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

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