Classic Defense Mechanisms: The Good and the Bad

And the signs of each of the four types.


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Defense mechanisms keep us in check and balanced. But, as with most things in life, there are healthy defense mechanisms (which prevent us from acting out in negative ways) and unhealthy ones (which simply make things worse). DMs help us manage our unconscious and unacceptable thoughts and urges, curbing anxiety and the other negative feelings we’d experience if we were more aware of our upsetting thoughts.

Nonetheless, relying too heavily on unhealthy DMs impedes our ability to resolve psychic conflicts. It keeps us “stuck” in a negative cycle and prevents us from living happier and more authentic lives. Dr. George Valliant, a noted psychiatrist, grouped defense mechanisms into four categories, which I’ve broken down here.

Level I pathological defenses are most commonly seen in individuals struggling with psychotic illness. They may also be experienced in dreams and during childhood.

Conversion. When an interpersonal conflict is expressed physically. Think about being so angry that you lose your ability to speak.

Denial. Denial is a common reaction to any real-life crisis that’s too painful and/or threatening to process—like refusing to accept a terminal medical diagnosis or the death of a loved one.

Splitting. Often difficult to pin down, splitting occurs when we’re unable to integrate negative and positive impulses, feelings and/or behaviors. Thinking becomes back and white, and we define experiences, people and circumstances into either “all good” or “all bad.” Splitting hinders nuanced thinking, healthy relationships, and emotional control, making it difficult to tolerate ambivalence and uncertainty.

Extreme projection. Managing the extreme discomfort caused by a moral or psychological dilemma might involve “throwing it” onto another individual or group.

Superiority complex. When an inflated sense of self obscures feelings of inferiority and poor self-esteem.

Inferiority complex. A rampant overachiever might be fueled by poor self-esteem, self-doubt and feelings of not living up to society’s standards. Those with an inferiority complex are forever out to prove themselves through their accomplishments.

Level II immature defenses are equally common in young children, adolescents and adults. When used in excess, they can interfere with our ability to properly assess reality, maintain and build relationships, and lead fulfilling lives.

Acting out. When unconscious wishes or desires are physically acted upon, rather than expressed.

Fantasy. Retreating into imaginary worlds and daydreams to avoid psychic conflicts.

Wishful thinking. Basing decisions and behaviors on what we’d like our reality to be, rather than going by hard evidence, rationality and reality.

Idealization. One of the most common defense mechanisms, idealization places another person in an overwhelmingly positive light. This creates conflicts in a relationship because it skews our sense of reality, thwarts understanding, and impedes the ability to truly know a person.

Passive aggression. This oft-used term denotes an indirect form of aggression toward others. Common examples include procrastination, sarcasm, hostile jokes, resentment.

Projection. When we foist our unwanted, unacknowledged, unacceptable thoughts onto another person.

Projective identification. Unconsciously acting out the thoughts, feelings or behaviors projected onto us by others.

Somatization. When psychic conflicts are manifested in physical symptoms like headaches, digestive illnesses and chronic pain.

Level III neurotic defenses are most common in adults. And while they may have short-term advantages, coping often suffers in the long term.

Displacement. Shifting unacceptable impulses to a more acceptable and/or less threatening target. Phobias are a prime example, as they involve displacement of anxiety.

Intellectualization. When we use abstract, theoretical or philosophical thinking as a way of controlling or warding off unacceptable impulses or feelings. Someone who recently witnessed a horrifying car accident, for example, might flatly recounting the facts without any hint of anxiety, fear or sorrow.

Rationalization. A form of intellectualization, in which we create reasonable explanations for our upsetting thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

Repression. This complex DM keeps threatening internal thoughts and impulses buried in the unconscious.

Undoing. When an unacceptable behavior, thought, impulse or emotion is countered with a more acceptable thought or behavior. A person may overeat one day, then feel compelled to eat very little the next. Most commonly associated with obsessional disorders.

Level IV mature defenses are the healthiest DMs, simply because they don’t lead to harmful outcomes—nor do they prevent us from developing relationships and being intimate with others. They enhance our sense of fulfillment, pleasure and self-control by allowing us to effectively integrate conflicting emotions, thoughts and behaviors in a positive way. There are many mature defenses, but here are the most relevant:

Patience. Being patient reduces acting-out behavior and avoidance.

Identification. Crucial to any personality, identification is an unconscious modeling of one’s self based on another—usually someone we admire. It also helps us understand and empathize with others. (Note: Identification is only as good as the person with whom you’re identifying, so choose wisely.)

Sublimation. Those who can readily sublimate have no trouble funneling negative impulses, emotions or wishes into positive, socially acceptable behaviors—like when a child confines his aggression to the sports field.

Altruism. Deriving personal joy and gratification from meeting the needs and wishes of others.

Thought suppression/distraction. This hinges on the ability to compartmentalize, pushing unwanted thoughts into the pre-conscious (versus the inaccessible unconscious). This allows us to effectively cope with our current reality by being mindful and emotionally present.

So, how do we know which defense mechanisms are helpful and which ones aren’t? And is avoiding anxiety and other negative feelings really good for us? Doing so can deny us the opportunity to dig deeper in an effort to identify and confront the underlying causes. After all, it’s impossible to fix what we don’t know is broken in the first place.

A big step in the right direction is having the capacity to tolerate unpleasant emotions. Being able to “sit with” frustration, fear, sadness, anxiety and rejection creates the emotional and cognitive space necessary to find effective solutions to our problems. So honing in on the DMs we use to ward off anxiety and other difficult feelings is a valuable tool in our quest to weed out what we’re really struggling with. And it gives us the power to make things better.

In my next blog, I’ll offer tips for recognizing counterproductive defense mechanisms, along with some strategies to help you deal more effectively with negative emotions.