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Defence mechanism

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by individuals, groups and even nations to cope with reality and to maintain self-image. Healthy persons normally use different defences throughout life. An ego defence mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected. The purpose of the Ego Defence Mechanisms is to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety, social sanctions or to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope.

They are more accurately referred to as ego defence mechanisms, and can thus be categorized as occurring when the id impulses are in conflict with each other, when the id impulses conflict with super-ego values and beliefs, and when an external threat is posed to the ego.

The term "defence mechanism" is often thought to refer to a definitive singular term for personality traits which arise due to loss or traumatic experiences, but more accurately refers to several types of reactions which were identified during and after daughter Anna Freud's time.


Structural model: The id, ego, and superego

The concept of id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model. According to this theory, id impulses are based on the pleasure principle: instant gratification of one’s own desires and needs. Sigmund Freud believed that the id represents biological instinctual impulses in ourselves, which are aggression (Thanatos or the Death instinct) and sexuality (Eros or the Life instinct). For example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sexual relations with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), the feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, the ego might use defence mechanisms.

Freud also believed that conflicts between these two structures resulted in conflicts associated with psychosexual stages.


Definitions of individual psyche structures

Freud proposed three structures of the psyche or personality:

  • Id: a selfish, primitive, childish, pleasure-oriented part of the personality with no ability to delay gratification.
  • Ego: the moderator between the id and superego which seeks compromises to pacify both.
  • Superego: internalized societal and parental standards of "good" and "bad" and "right" and "wrong" behaviour.

Primary and secondary processes

In the ego, there are two processes going on. First, there is the unconscious primary process, where the thoughts are not organized in a coherent way, the feelings can shift, contradictions are not in conflict or are just not perceived that way, and condensations arise. There is no logic and no time line. Lust is important for this process. By contrast, there is the conscious secondary process, where strong boundaries are set and thoughts must be organized in a coherent way. Most conscious thoughts originate here.

The reality principle

Id impulses are not appropriate for civilized society, so society presses us to modify the pleasure principle in favour of the reality principle; that is, the requirements of the external world.

Formation of the superego

The superego forms as the child grows and learns parental and social standards. The superego consists of two structures: the conscience, which stores information about what is "bad" and what has been punished and the ego ideal, which stores information about what is "good" and what one "should" do or be. (Interestingly, the Freudian conscience became cognitive-behavioural therapist Albert Ellis' focus.)

The ego's use of defence mechanisms

When anxiety becomes too overwhelming it is then the place of the ego to employ defence mechanisms to protect the individual. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany the feeling of anxiety. In the first definitive book on defence mechanisms, Ego and mechanisms of defence (1936), Anna Freud introduced the concept of signal anxiety; she stated that it was "not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension". The signaling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defensive action towards the perceived danger. Defence mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious blockage of these impulses.

Categorization of Defence Mechanisms

Level 1 Defence Mechanisms

The mechanisms on this level, when predominating, almost always are severely pathological. These three defences, in conjunction, permit one to effectively rearrange external reality and eliminate the need to cope with reality. The pathological users of these mechanisms frequently appear crazy or insane to others. These are the "psychotic" defences, common in overt psychosis. However, they are found in dreams and throughout childhood as healthy mechanism.

They include:

  • Denial: Refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn't exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduce anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality.
  • Distortion: A gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs.
  • Delusional Projection: Grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature.

Level 2 Defence Mechanisms

These mechanisms are often present in adults and more commonly present in adolescence. These mechanism lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by uncomfortable reality. People who excessively use such defences are seen as socially undesirable in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called "immature" defences and overuse almost always lead to serious problems in a person's ability to cope effectively. These defences are often seen in severe depression, personality disorders. In adolescence, the occurrence of all of these defences is normal.

These include:

  • Fantasy: Tendency to retreat into fantasy in order to resolve inner and outer conflicts
  • Projection: Projection is a primitive form of paranoia. Projection also reduces anxiety by allowing the expression of the undesirable impulses or desires without becoming consciously aware of them; attributing one's own unacknowledged unacceptable/unwanted thoughts and emotions to another; includes severe prejudice, severe jealousy, hypervigilance to external danger, and "injustice collecting". It is shifting one's unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses within oneself onto someone else, such that those same thoughts, feelings, beliefs and motivations as perceived as being possessed by the other.
  • Hypochondriasis: The transformation of negative feelings towards others into negative feelings toward self, pain, illness and anxiety
  • Passive aggression: Aggression towards others expressed indirectly or passively
  • Acting out: Direct expression of an unconscious wish or impulse without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives that expressive behavior.

Level 3 Defence Mechanisms

These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one's primary style of coping with the world.

These include:

  • Displacement: Defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening
  • Dissociation: Temporary drastic modification of one's personal identity or character to avoid emotional distress; separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.
  • Intellectualization: A form of isolation; concentrating on the intellectual components of a situations so as to distance oneself from the associated anxiety-provoking emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about wishes in formal, affectively bland terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects
  • Reaction Formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites; behavior that is completely the opposite of what one really wants or feels; taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety. This defence can work effectively for coping in the short term, but will eventually break down.
  • Repression: Process of pulling thoughts into the unconscious and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivete, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent
  • Sublimation: Transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behavior, or emotion; acting out unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way; refocusing of psychic energy away from negative outlets to more positive ones; sublimation is the process funneling the unacceptable into social useful achievements. Sublimation is instrumental to developing culture and civilization. Psychoanalysts often refer to sublimation as the only truly successful defence mechanism.

Level 4 Defence Mechanisms

These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered the most mature, even though many have their origins in the immature level. However, these have been adapted through the years so as to optimize success in life and relationships. The use of these defences enhances user pleasure and feelings of mastery. These defences help the users to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts while still remaining effective. Persons who use these mechanism are viewed as having virtues.

These include:

  • Altruism: Constructive service to others that brings pleasure and personal satisfaction
  • Anticipation: Realistic planning for future discomfort
  • Humour: Overt expression of ideas and feelings (especially those that are unpleasant to focus on or too terrible to talk about) that gives pleasure to others. Humour enables someone to call a spade a spade, while "wit" is a form of displacement (see above under Category 3)
  • Identification: The unconscious modelling of one's self upon another person's character and behavior
  • Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person
  • Sublimation: Transformation of negative emotions or instincts into positive actions, behavior, or emotion
  • Suppression: The conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious; the conscious decision to delay paying attention to an emotion or need in order to cope with the present reality; able to later access uncomfortable or distressing emotions and accept them

Different theories and classifications

The list of particular defence mechanisms is huge and there is no theoretical consensus on the amount of defence mechanisms. It has been attempted to classify defence mechanisms according to some of their properties (i.e. underlying mechanisms, similarities or connections with personality). Different theorists have different categorizations and conceptualizations of defence mechanisms. Large reviews of theories of defence mechanisms are available from Paulhus, Fridhandler and Hayes (1997)[1] and Cramer (1991)[2]. Also Journal of Personality (1998)[3] has a special issue on defence mechanisms.

Otto Kernberg (1967) has developed a theory of borderline personality organization (which one consequence may be borderline personality disorder). His theory is based on ego psychological object relations theory. Borderline personality organization develops when the child cannot integrate positive and negative mental objects together. Kernberg views the use of primitive defence mechanisms central to this personality organization. Primitive psychological defences are projection, denial, dissociation or splitting, and they are called borderline defence mechanisms. Also devaluation and projective identification are seen as borderline defences. [4]

In George Vaillant's (1977) categorization defences form a continuum regarding to their psychoanalytical developmental level [5]. Levels are:

  • Level I - psychotic defences (i.e. psychotic denial, delusional projection)
  • Level II - immature defences (i.e. fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out)
  • Level III - neurotic defences (i.e. intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression)
  • Level IV - mature defences (i.e. humour, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation)

Robert Plutchik's (1979) theory views defences as derivatives of basic emotions. Defence mechanisms in his theory are (in order of placement in circumplex model): reaction formation, denial, repression, regression, compensation, projection, displacement, intellectualization. [6]

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) published by American Psychiatric Association (1994) includes tentative diagnostic axis for defence mechanisms [7]. This classification is largely based on Vaillant's hierarchical view of defences, but has some modifications.


  1. ^ Paulhus, D.L., Fridhandler B., & Hayes S. (1997). Psychological defence: Contemporary theory and research. In R. Hogan, J. Johnson & S.R. Briggs (Ed.), Handbook of personality psychology (543-579). California: Academic Press.
  2. ^ Cramer, P. (1991). The Development of Defence Mechanisms: Theory, Research, and Assessment. New York, Springer-Verlag.
  3. ^ Special issue on Defence mechanisms. Journal of Personality (1998), 66(6)
  4. ^ Kernberg, O. (1967). Borderline Personality Organization. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 15:641-685
  5. ^ Vaillant, G. E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little Brown.
  6. ^ Plutchik, R., Kellerman, H., & Conte, H. R. (1979). A structural theory of ego defences and emotions. In C. E. Izard (Ed.), Emotions in personality and psychopathology (pp. 229–-257). New York: Plenum Press.
  7. ^ American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.


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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Defence_mechanism". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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