As a therapist, you will often find yourself in situations when your client is displaying adaptive and maladaptive behaviors, perceptions, and thoughts in response to distress.
These are known as defensive mechanisms. They’re a set of behaviors that your client has learned to rely on in times of stress.
Your goal is to identify these mechanisms and to understand how the client is using them.
Although Sigmund Freud never produced a comprehensive list of defense mechanisms, they are well documented in psychology.
In this post, you’ll learn more about the different types of defense mechanisms.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with a detailed insight into positive CBT and give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.
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Defense Mechanisms in Psychology: Freud’s Theory
Freud argued that the mind was made up of three components: the id, ego, and superego (Rennison, 2015).
- The id houses basic needs, impulses, and desires. Simply, the id acts as a hedonistic pleasure center whose primary goal is to satisfy basic needs and drives.
- The ego is responsible for how we react to, function in, and make sense of the external world. The ego controls the demands of impulses of the id and is home to our consciousness.
- The superego houses all the rules that we have learned throughout our life and uses these to control the ego. The superego is also home to the expectations of the ego: the way we should behave and think.
Ideally, the id, ego, and superego interact in concert and harmoniously. However, each component can cause anxiety within an individual.
Sigmund Freud argued that when placed in a psychologically dangerous or threatening situation, the patient was likely to resort to defense mechanisms for protection. In a psychoanalytic context, a dangerous threat is something that challenges the patient’s self-concept or self-esteem (Baumeister, Dale, & Sommer, 1998).
Initially, Freud argued that these threats were basic drives (specifically sexual and aggressive drives) that were at odds with the ego (Baumeister et al., 1998); for example, feeling sexually attracted to one’s child.
Freud later refined his theory by shifting the focus toward self-esteem preservation. Specifically, he posited that when the patient’s self-esteem and self-image were challenged or threatened, they would rely on certain cognitive or mental strategies to protect their self-esteem (Baumeister et al., 1998).
To preserve their self-esteem, the client develops defense mechanisms (Baumeister et al., 1998). Defense mechanisms may be employed unconsciously, with the client unaware that they are using them or why.
The presence of a defense mechanism, however, implies that the client’s self-esteem and self-concept feel threatened and need protecting.
Defense mechanisms can include:
In the next section, we will explore some defense mechanisms clients might use.
If a client’s traits threaten their self-concept, then the client may:
- Fail to recognize that they possess these traits
- See these same threatening traits in other people
This is known as projection (Baumeister et al., 1998). By not acknowledging threatening traits in themselves, and seeing them in other people instead, the client can protect their self-concept.
The therapist suggests to the client, Amelia, that she fails to acknowledge her partner’s feelings in an argument. Amelia believes she is a very empathetic person, and she thinks she is very responsive to her partner’s feelings.
In response, Amelia argues that it is not her, but her partner who fails to acknowledge Amelia’s feelings. Amelia’s self-concept is threatened by having to recognize these behaviors in herself, and therefore she projects these traits onto her partner instead.
When a client displays displacement, they are changing or displacing the original target of a particular impulse to another similar target (Baumeister et al., 1998).
The displacement occurs because the response to the initial target is considered unacceptable or impossible, so a more suitable target is found. The displaced impulse might be very intense toward the original target, but more subdued toward the alternative target. Freud argued that displacement was commonly used in dreaming (Rennison, 2015).
Aidan experiences intense rage and hatred toward his mother; however, he cannot act on these impulses. Instead, he displaces his feelings about his mother onto other people whom he associates with her. He might show hostile behavior toward other women who embody the same characteristics and behaviors as his mother.
When clients experience or think things that may be threatening, they may choose to repress them instead.
By repressing a memory, feeling, or thought, these things are no longer accessible in the client’s consciousness (Cramer, 1991, 2006). These things do not cease to exist and may be represented in dreams and thoughts by other things, people, or objects.
Although often contrasted as the unconscious variant of suppression, Erdelyi (2006) argues that Freud used repression and suppression interchangeably and considered repression to fall on an unconscious–conscious continuum.
Jacob cannot remember certain painful memories as a child. To protect himself, he unconsciously represses these memories from his consciousness. Instead, he displays anxious behaviors toward other items that he associates with these original painful memories.
Denial refers to the client’s refusal to acknowledge certain facts about a particular situation (Baumeister et al., 1998) or denial of the existence of specific feelings, thoughts, or even perceptions (Cramer, 1991, 2006).
By not acknowledging the facts, the client is protected from a particular state of the world and its consequences – or even from themselves – and how these impact the client.
Ahmed has received various negative job evaluations about his inability to communicate empathetically with clients. Since Ahmed believes he communicates very effectively, he dismisses these negative evaluations using several arguments.
He argues that his manager is wrong, his manager is jealous, that he was stressed that one day with the client, that the client was unclear, and that the other client was hostile.
All of these denials help protect Ahmed from having to incorporate the negative feedback into his self-concept and accept that he is less empathetic than he originally thought.
Introjection is similar to identification (Cramer, 1991, 2006).
With identification, a highly valued external object is regarded as separate from the client; however, with introjection, the boundary between the client and the external object is blurred.
The client identifies key behaviors, thoughts, and characteristics of important people in their life and forms an internal representation of these individuals. Henry, Schacht, and Strupp (1990) argue that these internal representations mirror the behaviors, feelings, and thoughts of these people and play a key role in developing the client’s self-concept.
Agatha experiences introjection related to her highly critical mother as the internal voice that continuously criticizes and berates her. As a result, Agatha has developed low self-esteem and often runs herself down.
While in therapy, Agatha’s therapist pushes back against Agatha’s opinion, and Agatha experiences this as criticism that confirms her opinion of herself.
Undoing refers to a behavior when individuals ruminate on previous events, replaying and reimagining them as a way to change what happened and, as a result, help protect against certain feelings or behaviors (Baumeister et al., 1998).
Since the particular event has already happened, there is nothing that can be done to change that particular outcome; instead, the replaying of the events allows the individual to protect themselves from certain feelings.
Jayme recently argued with a customer, lost his temper, and consequently lost that customer’s contract. He is very angry about the outcome. He relives this argument, ruminating on how he should have responded, and imagines delivering a precise retort and embarrassing the client.
The reimagining doesn’t change the scenario, but it makes him feel like he was better equipped to deal with the argument.
Compensation refers to the client’s attempt to make up for what they consider to be their flaws or shortcomings or for dissatisfaction in one domain of their lives (Hentschel, Smith, Draguns, & Ehlers, 2004).
These compensations can be very extreme; the flaws or shortcomings might be real or imaginary, psychological or physical. When the compensatory response is excessive compared to the shortcoming, then it is typically described as overcompensation.
Jeffrey is bullied at school by the other boys because of his slim build. In response, Jeffrey exercises regularly. He undertakes an intense exercise program, drinks protein shakes, and is very diligent in his strength training.
He obtains the desired result. He puts on a great deal of muscle mass, and his body changes. In this instance, Jeffrey is compensating for what he considers to be a physical flaw through strength training.
Splitting refers to the mechanism where individuals are considered either only good or only bad, but never a mix of both. Splitting can be applied to oneself or other people.
It is hypothesized that as a defense mechanism, splitting happens in childhood and is typically associated with poor development of the self (Gould, Prentice, & Ainslie, 1996).
Although young children typically hold polarized beliefs about themselves and other people, they integrate negative and positive beliefs and representations as they get older. However, if the child is continually exposed to negative situations, then this integration is interrupted and becomes the default mechanism through which they view and understand the world.
The assignment of a positive or negative evaluation to oneself or others is not stable; it changes in response to how the client’s needs are satisfied.
Therefore, in situations when the client’s need is being met, the external party is ‘good.’ When the client’s needs are frustrated, then the external party is ‘bad,’ and only negative attributes are assigned to them. As a result, clients who have developed a splitting mechanism tend to have unstable interpersonal relationships.
When Cary receives the help and favors that she asks for, she describes the people who satisfy these needs in very positive terms. They’re extremely helpful, loving, and patient, and in response, she shows them love and affection.
One day, she asks her friend to help her financially, but her friend is unable to assist. In response, Cary becomes extremely upset, and she turns against this friend, describing her as “unreliable,” “good for nothing,” and “selfish.”
Her therapist tries to point out that Cary’s friend has helped in the past, but Cary refuses to acknowledge this and continues to harbor resentment toward her friend. A few weeks later, when Cary asks for help again, this same friend offers to lend a hand. Cary flips her opinion and now embraces this friend wholeheartedly.
Because of Cary’s unstable attitude toward her friend and inability to consider that her friend can have good and bad qualities, her friendships are very tenuous and often characterized by unrealistic expectations and conflict.
Unlike repression, which is an unconscious attempt to prevent memories and thoughts from entering consciousness, suppression is the conscious effort to avoid certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, or to keep them out of consciousness.
This distinction was first introduced by Anna Freud (Erdelyi, 2006). By suppressing thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and memories from consciousness, the client is protected from experiencing emotional and psychological distress.
During the therapy session, Amy refuses to recall her feelings toward her late husband. She actively works against these memories through a variety of techniques (e.g., ignoring them, changing the topic, or just refusing). When pushed, she tells her therapist that quite simply, she ‘cannot go there.’
Conversion is characterized by the transformation of psychological pain or distress into physiological impairment, typically of sensory or motor symptoms such as blindness, paralysis, seizures, etc. (Sundbom, Binzer, & Kullgren, 1999).
The physiological symptoms and experiences are idiopathic (i.e., without origin) and cannot be explained by another disease process. The DSM-V recognizes conversion as a disorder, although there is debate about its classification and taxonomy (Brown, Cardeña, Nijenhuis, Sar, & van der Hart, 2007).
Awongiwe has experienced extreme trauma and distress while relocating. A few days later, Awongiwe wakes up to find that she is blind.
Neurological and ophthalmological examinations show that her eyes are healthy, her optic nerve is intact, yet Awongiwe continues to present with blindness. In this case, her blindness has developed in response to her extreme stress.
Dissociation refers to the experience where the client experiences a short-lived gap in consciousness in response to anxiety and stress.
By not ‘experiencing’ a particularly stressful period and subsequently integrating it into their consciousness, the client is protected from harmful experiences.
Katherine is recalling an especially traumatic experience to her therapist. While recalling the experience, Katherine feels overwhelmingly exhausted and cannot control her yawning.
These feelings of exhaustion quickly intensify, and she struggles immensely not to fall asleep. Her exhaustion is a sign of dissociation, and her mind is trying to protect her from re-experiencing the traumatic experience.
Isolation is defined as the act of creating a mental or cognitive barrier around threatening thoughts and feelings, isolating them from other cognitive processes (Baumeister et al., 1998).
By isolating these threats, it is difficult for mental associations to be formed between threatening thoughts and other thoughts. Isolation is clear when the client doesn’t complete a thought, trailing off and changing the topic instead. Isolation is evidenced by the silent ellipse that follows a trailing thought.
During her session, Emily is describing an argument with her husband and is about to describe a thought that she remembers thinking during the argument.
The thought that she was about to recall is unlike the thoughts and feelings that Emily believes she typically feels toward her husband, and it does not fit in her self-concept of a loving wife.
As she is about to recall the thought, she pauses, leaving the sentence unfinished, and describes a different aspect of the argument instead.
In response to stress or distress, clients display age-inappropriate behavior; that is, they regress or move back to an early developmental stage and adopt immature patterns of behavior and emotions (Costa, 2020; Hentschel et al., 2004).
In response to the news that his parents are getting divorced, Gary has displayed behavior that is more typical of younger children.
When frustrated, he screams and bites, kicks and hits his parents, and has started wetting the bed.
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
At PositivePsychology.com, you’ll find several very useful tools to help your client better cope with stressful situations. Here is a list of three recommended tools.
To help your client better understand the type of coping mechanisms that they rely on, we recommend the Explore Coping Modes tool. This tool teaches clients how to:
the behaviors and cognitive processes that they currently use when they feel stressed.
With the Schema Therapy Flash Card, you and your client can ‘summarize’ their behavior. With these flashcards, your client will learn bite-sized morsels of wisdom that can help them respond more healthily to any maladaptive behaviors and thought processes. Furthermore, these cards are easy to carry, so your client can rely on them in distressing situations.
If your client relies on avoidant behaviors, we recommend that you use the Conquering Avoidant Tendencies worksheet. In this worksheet, you will work with your client to help identify the source of their anxiety, which is what they are trying to avoid, and learn how they can approach this source in a manageable way by focusing on smaller steps.
This task can be used in multiple situations, and once your client is familiar with it, they can apply it at home on their own.
A Take-Home Message
Human behavior is complex, and often our behavior is not as simple as it appears. We say one thing, but actually, we mean another. Or, we think one thing when we were motivated by something else.
One of the many challenges of being a therapist is exploring and understanding the nuanced complexities of a client’s behavior. In some instances, you may even find yourself participating in your client’s defense mechanisms.
One of your tasks is to always be aware of how complex behavior is, specifically, how your client’s defense mechanisms, and your behavior in response, actively or passively influence their behaviors.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.
- Baumeister, R. F., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. L. (1998). Freudian defense mechanisms and empirical findings in modern social psychology: Reaction formation, projection, displacement, undoing, isolation, sublimation, and denial. Journal of Personality, 66(6), 1081–1124.
- Brown, R. J., Cardeña, E., Nijenhuis, E., Sar, V., & van der Hart, O. (2007). Should conversion disorder be reclassified as a dissociative disorder in DSM–V? Psychosomatics, 48(5), 369–378.
- Costa, R. M. (2020). Regression (defense mechanism). In V. Zeigler-Hill & T. K. Shackelford (Eds.), Encyclopedia of personality and individual differences (pp. 4346–4348). Springer.
- Cramer, P. (1991). The development of defense mechanisms: Theory, research, and assessment. Springer Science & Business Media.
- Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the self: Defense mechanisms in action. Guilford Press.
- Erdelyi, M. H. (2006). The unified theory of repression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29(5), 499–511.
- Gould, J. R., Prentice, N. M., & Ainslie, R. C. (1996). The Splitting Index: Construction of a scale measuring the defense mechanism of splitting. Journal of Personality Assessment, 66(2), 414–430.
- Henry, W. P., Schacht, T. E., & Strupp, H. H. (1990). Patient and therapist introject, interpersonal process, and differential psychotherapy outcome. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 58(6), 768.
- Hentschel, U., Smith, G., Draguns, J. G., & Ehlers, W. (Eds.). (2004). Defense mechanisms: Theoretical, research and clinical perspectives. Elsevier.
- Rennison, N. (2015). Freud and psychoanalysis: everything you need to know about id, ego, super-ego and more. Oldcastle Books.
- Sundbom, E., Binzer, M., & Kullgren, G. (1999). Psychological defense strategies according to the Defense Mechanism Test among patients with severe conversion disorder. Psychotherapy Research, 9(2), 184–198.