Common Defense Mechanisms and How They’re Used

Sigmund Freud, the creator of psychoanalysis, coined the term "defense mechanisms" (also sometimes called ego defense mechanisms or coping styles) in 1926.

Freud's term attempted to explain how individuals manage stress and described them as relatively involuntary responses to internal or external factors surrounding thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Defense mechanisms consciously or unconsciously aim to protect against anxiety and emotional stress. They can also kick in when a person's self-esteem feels threatened.

Over 40 different defense mechanisms have been identified as others continue to expand upon Freud's original theory. Read on to learn about some of the more common ones.

woman upset on the phone

laflor / Getty Images

Common Defense Mechanisms

There are too many identified defense mechanisms to cover in-depth here, but some stand out as more commonly described.

  • Denial: Not admitting to or not accepting the reality of a painful situation
  • Displacement: Shifting negative urges or emotions to a safer or neutral substitute object or person
  • Repression: Something that a person was once aware of is removed from conscious awareness, moving to the unconscious part of the mind ("forgetting" the stressful event or thoughts)
  • Projection: The extension, shifting, or attributing of a person's own feelings or thoughts about themselves onto another person
  • Sublimation: Shifting, diverting, or deflecting undesirable feelings or thoughts, or unattainable impulses toward something more goal-oriented or socially acceptable
  • Regression: Returning to an earlier developmental stage or childlike state in response to a stressor in the current stage
  • Rationalization: Replacing a real (but stressful) cause of behavior with an easier-to-handle excuse or explanation
  • Intellectualization: Using abstract, rational, and/or logical reasoning (often to excess) to distance from stress and avoid reacting or changing
  • Reaction formation: Denying or rejecting unacceptable, painful, or offensive traits or impulses by behaving in an opposite manner
  • Introjection: The opposite of projection, this entails incorporating external beliefs or traits (often from other people) into a person's sense of self and set of beliefs—the absorbed traits, behaviors, or qualities can be positive or negative
  • Suppression: Intentionally and consciously postponing or holding back a painful or undesirable thought, idea, or impulse
  • Splitting: "All or nothing" thinking about a subject, person (including self), or group
  • Distortion: Altering perception of reality to fit their own needs or wants ("seeing what they want to see"), which can include hallucinations or wish-fulfilling delusions
  • Altruism: Getting personal satisfaction and coping with stressors by helping others
  • Humor: Expressing negative feelings or thoughts using humor, instead of discussing them directly, to ease personal discomfort and the discomfort of others
  • Anticipation: Planning for future discomforts in a realistic, actionable way
  • Compartmentalization: Keeping conflicting ideas and self-concepts separate to avoid confusion, shame, guilt, or anxiety

Outward Manifestations

Tactical defense mechanisms (also called character defense mechanisms) work to distance you from others. They include:

  • Vagueness
  • Speaking in generalities
  • Contradictory statements
  • Sarcasm
  • Changing the subject
  • Argumentativeness
  • Dismissiveness
  • Blaming
  • Distancing
  • Some non-verbal expressions
  • Acting out

How Do Defense Mechanisms Work?

Examples of defense mechanisms in use include:

  • Denial: A person who has received a cancer diagnosis does not acknowledge their condition and plans a vacation during the time treatments will be starting.
  • Displacement: A person gets angry with their spouse instead of confronting their boss, who is the real source of their anger.
  • Repression: An adult who has a fear of water does not recall that they almost drowned in a pool as a child.
  • Projection: An unfaithful spouse accuses their partner of cheating.
  • Sublimation: A marathon runner uses their feelings of anger as motivation during training.
  • Regression: A toilet-trained child begins to wet the bed or their clothing after a sibling is born.
  • Rationalization: A university student attributes a low test score to the professor not liking them, rather than their lack of studying.
  • Intellectualization: A person does in-depth research on their condition to try to avoid emotions brought on by a serious medical diagnosis.
  • Reaction formation: A person who despises their co-worker behaves overly friendly toward them.
  • Introjection: A teenager dresses in a style similar to their favorite singer's.
  • Suppression: After a long day at work, a person tells their spouse, "I don't want to talk about it."
  • Splitting: A person has a negative interaction with a therapist and decides all therapists are unhelpful.
  • Distortion: Reading a horoscope and noticing only the parts that fit accurately.
  • Altruism: A person volunteers at a food bank regularly when stressed.
  • Humor: A person spills their coffee on a table in a cafe and makes a joke to avoid embarrassment
  • Anticipation: A student learns deep breathing and other measures to calm their nerves before making a speech in front of the school.
  • Compartmentalization: A parent has a job that requires them to be strict at work, but they are loving and gentle with their family at home.

Is It Okay to Use Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms can be helpful or harmful, depending on the situation, the mechanism, and how it is used.

Though some nuance is involved, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant categorized defense mechanisms into four general levels:

  • Level 1—Pathological: Includes splitting, projection, denial, distortion
  • Level 2—Immature (Primitive): Includes regression, acting out, primitive idealization, blocking, hypochondriasis, identification, passive aggression, somatization, undoing, fixation, fantasy
  • Level 3—Neurotic: Includes displacement, intellectualization, rationalization, reaction formation, repression, controlling, isolation of affect, externalization, dissociation, sexualization, inhibition
  • Level 4—Mature (Sophisticated): Includes sublimation, altruism, suppression, humor, anticipation

Some defense mechanisms—such as projection, splitting, and acting out—are maladaptive by nature and unlikely to be helpful regardless of the situation.

Others, such as suppression, can be adaptive or maladaptive, depending on how they are used. For example, a person who holds in their emotions instead of talking to someone or working through them in a healthy way would be using suppression in a maladaptive manner and likely to experience negative consequences.

On the flip side, a person who is scared of needles but suppresses their feelings of fear while they receive their flu shot would be using suppression adaptively and likely to experience positive results.

How to Eliminate Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms

Changing unhealthy defense mechanisms can be challenging because they provide comfort in the moment, and not using them can make you feel vulnerable at first.

Making changes to unhealthy defense mechanisms that hold you back in favor of more adaptive ones may be difficult but is worth it for the long-term gains.

Psychotherapy is a good place to start for learning how to cope in healthy ways.

Therapies that can help develop healthy defense mechanisms and coping strategies include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Identifying and recognizing dysfunctional thought processes and behaviors, then changing them (over time) into functional ones
  • Schema therapy: Builds on previously existing therapies such as CBT and helps change long-term patterns, including how a person interacts with others

In addition to professional help, some ways to help with recognizing and addressing your defense mechanisms include:

  • Keep your mindset about your emotional experiences constructive and nonjudgmental.
  • Investigate the things that most "set you off."
  • Consider the roles fear, shame, guilt, and anger play in your emotional experiences.
  • Recognize that feelings that seem imbalanced or disproportionate may be more representative of the past than the present.
  • Look for needs that are unmet or that conflict.
  • Examine your responses in relationships.


Defense mechanisms are conscious or unconscious reactions to stressful situations aimed at protection from negative feelings, particularly anxiety.

There are dozens of identified defense mechanisms, some more commonly recognized than others.

Defense mechanisms can be adaptive or maladaptive. Some defense mechanisms can be either, depending on the circumstances and how they are used.

Changing maladaptive defense mechanisms into adaptive ones can be difficult but is possible. Psychotherapies such as CBT and schema therapy may be especially helpful.

A Word From Verywell 

Chances are you recognize some of these defense mechanisms as ones you employ. That's natural. Everyone uses defense mechanisms in one form or another.

If you feel your go-to defense mechanisms are not benefiting you in the long run, it's worth putting in the work to develop more adaptive coping strategies. If you want to address your coping behaviors, see a mental health professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is crying a defense mechanism?

    Crying can be considered a self-soothing behavior because of its effects as a stress reducer and mood enhancer. It can provide a release for stress and emotional pain and bring feelings of relief.

  • When does a person use defense mechanisms?

    A person uses defense mechanisms when they feel emotionally threatened. They are an attempt to avoid feeling negative feelings, particularly anxiety.

  • What is the most constructive defense mechanism?

    It depends on how they are used, but defense mechanisms that are considered highly adaptive include:

    • Affiliation
    • Altruism
    • Anticipation
    • Humor
    • Self-assertion
    • Self-observation
    • Sublimation
    • Suppression
13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Panfil AL, Frandes M, Nirestean A, et al. Interrelation between defensive mechanisms and coping strategies in psychiatry trainees in Romania: a multicenter study. Ann Gen Psychiatry. 2020;19(1):56. doi:10.1186/s12991-020-00307-1

  2. NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. Clinical education and interventions for defensive structures of co-occurring populations.

  3. Nurselabs. Defense mechanisms.

  4. Paradiso S, Brown WS, Porcerelli JH, Tranel D, Adolphs R, Paul LK. Integration between cerebral hemispheres contributes to defense mechanisms. Front Psychol. 2020;11:1534. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01534

  5. Seattle Anxiety. Defense mechanisms.

  6. Amboss. Psychotherapy and defense mechanisms.

  7. Békés V, Ferstenberg YA, Perry JC. Compartmentalization. In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford TK, eds. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing; 2018:1-5. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1939-1

  8. Britannica. Defense mechanism.

  9. Foundation For Change. Ego defense mechanisms handout.

  10. PsychAlive. Defense mechanisms.

  11. Harvard Health. Is crying good for you?

  12. Gračanin A, Bylsma LM, Vingerhoets AJJM. Is crying a self-soothing behavior? Front Psychol. 2014;5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00502

  13. Di Giuseppe M, Perry JC. The hierarchy of defense mechanisms: assessing defensive functioning with the defense mechanisms rating scales Q-sort. Front Psychol. 2021;12:718440. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.718440

By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.