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10 Common Psychological Defense Mechanisms You Need to Know

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Life is full of stressful or troubling events, whether we have experienced childhood bullying, recently endured a break up or been rejected from a job we really wanted. We are all bound to experience a negative life event at some point. However, we often differ from person to person in regards to how we cope with these life events. While some people tackle these issues head on, others may unconsciously resort to defense mechanisms instead.

Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are usually unconsciously used to protect oneself from experiencing painful, unacceptable or troubling thoughts, feelings or impulses. Believe it or not, most of us have used some sort of defense mechanisms at one point or another, although we may not have been aware of it at the time. Here are ten common defense mechanisms and how these may present in different scenarios.

1. Denial.

Denial refers to the conscious or unconscious refusal to accept the reality of painful or anxiety provoking facts. Denial is a defense mechanism that many of us use on a daily basis when we are avoiding painful feelings or circumstances we would rather not face. For example, a person regularly using drugs may deny that they have an addiction, instead pointing out how well they function in important areas of life such as in their job or social life.

2. Reaction formation.

This refers to the phenomenon of converting unwanted or harmful thoughts and feelings into their opposites. It is almost as if we are trying to prove to both ourselves and to others that we do not experience these problematic emotions. For example, a man that is angry with his boss may treat him with excessive admiration, kindness and respect.

3. Projection.

Projection is the process of “projecting” or attributing one’s own thoughts, emotions, feelings or motives onto another person. Often, this comes about when we do not have appropriate insight into our own feelings. For example, a person who wishes to break up with his or her partner may accuse the other of wanting to end their relationship instead.

4. Displacement.

This is the redirecting of our own thoughts, emotions or motives onto another person or object. For example, if a colleague at work has made a nasty comment toward you, instead of lashing out at them and causing a scene in the workplace you may instead come home and take this out on your significant other.

5. Repression.

Repression is sometimes referred to as “motivated forgetting,” as it describes the unconscious act of keeping troubling thoughts, feelings or impulses out of our conscious awareness. For example, a child who was physically abused may have no recollection of the event later on in life.

6. Rationalization.

This is when we may develop false, however plausible, excuses or alternative perspectives in order to justify our own behaviors, thoughts, feelings or impulses. For example, if a woman is rejected for a job she really wanted to get, she may reframe this situation and claim that it wouldn’t have been a good fit for her anyway.

7. Intellectualization.

This is when one engages in over thinking and overemphasizing particular aspects of a situation when confronted with unacceptable or difficult thoughts or emotions. For example, a woman who has just found out her father is terminally ill may focus on the details of different treatments and procedures instead of allowing herself to experience her true emotions.

8. Regression.

Regression refers to the phenomenon in which one reverts back to an earlier stage of development when faced with difficult or harmful thoughts, emotions or motives. For example, if one’s partner has said something hurtful, the recipient may find themselves throwing a tantrum, slamming doors and giving them the silent treatment for hours on end.

9. Sublimation.

Sublimation refers to the refocusing of unacceptable thoughts, emotions or impulses into more acceptable ones. For example, a person who experiences significant anger management issues may channel their energy into an exercise such as boxing instead.

10. Dissociation.

This is when a person loses track of their sense of reality, who they are, what day or time it is etc., usually in response to an event or internal state that is too difficult for one to deal with within their own conscious awareness. In some instances, they may even find another representation of their “self” for a period of time. While many people have experienced dissociation, it appears to be common in people who have experienced trauma in their past.

It can often be difficult to identify when we are using defense mechanisms. However, by having perspective from a third party or reflecting upon the way we have managed difficult situations in the past, it becomes a lot clearer.

Have you used any of these defense mechanisms in the past? Let us know in the comments below!

Follow this journey on Mind Intertwined.

Photo by Max Ilienerwise via Unsplash.
Originally published: January 16, 2020
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