The top 10 defense mechanisms

How to spot self-defeating habits that are holding you back

Being rejected from a job you wanted. A social setting you don’t feel comfortable in. A stressful argument with your partner. Everyone experiences these negative situations in life – they’re unavoidable. However, you can learn a good deal about yourself when you examine how you react to hard times. While some of us communicate effectively and work through a situation only to come out better on the other side, others retreat into familiar defense mechanisms to make themselves feel better and avoid painful feelings.

Hiding behind your defenses feels safe in the moment, but it only keeps you stuck and unable to grow. Defense mechanisms create a false sense of comfort instead of breeding authentic self-confidence. What is a defense mechanism, and how can you learn a healthy alternative? Studying this list of defense mechanisms can help you identify the ones you might be using and provide the clarity you need to break self-defeating habits

Understanding defense mechanisms psychology

For many of us, any situation that brings uncertainty triggers an unconscious protective measure that allows us to cope with unpleasant emotions. Sometimes tapping into defense mechanisms can be useful; it helps us avoid dwelling or doing something with potentially damaging ramifications. We keep ourselves in a better state – at least in the short term.

Yet in the long run, the effect of these defense mechanisms is actually the opposite. Due to defense mechanisms psychology, when we routinely employ our defenses, it can actually reduce the effectiveness of our emotional processing. We begin to feel as if we are not in charge of our own emotions, which prevents us from working through issues. 

This is why it is key to become more cognizant of your personal tendencies so you don’t let your defense mechanisms overtake your progress in life. How do you handle stressful situations? Do you live in a state of denial when bad news comes your way? Do you find yourself constantly making excuses for your behavior? These are just a few common defense mechanism examples that can limit your progress if you aren’t aware of them. 

As you create a defense mechanism definition that resonates with you, understand that types of defense mechanisms range from shifting blame to shutting down. Though each person has their own unique defense mechanism examples, most of the mechanisms themselves are common and easy to spot.

Defense mechanism examples

Like most matters of the heart, creating a defense mechanism definition that resonates requires self-awareness. Use the following list of defense mechanisms as a starting point for brainstorming your own list. Look into them and ask yourself if any of these apply to your behavior.

1. Denial

Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms. When a situation or fact becomes too much to handle, you may cope by refusing to experience it. By denying reality, you are essentially protecting yourself from having to face and deal with the unpleasant consequences and pain that accompany acceptance. If you tell yourself “I’m just a social drinker” instead of dealing with your serious drinking problem, or that “Every couple eventually loses the romance” instead of facing your failing marriage, you are utilizing denial as a defense mechanism. And while this may alleviate any short-term pain, in the long run, denial can prevent you from making positive changes in your life, and can have potentially destructive ramifications.

Denial defense mechanism examples

  • A smoker denies that his habit has negative health consequences so he can continue smoking. 
  • A parent denies that her son has dropped out of college even though the school administrator has left her three voicemails telling her so.
  • A business owner denies that her business is failing despite declining profits.

How to identify denial defense mechanisms

If there is overwhelming evidence to believe something and you still insist it’s not happening, you are likely utilizing denial as a defense mechanism. Signs of this are refusing to talk to someone about a possible issue, avoiding situations where you may have to face up to the truth and filling your time with busywork so you don’t have to think about a certain situation.

2. Repression

There is a fine line between denial and repression when it comes to defense mechanisms. But where denial involves the outright refusal to accept a given reality, repression involves completely forgetting the experience. With repression, your mind makes the decision to bury the memory in your subconscious, thereby preventing painful, disturbing or dangerous thoughts from entering your awareness. This is often the case with child abuse or other traumatic experiences that occurred early on in development. Repression may serve immediate purposes, particularly if you were tormented by a painful experience, but if you do not eventually process and deal with the experience, it can have severe consequences later on in life.

Repression defense mechanism examples

  • A soldier back from the Middle East represses a memory of killing a civilian. He has recurrent nightmares about the incident, but doesn’t consciously remember it. 
  • A young child forgets being bitten by a dog but develops a phobia of dogs as he gets older.
  • An adult represses memories of an abusive childhood in order to maintain the illusion of a healthy, functional family. The family unit remains intact, but the individual suffers from depression without understanding why.

How to identify repression defense mechanisms

Depending on how deeply an experience has been buried in your subconscious, this one can be difficult to spot. However, there are some symptoms you need to pay attention to, such as angry outbursts that are not proportionate to the trigger, nightmares with repetitive themes and feelings of depression or anxiety that seem to come out of nowhere.

3. Displacement

Have you ever endured a stressful day at work, then come home and taken out your frustration on your loved ones? What about a time where you had an argument with your partner, then got in your car and found your patience waning with every driver on the road? If the answer is yes, you’re experiencing displacement – one of the typical defense mechanism examples in busy adults.

With displacement, you’re transferring your emotions from the person or situation that is the target of your frustration to someone or something else entirely. Subconsciously, you believe that to confront the source of your feelings may be too dangerous or risky, so you shift the focus toward a target or situation that is less intimidating or dangerous – for example, the hapless driver in the next lane over.

While displacement may protect you from losing your job or burning a bridge, it will not help you handle the emotions you are experiencing, and you will also end up hurting someone completely innocent. This becomes an even bigger issue when you routinely use defense mechanisms like displacement with your significant other as it violates the cardinal rules of love and will eventually ruin your connection. It’s better to face the issue head-on with the person you’re actually frustrated with.

Displacement defense mechanism examples

  • A woman who is frustrated because her boss made her work late again comes home and yells at her son for asking what’s for dinner.
  • A man who is mad that he can’t seem to get ahead at work constantly criticizes his wife for not making more money.
  • An employer who is frustrated with his business’ losses blames his employees instead of rethinking his business strategy

How to identify displacement defense mechanisms

If you’re blowing up at people who have done little or nothing to upset you, this is a classic sign you’re displacing your frustrations. You may even have a “favorite” person to take out your anger or frustration on because you view them as “safe” or unable to do anything about your irrational behavior. If you’ve been called a “hothead” or “bully,” you may be routinely displaying the displacement defense mechanism.

list of defense mechanisms

4. Projection

Projection is a common coping tool for avoiding unpleasant feelings. It’s one of the defense mechanisms that can crop up if you find yourself in a situation where you feel like a fish out of water. Perhaps you’re interacting with a group of strangers and haven’t been able to connect with anyone yet. You feel uncomfortable and a bit anxious. You start to see that others are staring at you with what you perceive as a critical, judgmental eye. They do not say anything or do anything that is objectively negative, but your insecurity causes you to “project” your feelings onto others. The feelings may even become so intense that you demand to know, “What are you staring at?”

Most of us have found ourselves in a situation in which we project our feelings, shortcomings or unacceptable impulses onto the people around us. The reason we do so is because to recognize that particular quality in ourselves would cause us pain and suffering. Instead of looking inward, we blame external events and people for how we’re feeling.

Like the other defense mechanisms, projection can sometimes be used in a positive way, such as when you project feelings of love, confidence and care onto others. But when it impacts us in a negative way, it only compounds the stress and anxiety and prevents us from dealing with the root of those emotions. The projection defense mechanism is one of the most damaging of the 10, as it can lead to heightened feelings of paranoia and anxiety. It can also contribute to limiting beliefs about others that cause you to become bitter, suspicious or antisocial.

Projection defense mechanism examples

  • You really dislike your manager at work who treats you just like they treat everyone else. Instead of admitting your dislike, you tell everyone the manager has a grudge against you and is trying to sabotage your career.
  • A woman is in a bad mood all day and comes home to her husband. After greeting her warmly and asking about her day, she instantly accuses him of being in a bad mood and ruining her evening.
  • A father has body image issues but refuses to make lifestyle changes that would help him lose weight. Instead, he berates his daughter for her weight, projecting his lack of self-confidence onto her.

How to identify projection defense mechanisms

If you are constantly being told you act irrationally, you may be using projection as one of your defense mechanisms. Does your partner tell you, “It’s like you’re not even hearing what I’m saying”? Do those you get upset with seem confused by your reaction? Do you think that everyone is out to get you or that you are always being treated unfairly? If so, it’s time to look into the possibility that you are projecting your feelings onto others.

5. Reaction formation

With reaction formation defense mechanisms, you are going beyond denial and behaving in the opposite way of which you think or feel. Typically, reaction formation is marked by a blatant display.  For example, the man who preaches his disdain for homosexuality may use it as a defense against confronting his own homosexual feelings. By casting stones at someone or something else, you are trying to take the pressure off yourself instead of directly dealing with the issue.

Reaction formation defense mechanism examples

  • A woman dotes on her aging mother by cooking her meals, cleaning her home and taking her to appointments while she secretly despises her.
  • A person with a drinking problem extols the virtues of sobriety instead of taking steps toward moderate drinking. 
  • An employer with deeply-held racist ideologies employs a company policy of affirmative action to hide his true beliefs. 

How to recognize reaction formation defense mechanisms

An important part of defense mechanisms psychology is the fact that our defenses are often subconscious. You may not know you’re displaying reaction formation tendencies if you don’t look closely at your own emotions and how you really feel about certain people and situations. You may question your own behaviors – “Why do I keep doing favors for him when I think he’s a terrible person?” – or feel deep down that something doesn’t add up with how you feel and how you act.

6. Regression

In times of stress, you may find that your behavior becomes more childish. This is one of the defense mechanisms known as regression. Regression causes you to revert to a younger level of development and earlier, less demanding behaviors as a way of protecting yourself from confronting the actual situation. Imagine, for example, having an argument with your partner, and instead of using conflict resolution tools, you stomp off, slam the door and give your partner the cold shoulder.

According to defense mechanisms psychology, the problem with regression is that you may regret letting your childish behavior become self-destructive. This can lead to far more serious problems if you let it go unchecked. If you continually use regression instead of communication with your partner, you’ll never be able to achieve the healthy relationship you deserve.

Regression defense mechanism examples

  • A ten-year-old is in the hospital to get his tonsils removed and begins sucking his thumb like he did when he was a toddler.
  • A woman gets in an argument with someone at work and starts sobbing uncontrollably.
  • Instead of utilizing mature parenting techniques like empathy and boundaries, a father resorts to temper tantrums to scare his children into obedience.

How to recognize regression defense mechanisms

Do you have emotional outbursts that involve crying, shouting or throwing tantrums? Are you accused of acting childishly? Do you get overwhelmed during a confrontation and feel yourself shut down? These are all signs you’re using regression as part of your defense mechanisms.

list of defense mechanisms

7. Rationalization

Rationalization is a common component of defense mechanisms psychology, since it’s an easy defense to rely on. In the plainest terms, rationalization occurs when you try to explain your bad behavior away. Imagine you have an irrationally angry reaction to a situation in front of an esteemed colleague who hopefully respects you. To try to justify your behavior, you blame someone else for provoking you. Even if that may be true, it is not the actual reason for your outburst – it’s an excuse. Although rationalization is a common ego defense mechanism, in most cases, this won’t actually help you pass the blame or justify your behavior. Instead, those around you will view you as childish or egotistical if you’re unable to own your mistakes.

Rationalization defense mechanism examples

  • A man forgets to take out the garbage even though his wife has reminded him four times. Instead of apologizing, he rationalizes that she hasn’t loaded the dishwasher so it’s only fair that he not take out the garbage.
  • A woman stands up her friend for lunch and tells herself it’s okay because her friend is always late for their morning yoga sessions.
  • A student rationalizes cheating on a test by saying the test was too demanding anyway. 

How to recognize rationalization defense mechanisms

Most of the time, you’ll have to rely on others to point out when you’re using rationalization as one of your defense mechanisms. Why? Because your rationalizations probably make all the sense in the world to you and it will take an outside point of view to open your eyes. If you feel like you’re always in the right and everyone else is in the wrong a good percentage of the time, it’s very likely you’re relying on rationalization.

8. Sublimation

Sublimation defense mechanisms occur when you transform your conflicted emotions, unmet desires or unacceptable impulses into productive outlets. It’s the situation where you have a stressful day at work, so you go on a long run to cool off. Or you have a fight with your partner, so you turn to writing music. When used to handle a situation you cannot effectively do anything about, sublimation is actually one of the positive defense mechanisms examples and can actually help you achieve goals. But when used routinely to avoid addressing an issue that must be resolved to move forward, it can have negative repercussions.

Sublimation defense mechanism examples

  • A man has issues controlling his temper so he joins a rugby league so he can take out his aggression in a socially acceptable manner.
  • A woman is frustrated that her daughter has once again neglected to call on her birthday and instead of calling her to voice her upset, she spends three hours scrubbing floors and windows.
  • Instead of working to improve his overall health and fitness, a man lacking self-confidence pours all his energy into his career. 

Recognizing sublimation defense mechanisms

Do you find yourself doing hard labor, intense exercise or long, exhausting work sessions when they don’t really need to be done? Can you connect those to thoughts of “blowing off steam” or fighting some other emotion? If so, you’re likely using sublimation. By recognizing that sublimation has become part of your unconscious defense mechanism definition, you’re able to take steps to address the behavior.

9. Dissociation

Dissociation is one of the most powerful defense mechanisms. Psychology surrounding dissociation centers on escapism – mentally separating yourself from your body (depersonalization) or environment (derealization) – to distance yourself from overwhelming experiences. Dissociation is common after trauma, since it provides a temporary escape. But when employed long-term, dissociation creates separation from your true self, rendering you impermeable to positive as well as negative experiences.

Dissociation defense mechanism examples

  • A woman finds herself engaging in bulimic eating behaviors in a subconscious attempt to escape feelings of shame and self-loathing.
  • A man who is unhappy in his career struggles to concentrate at work. His mind wanders frequently – an “easier” fix than doing the work necessary to create a rewarding career
  • A doctor’s parents pressured her into her profession, even though she dreamed of being an athlete. She dissociates by daydreaming about athleticism instead of acknowledging the career turmoil she is experiencing.

Recognizing dissociation defense mechanisms

You don’t have to have a clinical diagnosis to engage dissociation defense mechanisms, which range from mild to severe. On the lighter end of the spectrum, you may have difficulty staying mentally “present” or remaining grounded in your own body. On the heavier end, addictions of all kinds are severe dissociation defense mechanism examples. 

10. Avoidance

Last on our list of defense mechanisms is one of the most common: avoidance. Psychology recognizes avoidance as a near-universal phenomena, since it’s human nature to steer clear of the uncomfortable. But when we avoid problems for too long, they only get worse. There are many conscious and subconscious ways to avoid an issue, including the following avoidance defense mechanism examples.

Avoidance defense mechanism examples

  • An employee is unhappy at work so he procrastinates instead of getting started on a dreaded project he’s been assigned.
  • A couple is having marital difficulties. Instead of addressing their relationship struggles, each person changes the subject of conversation every time it comes up.
  • Two friends have been growing apart for years. Instead of accepting that their friendship is no longer fulfilling, one friend keeps up the illusion of friendship through repeated invitations to spend time together. 

Recognizing avoidance defense mechanisms

Avoidance is one of the more easily identifiable defense mechanisms, since it’s often conscious and intentional. To recognize whether you’re avoiding an issue instead of confronting it, ask yourself: Does my own personal defense mechanism definition include avoidance? If your knee-jerk answer is “yes,” you must take steps to face your problems directly.

list of defense mechanisms

How defense mechanisms are holding you back

Even the healthy use of ego defense mechanisms and other types can keep you from attaining your goals and living the life of your dreams. Why? Because they are all about not facing up to what is really going on. To unlock an extraordinary life, you must be honest with yourself and take responsibility for your own emotions.

How to overcome defense mechanisms

Now that you have a list of defense mechanisms you may be using, there’s no excuse to avoid confronting how you’re really feeling. While you can’t expect to completely remove defense mechanisms from your life, you can work through the most damaging ones so you can connect better with others and tend to your emotional well-being.

Become more self-aware

Defense mechanisms are a way of avoiding your true feelings. They tend to crop up as a way to protect ourselves when we feel vulnerable. The first step to overcoming them is accepting that you’re using them in the first place. Once you’re able to recognize when you’re using them, you can dig deeper to identify your emotions. Allow your feelings to communicate with you. Let them say what they need to say. Then act to change your situation, instead of burying how you feel. Once you identify how you’re coping with stress or negative situations, you can more easily change your state. Over time, you’ll be able to handle your problems more directly, which will help lead you to feeling more fulfilled overall.

Take responsibility

Defense mechanisms are often a way of placing the blame on something outside of ourselves. We believe that things are being done to us, rather than taking responsibility for our own part in our circumstances. The truth is that, as Tony says, “Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity and responsibility to give something back by becoming more. Whatever happens, take responsibility.” To become more, you must accept that you cannot control the way others act. You can control the way that you react. You can control your own emotions. This is the difference between those who let life happen to them, and those who make life happen.

Break the patterns

Humans are creatures of habit. We all get stuck in patterns, and they often don’t serve us. Once you learn to take responsibility for your own emotions, you’re ready to break those patterns and stop using defense mechanisms. Strategies like mindfulness and practicing gratitude can help you shift your mindset and see the world in a more positive way. Journaling allows you to work through your feelings and begin to see the patterns that hold you back. A professional coach can act as a sounding board and hold you accountable when you’re making unhealthy choices. There are many tools available. It’s all about finding the toolkit that’s right for you.

Everyone deals with defense mechanisms – it’s only natural. But when you rely too heavily on these defense mechanisms and make excuses when you could be making progress, it’s time to analyze your behavior and change your ways.

Working past your defense mechanisms takes effort, but it’s well worth it. Discover the driving force behind your reactions with our quick assessment.

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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