Defense Mechanisms

ChameleonThe concept of the defense mechanism was originally suggested by Sigmund Freud, who argued that defensive reactions occur when the ego attempts to protect itself from the id. When the id suggests unacceptable motivations or thoughts to the ego, the ego tries to avoid conscious awareness of troubling feelings or unpleasant motivations. However, in contemporary psychology, the term defense mechanism is used more broadly to refer to any behavioral pattern that people use to protect themselves from unpleasant emotions such as shame, anger, and guilt.

Types of Defense Mechanisms

Any behavior designed to protect oneself from unpleasant emotions can be a defense mechanism. However, some defense mechanisms are so common that they have been heavily cited in psychological texts. These include:

  • Projection – The act of projecting one’s own unconscious feelings onto another. For example, a wife might insist that her husband seems angry when she is actually the one who is angry.
  • Denial – Refusing to acknowledge an unpleasant truth or emotion. Denial is widely cited as the first stage of the grieving process after a significant loss.
  • Somatization – Transferring negative feelings into physical symptoms. For example, a man might develop stomach problems every time he becomes anxious.
  • Reaction Formation – Acting out the exact opposite of one’s unconscious wishes or thoughts. For example, a man who is a devout Christian who feels sexually attracted to other men might become extremely homophobic because homosexuality is not accepted in his religious culture. 

George Eman Vaillant classified defense mechanisms into levels of psychological development. His levels include:

  • Pathological
  • Immature
  • Neurotic
  • Mature

According to Vaillant, these levels correlate roughly with stages of human psychological development, and certain defense mechanisms are more likely to develop at certain ages in this conception. Mature defense mechanisms are part of healthy adult relationships and include behaviors such as empathy, humor, altruism, and identification.


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford UniversityPress.
  2. Kring, A. M., Johnson, S. L., Davison, G. C., & Neale, J. M. (2010). Abnormal psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Last Updated: 09-18-2018

  • Leave a Comment
  • yousef

    June 25th, 2016 at 9:26 PM

    hi dear friends Im working reflexology
    be success

  • Anis

    June 24th, 2017 at 2:28 PM

    Its all explained here:

  • Meril

    November 6th, 2017 at 3:56 PM

    Made studying easier. Thanks

  • Audrey L P.

    January 15th, 2019 at 6:51 PM

    Would like to find a therapist to talk to about feelings of abandonment…

  • The Team

    January 16th, 2019 at 7:35 AM

    Hi Audrey,

    If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, you can start finding therapists in your area by entering your city or ZIP code into the search field on this page:

    Once you enter your information, you’ll be directed to a list of therapists and counselors who meet your criteria. You may click to view our members’ full profiles and contact the therapists themselves for more information. If you need help finding a therapist, you are welcome to call us. We are in the office Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Pacific Time, and our phone number is 888-563-2112.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy Team

  • Sid

    October 10th, 2020 at 2:00 PM

    Really interesting.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.