Defence Mechanisms


Common Types of Defence Mechanisms

There are many types of defence mechanisms which we use when feeling the need to protect ourselves. Some are primitive and some are more sophisticated. Some are more obvious while others are so well hidden from our conscious mind we may have no idea they are there unless we undergo therapy or extensive inner work.

Therapy can help us find the strength and resilience to enforce healthy boundaries and to no longer need unconscious defence mechanisms.

Most people have heard of many of these.

Primitive Defences

These are the first defences to occur developmentally.


Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. It is characteristic of early childhood development. Many people use denial to avoid dealing with painful feelings or areas of their life they don’t wish to face.

It is a form of repression.

A person who drinks every day (and is therefore dependent on alcohol) and states that they are just drinking to relax or to have fun is in denial


Regression is the return to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses. It arises from anxiety and it can occur during times of stress.

A well-known example would be an older child who reverts to sucking their thumb or bedwetting during a stressful time or following a trauma.

In relationships, regression can take the form of a person having a temper tantrum when they do not get their own way as they are unable to communicate their needs in a mature way

Acting Out / Repetition Compulsion

Acting out is performing an extreme behaviour in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing. The behaviours will usually be considered bad or antisocial and are generally destructive to either the self or to others. Feelings are translated into actions rather than being felt. It is an unconscious process.

In acting out as defined by Freud, his patients were acting out when they could not access their repressed memories that were motivating their unconscious behaviours and they “symbolically dramatised the past in order not to remember it.”

This is also known as repetition compulsion. There is an article here.

Someone who has an emotionally distant parent and goes on to have relationships in adulthood with people who are also emotionally distant is acting out


People who have a history of any kind of childhood abuse often develop some form of dissociation. This can be defined as detaching from reality in some way.

Some symptoms of dissociation are a sense of fragmentation or division of the self; this can feel like different mood states (coping mechanisms) or extreme emotions being triggered, and experiencing too much or too little emotionally and physically (hyperarousal and hypoarousal).

Dissociation is on a spectrum from daydreaming to PTSD to Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder). Please see more here:

Derealisation and Depersonalisation

Derealisation and depersonalisation are under the umbrella of dissociation.

Derealisation (alienation from surroundings) is the sensation that a person’s surroundings are not real. They may feel like they are watching themselves or like they are in a film or a play.

Depersonalisation (alienation from the self) is the feeling that a person’s body is not real. They may feel numb or disconnected from themselves. They may feel that their life is not really happening to them at times. They may feel like they are robotic.

These variations on dissociation can be mild or more severe.

An example of dissociation is a marked change in mood. For example, someone becoming very angry, very quickly in a way that is sudden, intense and disproportionate to the situation the person is in. They are then unable to 'talk themselves down' and the mood may last for hours or days.


Compartmentalisation is a lesser form of dissociation. Parts of oneself are separated from, and unaware of, other parts and this means a person can behave as though they hold two different sets of values.

This is the root of hypocritical thinking and cognitive dissonance.

It is also the ability to put our personal issues aside whilst at work so that we can function effectively in life.

A person who campaigns on environmental issues and then regularly flies around the world in a private jet is behaving as though they have two opposing sets of values


Projection is the act of ascribing a person’s undesired thoughts, feelings, or impulses onto another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings or impulses.

A person sees their own faults or things they do not like about themselves in others.

A father who was not successful in his career in the way he wanted may project this onto his son by telling him that he 'will not amount to anything' or 'there is no point in trying hard' in life


This defence is very similar to denial and can be a conscious or unconscious process. Minimisation occurs when we compare ourselves to others and judge that our situation is not as bad as theirs or we tell ourselves that what has happened to us is ‘not that bad.’

A person who is verbally bullying someone may say that they were only joking. This gives them plausible deniability and they can escape any consequences.

If a person is complimented or praised, perhaps for achieving something difficult, they may respond with, ‘It was nothing’ or ‘Anyone can do it.’

If a parent's default response to their child being upset is to tell their child that they are overly sensitive or dramatic, the parent is minimising the child's feelings and perspective


Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses.

Unpleasant or traumatic experiences are buried in the subconscious and the conscious mind is unaware of them. This protects the conscious mind from memories or feelings which are very painful or overwhelming.

A person who is involved in a serious car accident does not remember the details


Displacement happens when a person redirects an emotional reaction from the rightful recipient onto another person or object. It often involves anger and it is displaced onto a less threatening person because it is safer or easier.

When a woman who is shouted at by her boss at work goes home and shouts at her children and her partner she is displacing her anger at her boss onto them


Intellectualisation is the overemphasis on thinking. A person might employ intellectualisation to distance themselves from an impulse, event or behaviour. A person can avoid their emotions by focusing on the intellect.

A man who has lost his wife may focus his attention and energy on the funeral arrangements instead of acknowledging his grief


Rationalisation is an unconscious attempt to avoid addressing the underlying reasons for a behaviour.

A person who is often late for work might rationalise that they are bad at time management when the underlying reason might be that they dislike their job or the people they are working with

Mature Defences

The following defence mechanisms are more mature and are the most constructive and helpful, but may require practice and effort to put into daily use. People with mature defences tend to be more at peace with themselves and those around them.


Sublimation is similar to displacement and is the channelling of unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones.

This can be seen in sport, art, music and humour.

A person with an obsessive need for control can channel those needs into becoming a successful administrator


Compensation can be a mature defence mechanism if it is utilised effectively.

People can compensate for their perceived weaknesses by developing and emphasising strength in other areas of themselves or their lives.

When the compensatory response is excessive it is described as an overcompensation.

Please see article here: APA Dictionary of Psychology

A man who is insecure about his body or looks may compensate by working hard and becoming wealthy

Assertive Communication

An individual is successfully assertive when being clear in communication without the need to be aggressive and blunt. They express their opinions or needs in a respectful yet firm manner, and listen when they are being spoken to. Becoming more assertive is one of the most desired communication skills and is a helpful and mature defence.

A person in the workplace asks a co-worker for something they need without apologising for asking


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Sarah Graham

I am a Counsellor, based in Bournemouth in the UK, with specialist knowledge of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I am trained in treating Complex Trauma. I work online and am insured to work in most places in the world.
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