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Which Defense Mechanisms Do You Use?

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

When my parents got divorced is when I started using humour as a defense mechanism” -Chandler Bing

All F.R.I.E.N.D.S fans are familiar and quite fond of the character Chandler Bing, who is famous for his use of fluent sarcasm and humour. Though Chandler has numerous popular dialogues, in the above mentioned dialogue Chandler explicitly speaks about using defense mechanisms. In this article I will be telling you more about defense mechanisms and how in some way or the other we all tend to use them in our daily lives.

Sigmund Freud, a renowned psychoanalyst from the 19th century popularized the concepts of the unconscious mind and defense mechanisms among others. According to Freud, the mind was divided into three levels – conscious, pre-conscious and unconscious. He compared the mind to an iceberg.

  • Freud described the conscious mind, which consists of all the mental processes of which we are aware, and this is seen as the tip of the iceberg (which is visible above the water)

  • The preconscious mind contains thoughts and feelings that a person is not currently aware of, but which can easily be brought to consciousness. It exists just below the level of consciousness, (underwater) before the unconscious mind. For example, you are presently not thinking about your mobile telephone number, but now that it is mentioned you can recall it with ease. Mild emotional experiences may be in the preconscious but sometimes traumatic and powerful negative emotions are repressed and hence not available in the preconscious.

  • The unconscious mind comprises mental processes and memories that are inaccessible to consciousness but indirectly influence judgments, feelings, or behaviour. While we are fully aware of what is going on in the conscious mind, we have no idea of what information is stored in the unconscious mind. It is compared to the lower part of the ice berg which is submerged deep underwater and cannot be seen. Freud found that some events and desires were often too frightening or painful for his patients to acknowledge, and believed that such information was locked away in the unconscious mind. Hence, the unconscious contains all sorts of significant and disturbing material which we need to keep out of our conscious awareness because they are too threatening to acknowledge fully.

According to Freud, the mind can also be classified into the Id, Ego and Superego.

The id part of the mind focuses on attaining pleasure by fulfilling our sexual and aggressive drives. It also consists of hidden memories.

The superego part of the mind focuses on morals, values and rules that society has set for us which basically tend to inhibit us to fulfil our desires of the id.

Ego is the rational part of the mind which tries to balance the desires of the Id and the morals of the Superego. In trying to balance the id and the superego the ego faces a lot of conflicts and anxiety.

Freud believed that in order to deal with these conflicts between the id and the superego, the ego uses a range of defense mechanisms. In simple words, defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.They operate at an unconscious level and help ward off unpleasant feelings (i.e., anxiety) or make good things feel better for the individual. Defense mechanisms are natural and normal. However, when they get out of proportion (i.e., used with frequency), neuroses such as anxiety states, phobias, obsessions, or hysteria may develop.

Given below are few of the major defense mechanisms with examples. As you read through, try to introspect and identify which defense mechanisms you tend to use in your life.

  • Projection – It involves individuals attributing their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, motives and behaviour to another person. It can be a way of avoiding unwanted thoughts or avoiding responsibility for a particular behaviour. For example, a person who realizes that they are being aggressive during an argument may accuse the other person of aggression. This deflects criticism away from themselves and onto the other person. Projection can be harmful, as it may stop someone from accepting and taking responsibility for their own thoughts or behaviours.

  • Repression – Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses. The key to repression is that people do it unconsciously, so they often have very little control over it. Repression could help explain the root of certain phobias. For example, some unexplained phobias may stem from traumatic childhood experiences that the person has since repressed. ‘Repressed memories’ are memories that have been unconsciously blocked from access or view. They may influence behaviours, and they may impact future relationships even though the person may not realize the impact this defense mechanism is having. Suppression is similar to repression, but suppression is a conscious process, it involves deliberately avoiding certain thoughts or memories and actively trying to forget them.

  • Displacement - Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts feelings and impulses directed at one person or object, but taken out upon another person or object. People often use displacement when they cannot express their negative feelings in a safe manner to the person they are directed at. A classic example is the man who gets angry at his boss, but can’t express his anger to his boss for fear of being fired. He instead comes home and shouts at his kid or starts an argument with his wife. The man is redirecting his anger from his boss to his child or wife. Naturally, this is a pretty ineffective defense mechanism, because while the anger finds a route for expression, it’s misapplication to other harmless people or objects will cause additional problems for most people.

  • Regression -Some people who feel threatened or anxious may unconsciously ‘escape’ to an earlier stage of development. This type of defense mechanism may be most obvious in young children. If they experience trauma or loss, they may suddenly act as if they’re younger again. They may even begin wetting the bed or sucking their thumb. Adults can regress, too. Adults who are struggling to cope with events or behaviours may return to sleeping with a cherished stuffed animal, overeat foods they find comforting, or begin chain smoking or chewing on pencils or pens etc. An adult may regress when under a great deal of stress, refusing to leave their bed and engage in normal, everyday activities. They may also avoid everyday activities because they feel overwhelming.

  • Rationalization -Rationalization is putting something into a different light or offering a different explanation for one’s perceptions or behaviours in the face of a changing reality. This allows people to feel comfortable with the choice they made, even if they know on another level that it’s not right. For instance, a woman who starts dating a man she really likes and thinks the world of him, and is suddenly dumped by the man for no reason. She re-imagines the situation in her mind with the thoughts, ‘I suspected he was a loser all along.’ or that ‘He wasn’t that good for me any way.’ In reality, these re-imagined situations are to make herself comfortable with her own self-perception and to reassure herself that he wasn’t that important in her life.

  • Denial - Denial is one of the most common and widely known defense mechanisms. It occurs when you refuse to accept reality or facts. You block external events or circumstances from your mind so that you don’t have to deal with the emotional impact. In other words, you avoid the painful feelings or events. The phrase, ‘They’re in denial’ is commonly understood to mean a person is avoiding reality despite what may be obvious to people around them. Denial can stop a person from dealing with situations that require their attention. For instance, a person who is a functioning alcoholic will often simply deny they have a drinking problem, pointing to how well they function in their job and relationships.

  • Reaction Formation - Reaction Formation is the converting of unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings or impulses into their opposites. For example, a person may experience normal feelings of sadness or disappointment after a relationship breaks down. If they feel that these emotions are unacceptable, they may publicly act as if they are happy or unconcerned.

  • Intellectualization - Intellectualization involves a person using reason and logic to avoid uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking emotions. Intellectualization can be a useful way of explaining and understanding negative events. For example, a person who has just been given a terminal medical diagnosis, instead of expressing their sadness and grief, focuses instead on the details of all possible fruitless medical procedures. Intellectualization can cause people to downplay the importance of their own feelings and focus instead on treating all difficult situations as problems that need to be solved. This can stop a person from learning how to deal with their own difficult emotions.

  • Distortion - Distortion involves a person believing something to be true when it is not. In some cases, distortion can protect a person from the uncomfortable reality of a situation. For example, a person may believe that they failed a test because of difficult questions, not because they did not prepare fully. In other cases, distortion can convince a person that a situation is worse than it actually is. For example, a person may only see the negative in a situation and ignore the positive. Distorted thinking is a common feature of anxiety and depression. It is also common among people with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). People with the above conditions often have a distorted perception of their own body image.

  • Sublimation - This type of defense mechanism is considered a positive strategy. Sublimation is simply the channeling of unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones. Refocusing unacceptable or harmful impulses into productive use helps a person channel energy that otherwise would be lost or used in a manner that might cause the person more anxiety. Sublimation can also be done with humor or fantasy. – - Humor, when used as a defense mechanism, is the channeling of unacceptable impulses or thoughts into a light-hearted story or joke. Humor reduces the intensity of a situation, and places a cushion of laughter between the person and the impulses. Chandler Bing’s example as mentioned in the beginning of the article uses sublimation in the form of humour as a defense mechanism. - When fantasy is used as a defense mechanism, it is the channeling of unacceptable or unattainable desires into imagination. For example, imagining one’s ultimate career goals can be helpful when one experiences temporary setbacks in academic achievement. Both, humour and fantasy can help a person look at a situation in a different way, or focus on aspects of the situation not previously explored.

Besides these, there are numerous other defense mechanisms too. I hope that, while reading you might have been able to relate at least some aspects of your behaviour and experiences to one or more defense mechanisms. If you did, then please feel free to comment below / DM us on our Instagram page or mail us at and share your experiences.

- Nishita Vaswani


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