Defense Mechanisms

Perhaps the simplest defense mechanism is denial—refusing to admit something has happened. Denial, like many other defense mechanisms, is especially clear in little children. A child breaks a vase in full view of everybody and immediately exclaims, "I didn't do it!" In adults, denial is common when a person suffers the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one. A common reaction is, "It can't be true." Psychiatrists who work in Emergency Rooms of major hospitals see this reaction so often that they expect it. Another common area of denial relates to alcoholism. Alcoholics are notorious for denying they have a problem when everybody else sees it.

What is denial? How do children show it? How is rationalization distinguished from lying?

A second common defense mechanism is rationalization. Rationalization occurs when you unconsciously give yourself a false explanation of your own behavior. As Freud described it, rationalization was supposed to be an automatic self-protective reaction, carried out by the unconscious part of the ego. So rationalization is a defense mechanism in the Freudian sense when you do not realize you are lying to yourself. This distinguishes rationalization from ordinary deception, which occurs when a person knows the truth but tries to fool other people.

The defense mechanism called intellectualization occurs when a person adopts a cool, scientific attitude toward something that threatens to cause emotional upset. A friend of mine who taught gross anatomy at a medical school let me visit the classroom where he taught. Each first-year medical student had a cadaver to work on, so the room looked like a morgue. But (he explained) the students quickly learned to regard the bodies as nothing but laboratory material for dissection. Whether or not they realized it, this professional attitude probably helped them combat feelings of dread and fear.

What is projection? What are common examples of it?

Projection is a defense mechanism that occurs when people avoid a negative evaluation of themselves by seeing their own unpleasant thoughts or actions in other people. A student who cheats will tell you "everybody cheats." A man who cheats on his wife acts genuinely surprised to find out some men are faithful. Many college students experience projection in the context of a fading romance. The person who wants to end the relationship accuses the other of "acting funny" or "wanting to break up" when it is actually the person who makes the accusation who feels that way.

What is displacement, as Freud explained it?

Displacement is a defense mechanism in which libidinal energy is supposedly redirected from a desired (but unavailable) goal to a substitute. One girl found herself sleeping with a big stuffed dog—a gift from her father—after she broke up with her boyfriend. She even kissed the stuffed animal good night. When she got back with her boyfriend, the animal returned to its former location in the corner of her room. Displaced aggression is another common variety. Instead of striking a teacher who gives you a bad grade (the id's underlying impulse) one might kick a can.

What is reaction formation?

Reaction formation is an intriguing defense mechanism, if you accept Freud's logic. In reaction formation a person defends against unacceptable thoughts or impulses by converting them to their opposite on the surface. The ego thereby fortifies itself at its point of greatest weakness. Freud said reaction formation has a compulsive or excessive quality. For example, a student reported having a fistfight with his father, who he deeply resented for abandoning his mother. The student peppered his essay with statements about how much he loved his father, when it seemed he was having trouble dealing with the exact opposite emotion.

Why did Adler call sublimation "the healthy defense mechanism"?

Sublimation is a defense mechanism that Freud thought occurred when libidinal energy is channeled into socially acceptable, approved activities. Freud had a background in chemistry, where sublime means to pass from a solid to a vaporous state. The defense mechanism of sublimation causes earthy id impulses to be channeled into refined and civilized behavior. Alfred Adler called sublimation "the healthy defense mechanism" because it produced socially beneficial outcomes for humanity.

What is the goal of "undoing"?

Undoing is a ritualistic effort to undo damage and reduce guilt over some action in the past. Nobody can change the past, so the act of undoing is usually symbolic. An example of undoing occurs when a girl sends a pleasant Valentine's Day card to an ex-boyfriend with whom she broke up. The girl who sends the card feels guilty about having hurt the other person's feelings. The message is, "I am really not such a bad person." A boy who received such a card thought his ex-girlfriend was being sadistic, trying to make him hurt. But Freud would probably say her unconscious purpose was to convince herself that she was not such a bad person.

Why might isolation be hard to detect in another person?

Isolation occurs when somebody takes a problem or conflict and shuts it off in a corner of the mind, isolating it from day to day thought processes. A person who is using isolation may give no external clue to the conflict, except for a tendency not to react when you expect a reaction.

What is a conversion reaction?

A conversion reaction occurs when somebody converts psychological problems into a physical ailment. For example, a person who witnesses a horrible incident may go blind for psychological reasons, although the person's eyes are still good. See the story of Anna O. in Chapter 13 for many examples of conversion reactions. (In present day psychology this is called a somatoform disorder.)

How might Freud explain a fanatical devotion to comic books or sports teams?

Identification is a defense mechanism that occurs when a person avoids painful thoughts and emotions by identifying with some symbolic sources of strength. For example, people who are weak or have troubled lives often become fanatically devoted to comic book or science fiction heroes, soap opera characters, political parties, or favorite sports heros.

What is regression as Freud described it?

Regression occurs when a person under stress reverts to behavior characteristic of a younger age. Under severe stress, people may curl up in the fetal position like a tiny unborn baby. A less extreme form of regression occurs when adults, under stress, show childish behavior.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey