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.
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.
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.
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.
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: https://childrenofnarcissists.org.uk/trauma-and-dissociation/
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
Rationalisation is an unconscious attempt to avoid addressing the underlying reasons for a behaviour.
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.
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
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.