, releasing pent-up anger and frustration through the form of dance and movements. This form of defense mechanism is beneficial and productive, unlike the other forms.
  7. Reaction Formation: Expressing behaviors which are downright contradictory to the emotions experienced. Such behavior is portrayed as a form of excessive concealing of unacceptable impulses. For example, having the urge to be intimate with someone yet putting up a show of being repulsed by that person.
  8. Repression: This is to prevent undesirable thoughts and desires from surfacing at a conscious level and pushing them deep down into the unconscious. For example, a woman’s occasional urge to murder her infidel husband is pushed down the unconscious and prevented from reaching the conscious mind.

A New Perspective On Defense Mechanism

George Eman Vaillant aspired to learn about the chronological, developmental and hierarchical aspects of defense mechanism. He theorized that defense mechanisms not just hold pathological aspects but also adaptive aspects to them. He consequently divided it into four levels:

  • I – Psychotic mechanisms under which came delusional projection, denial and distortion.
  • II – Immature mechanisms and comprised of projection, schizoid fantasy, hypochondriacs, passive-aggressive behavior, acting out and dissociation.
  • III – Neurotic defenses which involved isolation, intellectualization, repression, displacement and reaction formation.
  • IV – Mature mechanisms and this consists of altruism, displacement and reaction formation.


  1. Delusional Projection – attributing unacceptable thoughts, desires and emotions to another source which is not based in reality.
  2. Schizoid Fantasy – withdrawing to the self and fantasizing about situations to avoid reality and gain gratification.
  3. Hypochondriacs – a person having excessive worry about physical health even in the absence of symptoms.
  4. Intellectualization – using reason to avoid intense emotional experiences.
  5. Altruism – making up for the negative perceptions of the self by doing good deeds.

Empirical Validity And Implications Of Defense Mechanism

  • Although Freud hypothesized the whole theory it couldn’t be proven empirically, today many clinical psychologists have confirmed the existence of these mechanisms people adopt to cope with their debilitating anxiety.
  • The concept of defense mechanism slowly started diminishing as many cognitive theories of personalities started to emerge.
  • It is not widely acknowledged as it is a part of the “psychoanalytic theory” which many people do not agree with and as a result not studied among researchers in understanding its implications in mental disorders. However, the situation seems to witness a peek of dawn as this theory strongly reflects a higher scope in comprehensive applications across fields.
  • Other than cognitive psychologists, social, personality and developmental psychologists have also been able to add to its credibility.
  • The Psychoanalytic approach is one of the most extensively used methods of therapy among psychologists and this proves it credibility.
  • A systematic study conducted by researchers has been successful in proving the efficacy of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic therapy techniques.
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