Posted by: RealisticRecovery | March 25, 2010

Basic Defense Mechanisms

Basic Defense Mechanisms

by Natalia J. Garland, M.S.W.

Denial – A total refusal to face reality because it is regarded as unacceptable or too difficult to cope with. It is especially used by alcoholics, and by victims of abuse or trauma.

I never drink before 4:00 p.m., so it’s not a problem.

In reality, he snorts cocaine at lunch and drinks a bottle of whiskey at 4:15 p.m. every day. He admits to drinking, but denies the real extent. He views cocaine as a separate issue–denying that it has any relationship to a drinking problem–so he does not even mention it.

Mr. Olsen’s doctors diagnosed him with brain cancer, and told him he would not live more than six months. Mr. Olsen decided to enroll in college and begin a new career. He will not listen to any suggestion that he create a will or trust fund to provide for his wife.

Mr. Olsen is living as though nothing unusual is happening to him. Although going to college is a form of denial, it might actually help him to live the remainder of his life with meaning and purpose. Not providing for his wife, however, will bring her emotional distress and financial hardship.

* Projection – Attributing one’s thoughts, feelings, or urges to someone else, while in denial regarding one’s own disposition. Projection can be either negative or benign, depending on one’s experiences and perception. Negative projectors are not capable of compassion for others.

My daughter is lazy and ungrateful. She shows me no respect. I deserve better.

In reality, the mother is lazy and arrogant, does nothing around the house, and desires servitude and adoration from her daughter. The daughter deserves a mother who would nurture her.

“I think Ronald was flirting with me today,” Jonathan said with disgust.

In reality, Jonathan is sexually attracted to Ronald, but his own impulses are felt as threatening to his masculinity. So, he looks upon Ronald as possessing these impulses.

Amy thinks her co-workers are basically kind-hearted.

In reality, Amy is kind-hearted and her co-workers are vicious gossips who slander her. But Amy is not prepared to take charge of her situation (i.e., acknowledge her hurt feelings and accept the stress of looking for another job).

* Introjection – Attributing others’ thoughts, feelings, or urges to oneself. It is the opposite of projection.

Becky believes she is a bad girl.

In reality, Becky has a bad mother. Becky is too young to face this terror. Her mother is her world because she is a dependent child. She absorbs ownership of badness into herself as a means of preserving an image of a loving and lovable mother.

* Rationalization – A false but plausible explanation which hides the real motives or reasons for one’s actions or feelings. It is similar to blaming, except that it is often used to repair wounded self-esteem after an experience of failure.

I did not win any prizes in the pie-baking contest because the judges were unfair.

In reality, my pies lacked seasoning and the crusts were falling apart. Since I take great pride in my baking, and my family assumed I would win, I cannot bear the humiliation of losing. I try to maintain my self-image by attributing my failure to the judges’ unfairness.

It didn’t matter that Harvard rejected me. They’re all a bunch of snobs there, anyway. I really wanted to go to State U. with my friends.

In reality, the student is profoundly disappointed because it had been his lifelong dream to attend Harvard. However, his high school performance did not meet Harvard’s standards.

* Intellectualization – An explanation which emphasizes facts and abstract or technical jargon, and ignores any emotional content. It is not the same as objectivity because it involves an attitude of aloofness.

Of course, when father was unfortunately diagnosed with brain cancer, which is medically terminal and of considerable physical discomfort to the human body, as well as mentally debilitating, it was my immediate objective to be of assistance to mother who was burdened with transportation problems to and from the hospital.

Naturally, I ascertained that her automobile was in pristine condition, by perusing the operator’s manual and cross-checking this data with her repair receipts. Then, I provided her with a weekly stipend for gasoline expenses.

The son’s reaction to his father’s illness involves an analysis of the situation. The son is emotionally distanced.

* Displacement – The transfer of one’s feelings, particularly anger and frustration, from the original person to someone else who is regarded as an easy target.

When Mr. Kramer came home from work, he berated his wife for leaving her diamond earrings on the kitchen table.

In reality, Mr. Kramer is angry at his boss for making him work overtime. But he fears losing his job, and he will not say no to his boss’ demands. He transfers the anger he feels at his boss onto his wife. Normally, he would not get upset over his wife’s earrings.

* Regression – A retreat to childlike behaviors. It is an attempt to feel comfort and gratification.

When Michael was studying for his bar exam, he was under a lot of stress. He seemed to sleep better if he took a teddy-bear to bed with him.

Michael has regressed to an earlier developmental stage.

Mr. Jenkins never learned how to cook, and refuses even to make a sandwich for himself when his wife is gone for the day.

Mr. Jenkins forces his wife to care for him as though he were a little boy.

* Repression – The forgetting or mental pushing aside of unpleasant memories. The repressed material, however, is not de-activated but continues to have an impact on behavior. Repression can be temporary or it can extend into amnesia.

Yolanda does not remember having been assaulted in the city parking garage.

Yet, she will drive blocks out of her way to avoid the garage and to search for an alternate parking space. Even though Yolanda does not remember the assault, she experiences a certain level of dysfunction.

Mrs. May was absolutely shocked when her new television was stolen after she left her front door unlocked. How could anyone do such a thing?! When the police arrived, they thought the thief was the same man who stole her neighbor’s car last month. Upon hearing this, Mrs. May vaguely recalled the incident.

Mrs. May avoided anxiety by pushing aside unpleasant information, and then taking on an attitude of naivete about human nature.

* Reaction Formation – Acting (reacting or over-reacting) in a way which is contrary to one’s real feelings. It is a method of controlling unacceptable impulses or protecting oneself from criticism.

Ken’s ideas are always appreciated by his co-workers. “What wonderful ideas you have–I think you have a marvelous intellect,” Debra said enthusiastically.

In reality, Debra secretly disagrees but fears being criticized by the majority. She over-compensates with her remarks in order not to be suspected of disagreement.

Barry feels that all wars are unjust and inflict untold misery on innocent civilians. He joins protest marches at every opportunity.

In reality, Barry will not fight because he is a coward and runs from confrontation. He does not want to be disgraced on the battlefield. By joining protest marches he can feel superior to the military.

When Mrs. Wong broke her leg, her neighbor did nothing to help her. Now she hates her neighbor. However, Mrs. Wong is a Christian and feels she should love everyone. She picks some roses from her garden and takes them to her neighbor.

Mrs. Wong did not give the roses out of Christian charity, but to control her intense feelings and to maintain her neighbor’s good opinion of her. Also, by showing thoughtfulness toward her neighbor, she expressed her own unfulfilled desire to have been treated better.

* Sublimation – A constructive diverting of aggressive urges into socially or culturally acceptable forms of behavior. Artistic work and sports are often manifestations of sublimation. This is a mature defense mechanism.

When Jennifer’s sister was killed by a drunken driver, she felt rage and wanted to set fire to the driver’s house.

Jennifer created a memorial photo album on her sister’s life and gave it to her nieces. Not only did this afford her greater closure over her sister’s death, but it also brought her nieces closer to her.

Ryan was physically abused by his older brothers when he was growing up. He always felt helpless and angry.

Ryan trained in the martial arts and, as a young man, opened his own karate school for boys and girls. Not only has Ryan learned how to channel his anger, but he also obtains great satisfaction from teaching youngsters how to defend themselves.

—–Natalia J. Garland, ( Licensed Master Social Worker in the State of Arizona, Licensed Master Social Worker (inactive status) in the State of New York, and certified substitute teacher in the State of Arizona



  1. I really like this post: it has a long, inclusive list and multiple examples of each item yet still basically exemplifies brevity.

    Good job!

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