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8 common defense mechanisms

How we help (and hurt) our emotional well-being

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 openly 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.

What is a defense mechanism?

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 as routine use can actually reduce the effectiveness of our emotional processing and prevent 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?

Defense mechanisms examples range from shifting blame to shutting down. Though each person has their own unique set of defense mechanisms, most of the mechanisms themselves are common and easy to spot.

While you can’t expect to completely remove defense mechanisms from your life, you can become more self aware and understand how these processes are helping and hurting you. This will assist you in working through the most damaging ones so you can connect better with others and tend to your emotional well-being.

Below are types of defense mechanisms. Look into them and ask yourself if any of these apply to your behavior:

Denial

Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms. When a situation or fact becomes too much to handle, you may simply refuse 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 mechanisms 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.

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 awareness. This is often the case with child abuse or other traumatic experiences that occurred early on in development. While repression, much like denial, may serve immediate purposes, particularly if you were tormented by a painful experience, if you do not eventually process and deal with the experience, it can have severe consequences later on in life.

Repression defense mechanisms 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.

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 one of the typical defense mechanisms of a busy adult: displacement.

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.

Projection

Projection is 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 eight, as it can lead to heightened feelings of paranoia and anxiety.

Projection defense mechanisms 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.

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 overtly may be 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 mechanisms example

  • A woman dotes on her aging mother by cooking her meals, cleaning her home and taking her to appointments while she secretly despises her.

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.

The problem with regression is that you may regret letting your childish behavior become self-destructive, and this can lead to far more serious problems. 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.

Rationalization

In the simplest terms, rationalization occurs when you try to explain your bad behavior away. Consider, for example, that you have an irrationally angry reaction to a situation in front of someone you admire and 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. Rationalization is one of the common defense mechanisms for those with more sensitive egos. In most cases, this won’t actually help you to pass the blame or justify your behavior. Instead, the opposite effect will occur: 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.

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. But when used routinely to avoid addressing an issue that must be resolved to move forward, it can have negative repercussions.

Sublimation defense mechanisms 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.

How defense mechanisms are holding you back

Even the healthy use of defense mechanisms 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 of your own emotions. When you use common defense mechanisms instead of confronting how you’re really feeling, you don’t make the decision to change. Blaming outside forces or denying that you have a certain reaction are all ways to avoid responsibility.

The first step in changing your defense mechanisms is accepting that you’re using them in the first place. 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.

Everyone deals with different types of 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.

Header image © Pathdoc/shutterstock

Ana Yoerg

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