Life is not easy or fair, and as regardless of how much we try, we can’t completely avoid going through tough or negative situations in life – being fired from your job, losing someone close to you, being rejected by someone you are in love with, having an argument with your significant other, being framed for something you didn’t do, and so on.

These situations lead to unpleasant thoughts, memories and feelings that can be difficult to deal with.

To help us deal with these unpleasant thoughts, memories and feelings, our minds trigger unconscious, psychological protective measures known as defense mechanisms.

WHAT ARE DEFENSE MECHANISMS?

Defense mechanisms are a psychological reaction that allows people to distance themselves from a full awareness of thoughts, memories, behaviors and feelings that are too difficult or too unpleasant for the conscious mind to deal with. Our mind is designed to protect itself from painful events, experiences and people.

Defense mechanisms therefore act as the mind’s sieve, filtering out events and experiences that the mind considers to be painful and unpleasant and allowing in experiences and events that the mind prefers. In so doing, the mind can end up creating an alternate reality.

The term defense mechanisms was popularized by Sigmund Freud. The Austrian neurologist and the father of psychoanalysis, in his theory of personality, introduced the idea that the human personality (psyche) is made up of three aspects: the id, the ego and the super ego.

Freud defined the id as the instinctive and primitive part of our personality. The id is impulsive and unconscious. It is driven by the pleasure principle, seeking to fulfill our instinctive needs, desires and impulses.

The id wants the immediate satisfaction of its desires with no regards to consequences of our actions, morality, social appropriateness or even reality. It is selfish, irrational, illogical, and fantasy oriented.

The second part of our psyche is the ego. The ego is essentially a part of the id that has been modified due to the influence of the external environment. The aim of the ego is to ensure that the desires and demands of the id are met in a safe and socially acceptable way.

The ego is the decision making aspect of our personality. It is logical and reasonable. It operates on the reality principle, acting as a mediator between the unrealistic demands of the id and the external, real world.

The ego has no sense of right or wrong. It simply aims to find the most realistic way of finding pleasure without any harm to itself or the id.

The final aspect of our personality is the superego. The aim of the superego is to ensure that the rules of morality are followed by the ego. It contains our morals and values. The superego works on the morality principle and encourages us to behave in a socially acceptable and responsible manner.

It tries to control the impulses of the id and urges the ego to follow moralistic goals rather than simply seeking gratification.

Sometimes, the demands of the id and the superego are incompatible with each other and with reality, leading to anxiety, an unpleasant condition that people intrinsically try to avoid. Anxiety is a signal to the ego that everything is not right. In this situations, the ego triggers defense mechanisms to shield it from the conflict between the id and the superego.

In most cases, the use of defense mechanisms is unconscious. We don’t even realize that a defense mechanism has been triggered by our ego. In the short term, many defense mechanisms are helpful.

They keep us from dwelling on unpleasant thoughts. They keep us in a better state and prevent us from taking actions that are potentially damaging. Sometimes, however, when defense mechanisms are used too frequently, they can become a disadvantage, reducing our ability to properly process emotions.

In extreme cases, frequent use of defense mechanisms can lead to neuroses, such as hysteria, obsessions, phobias and anxiety states. Therefore, it is important to become aware of your defense mechanisms and how you are using them.

This makes it easier for you to understand whether they are helping or leading to more problems. Below are 20 common defense mechanisms that people typically use to deal with anxiety.

1. Displacement

Displacement occurs when the thoughts and feelings caused by your frustration with one person or object are directed to another person or object that had nothing to do with your frustration. Examples of displacement are abundant in day to day life.

A husband who has had a bad day at work goes home and takes out his frustration on his wife and kids. A child who has been spanked for misbehavior goes out and kicks the dog to let out his anger.

Displacement often occurs when a person feels that they cannot safely express their anger to the person or object behind their frustration, so they take it out on an innocent, non-threatening person or object. While displacement helps one express their anger, it often creates additional problems since it hurts an innocent person.

2. Denial

Denial occurs when someone refuses to accept reality, when the reality is too painful to handle. The person acts as if something has not happened, or as if a thought, feeling or fact does not exist. By denying something that has happened, you mind is trying to avoid having to deal with reality since it is too painful or too much to handle.

One of the best examples of denial is addiction. People with a drug or alcohol addiction often deny having the problem, because they don’t want to have to deal with the problem. While denial helps people deal with pain in the short term, remaining in denial for too long has negative ramifications since it keeps you from making any positive change.

3. Regression

When faced with stressful situations, some people revert to patterns of behavior that they used in earlier stages of development. They start behaving in a childish manner and revert to behaviors that are less demanding, rather than taking action to deal with the situation at hand.

For instance, some people might cry and become sulky. Others might refuse to engage in everyday activities and opt to stay in bed the whole day, brooding over the situation. Their mind takes them back to a time when they didn’t have to deal with any serious situations.

The problem with regression as a defense mechanism is that the childish behavior can become self-destructive, leading to even more problems.

4. Acting Out

This is a type of defense mechanism where a person decides to engage in extreme behavior to cope with stress since they feel they have no other way of expressing their anger and frustration. The extreme behavior acts as a channel for them to release their pressure, and they feel calmer and relieved after displaying the extreme behavior.

For instance, a person might punch his television because his team lost a football match. The person is angry with this team or a certain player, but he has no way of expressing his anger to the player, so he punches the TV to release his pressure.

Children throwing tantrums is another example of acting out. Since the child cannot effectively express their anger against a parent or older sibling, they throw a tantrum to let off their anger.

5. Dissociation

Dissociation occurs when a person going through a stressful moment temporarily loses their connection to the world around them. The person loses track of time and their person. They feel like they are watching themselves on a movie, or as though they exist in another realm.

In this dreamlike state, the person feels like the stressful situation they are going through belongs to another person, while they are mere observers. Dissociation is common in children who go through some extreme form of child abuse. In extreme cases, the use of dissociation as a coping mechanism can lead to multiple personality disorder.

6. Compartmentalization

This defense mechanism is a milder form of dissociation. Unlike dissociation where a person is separated from the entire world around them, only some parts of a person’s are separated from reality when it comes to compartmentalization.

Compartmentalization occurs when a person simultaneously has two or more conflicting internal standpoints. Normally, holding two conflicting beliefs or values simultaneously leads to cognitive dissonance. Compartmentalization allows such conflicting values to be held at the same time without creating any cognitive dissonance.

For example, a person might be very corrupt at work, but very honest at home. These are two conflicting values, so his mind separates his work self from his family self to avoid cognitive dissonance.

7. Projection

This defense mechanism occurs where we attribute undesired thoughts, feelings and impulses about ourselves to other people to other people who do not have the same feelings, thoughts and impulses. Projection occurs in situations where acknowledging certain undesired feelings in ourselves would lead to pain and suffering.

By ascribing the feelings to another person, we are able to express the feeling in a way that does not hurt our ego, thereby preventing anxiety. For example, if you dislike someone, you might find yourself believing that it is the person that does not like you.

The problem with using projection as a defense mechanism is that it keeps us from dealing with the root cause of the problem. In addition, projection can lead to paranoia, which in turn increases your anxiety.

8. Reaction Formation

This is a defense mechanism where a person who is unable to express undesired thoughts, feelings or impulses copes with the situation by adopting opposite thoughts, feelings or impulses. Acting in the opposite manner is a defense mechanism that allows the person to hide their true feelings.

For instance, someone who strongly dislikes you might act in an extremely friendly manner towards you. The person might regard you in a way that makes it hard for them to express their true feelings towards you, so they act overly friendly to you to publicly demonstrate that they have no negative feelings towards you.

9. Repression

Repression occurs when a person unconsciously blocks any thoughts, feelings and impulses that are painful or too difficult to handle. Unlike denial, where a person refuses to accept that something has happened, the repression defense mechanism acknowledges that something painful has happened, but then keeps the memory of the event in a place where it cannot be accessed.

It is like erasing the memory from your mind. Repressed memories cannot be consciously accessed, but because they are still in your subconscious mind, these memories continue influencing your behavior. Repression is particularly common with traumatic experiences that happened during early development.

For instance, a child who was bitten by a dog might never remember being bitten by a dog, yet they might be afraid of dogs even in their adulthood, without knowing the reason behind the fear.

10. Intellectualization

This is a defense mechanism where a person reduces their anxiety by getting rid of all emotional responses to a situation, opting instead to think about the situation in a cold and clinical way. Thinking about the situation logically allows the person to distance themselves from the painful emotions associated with the situation.

For instance, being diagnosed with a terminal illness can lead to painful emotions and a lot of anxiety. To avoid the pain and anxiety, the person might distance themselves from the emotions and focus instead on learning all possible treatments to the condition and how to deal with it.

11. Rationalization

This is a very common defense mechanism where a person tries to explain an undesired feeling or behavior in a rational or logical way, while ignoring the true reasons behind the feeling or behavior. By so doing, the person absolves themselves from the blame for the behavior or feeling.

In addition to keeping anxiety at bay, rationalization may also protect a person’s self-concept and self-esteem. Examples of rationalization are abundant in day to day life. For instance, a person who has just been turned down by a romantic interest might rationalize by saying that they were not strongly attracted to the other person, or that other person was not really good looking.

This excuse keeps them from the anxiety of considering the fact that the other person might have seen something undesirable in them.

12. Undoing

This is a defense mechanism where a person who has done something they consider hurtful, inappropriate, or unacceptable unconsciously tries to ‘undo’ the impact of their actions by engaging in more positive actions. In other words, they try to make up for the damage their actions have caused.

For instance, if you unintentionally make a hurtful comment about your significant other, you might then do something nice for them in the hope that the two actions will counteract each other.

Since hurting your significant other is not something you would want to do, undoing the damage helps do away with the anxiety you feel after hurting them.

13. Sublimation

This is a defense mechanism where a person finds acceptable and productive channels of expressing their unwanted thoughts, emotions and impulses. For instance, if you are feeling angry about something, you might decide to hit the gym to release your anger on the punching bag, rather than hitting the person behind your frustration.

After a quarrel with your wife, you might decide to mow the lawn as a way to cool off. Sublimation is a good way of dealing with anxiety because it allows you to express your frustration in a way that does not cause harm to you or another person.

However, overdependence on sublimation can lead to can have negative impacts, since a person might find ways to express their frustration and avoid solving the root cause of the frustration.

14. Compensation

This occurs when a person experiences anxiety due to their perceived weaknesses, so they subconsciously emphasize on their strengths to do away with the anxiety. In other words, they overachieve in areas they are good at to compensate for areas they feel they are weak at.

For instance, a student who is not very good in class might compensate by overachieving in sports. Similarly, a person might say something like, “I may not be very good at tennis, but you sure can’t beat me at chess.” By saying this, they are trying to compensate for their low tennis skills by emphasizing their chess skills.

15. Altruism

Altruism refers to acts of disinterested and selfless goodwill towards other people. Some people use altruism as a defense mechanism. When faced with uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and impulses, they cope with these feelings by helping others going through similar feelings, but are who less capable to deal with these feelings.

Helping others deal with difficult situations makes them feel good about themselves. For instance, a recovering alcoholic might struggle with keeping sober on a day to day basis, so they deal with the situation by helping other alcoholics quit drinking. Doing so helps them to keep themselves under control and also makes them feel good about themselves.

16. Avoidance

When they realize that a situation leads to anxiety, some people might protect themselves from the anxiety by avoiding the situation altogether. For instance, a student who is feeling anxious about making a presentation in class might feign sickness in order to avoid making the presentation.

Similarly, a person who is anxious about having a difficult conversation with their significant other might prefer to avoid the conversation in order not to experience the anxiety. In most cases, avoidance is not a very effective method of dealing with anxiety since it leaves the actual problem unresolved.

17. Humor

Some people cope with stressing situations using humor, by pointing out the funny or satirical aspects of the situation. They express unpleasant or terrible thoughts and feelings in a way that makes others laugh.

By so doing, they break up the negativity or tension of the situation and force themselves and others to look at the brighter side of the unpleasant situation. A good example of using humor as a defense mechanism is self-deprecating humor.

18. Idealization

This is a defense mechanism where a person develops their own ideal impression of a situation, event, object, or person. The person chooses to focus on the positive aspects of the situation and ignores the negative aspects, leading to some sort of altered reality. Idealization prevents anxiety by influencing a person’s perception of the situation.

The perception ends up making judgments that enhance their idealized impression of the situation. For instance, people in abusive relationships often use this defense mechanism. They hold an idealized view of their partners, emphasizing their admirable qualities while ignoring their abusive behavior.

19. Identification

This is a defense mechanism where a person experiencing unpleasant thoughts, emotions and impulses adopts the behaviors and mannerisms of the source of unpleasant thoughts, emotions and impulses with the aim of appeasing them. In other words, the person tries to identify with the aggressor.

For instance, a child who fears his father might emulate his father’s behaviors with the hope that it will appease the father and therefore make the father like him.

Similarly, someone getting into a new social circle might adopt the behaviors, attitudes and mannerisms of the group with the hope that this will make the group accept him or her.

20. Self-serving bias

This occurs when the ego needs to protect itself from criticism, both from self and from others. In self-serving bias, a person tends to exaggerate the importance of their actions or achievements. This distorts the person’s reality and makes it easier for them to deal with the unpleasant feelings that result from criticism.

For instance, a colleague who failed to hit their targets at work might emphasize on everything they did and apportion the blame for the failure on somebody else or another external factor in order to avoid being criticized for the failure.

WRAPPING UP

Defense mechanisms are very important, since they help us cope with difficult or unpleasant emotions, thoughts and impulses without bringing harm to our personality, self-esteem and self-image. When overused, however, these defense mechanisms can act against us.

They make us remain stuck when we could be making progress, and in extreme cases, they can even lead to neuroses. Understanding these defense mechanisms and how your mind uses them can help you become aware of when they work against you and therefore change your behavior.

20 Common Defense Mechanisms Used for Anxiety

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