I am a board-certified psychiatric mental health nurse. Psychiatric nursing and teaching are my life passions.
What Are Defense Mechanisms?
We all use defense mechanisms. They are one of the tools the human mind utilizes to deal with both everyday and out-of-the-ordinary life stressors. Freud theorized that human beings use defense mechanisms to cope with anxiety. Almost all of them are unconscious, meaning we do not purposely use them; they just seem to occur.
It is possible through careful introspection to become aware of the various defense mechanisms we use and to adopt newer, healthier alternatives. The use of defense mechanisms alone is not unhealthy. Overuse of particular defense mechanisms can be maladaptive.
The defense mechanisms are categorized into four levels:
- Level 1: Pathological
- Level 2: Immature
- Level 3: Neurotic
- Level 4: Mature
We will look at the different defense mechanisms at each level and some specific examples to aid in understanding them.
Level 1: Pathological
Converting anxiety or internal conflict into a physical symptom
A woman witnesses her spouse engaging in an affair and converts the anxiety of seeing that into blindness. The blindness alleviates the anxiety.
Unconsciously refusing to accept what has happened that is too difficult to bear
A father witnesses his child being killed in a car accident, but repeatedly says, “That wasn’t my son. No, no, it couldn’t have been my son. He was at soccer practice.”
The inability to see gray areas. A person who uses splitting sees things as all good or all bad. This often is seen in borderline personality disorder.
A woman enters a new relationship and believes her partner to be “perfect.” When the partner does something wrong, the same woman immediately believes the partner to be horrible. She is unable to see that sometimes good people make mistakes.
Literally, projecting onto another one’s own unacceptable thoughts or feelings. Projection is sometimes listed as an immature defense mechanism, depending on the severity.
Commonly, people who are cheating on a partner make false accusations of cheating against the faithful partner.
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Level 2: Immature
Believing another person is far better than they truly are
A battered woman describes in detail how her abusive boyfriend is an amazing partner. She believes this to be true.
Indirectly “getting back” at someone. Often, this is seen in humorous sarcasm that has an element of cruelty and in procrastination and tardiness.
An administration assistant gets back at her boss for yelling at her by being late to work each day for a week.
Transferring negative feelings about others into negative traits in oneself
A man is angry with his partner for being inconsiderate, but rather than consciously acknowledging the anger, he experiences back pain. The back pain is very real to the person suffering from it.
Level 3: Neurotic
Shifting unacceptable feelings from a person that feels dangerous to a safer alternative
Commonly, the boss yells at a worker, who feels he cannot yell back, so he goes home and yells at his wife and kicks the family dog.
Separating oneself from a feeling through unconscious detachment
During a school shooting, a student looks to be “zoned out.” After the shooting, the student has no recollection of the event.
Focusing on facts, figures, statistics, and scientific, rational data rather than experiencing unpleasant emotions or feelings
A patient diagnosed with terminal cancer answers the question, “How are you feeling?” by describing what she has had to eat, the amount of weight she has lost, and how many injections of medication she has had.
Basically, making excuses for behavior or feelings. This overlaps strongly with blaming.
A student earns a failing grade on a paper and says to her classmates, “I only got this grade because the teacher doesn’t like me.” The student believes this to be true.
Believing or behaving the opposite of the way one actually does. This is commonly seen in individuals recovering from addiction.
A man suffers from alcoholism and has entered rehabilitation. What he really wants is to drink, but he expresses that he hates alcohol.
Reverting back to less mature ways of dealing with a situation
A child who has been potty-trained for 5 years begins wetting the bed when her parents are arguing.
Unconsciously blocking unacceptable thoughts or feelings. Without understanding the underlying feelings, it is difficult to differentiate repression from dissociation.
An adult who was molested as a child has no recollection of the event and believes the parent who molested her was wonderful.
Trying to fix something one has done wrong by making up for it in other ways
A woman yells at her husband. Later, she makes his favorite dinner for him.
Level 4: Mature
Through helping others, one feels better about oneself
A member of a self-help group improves her self esteem by helping other members deal with their problems.
Making light of serious problems in a way that brings happiness to others. This is often called self-depracating humor. Overuse certainly can be maladaptive.
A teacher makes an error on the test and says to the class, “Gosh, you all are smarter than me! I can’t even make a test,” and laughs about it with the students.
Modeling one’s behavior and/or character after someone else
One friend observes another exerting strong willpower over diet and exercise, then models this behavior.
Identifying with another so strongly that one absorbs that aspect into his/her own personality. This often is observed in children as they introject aspects of the parent into themselves.
A child has a parent who is very spiritual. The child incorporates spirituality into himself.
Substituting a socially acceptable, unhealthy response with a healthier alternative
A man becomes angry with his boss, but rather than lashing out, he goes to the gym after work and exercises.
Consciously ignoring troubling thoughts or feelings so that more pressing matters can be dealt with
A college student comes home from school and finds many bills that need paid in the mail. The student consciously ignores the bills until after she has studied for the next day’s exam.
Defense Mechanisms Vary Throughout the Life Span
- The only defense mechanism listed that is conscious is suppression.
- Defense mechanisms develop during childhood and continue throughout adulthood, so they are very ingrained and can be difficult to change.
- Learning new, more adaptive defense mechanisms takes time and effort.
- Sublimation is always considered an adaptive defense mechanism. There is no maladaptive form of sublimation.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2013 Leah Wells-Marshburn
alxe on January 27, 2018: