Defense Mechanisms

 People use defense, or coping, mechanisms to relieve anxiety. The definitions below will help you determine whether your patient is using one or more of these mechanisms.

  1. Acting Out
    • Acting out refers to repeating certain actions to ward off anxiety without weighing the possible consequences of those action.
    • Example: A husband gets angry with his wife and starts staying at work later.
  2. Compensation
    • Also called substitution.
    • It involves trying to make up for feelings of inadequacy or frustration in one area by excelling or overindulging in another.
    • Example: An adolescent takes up jogging because he failed to make the swimming team.
  3. Denial
    • A person in denial protects himself from reality – especially the unpleasant aspects of life – by refusing to perceive, acknowledge, or face it.
    • Example: A woman newly diagnosed with end-stage-cancer says, “I’ll be okay, it’s not a big deal”.
  4. Displacement
    • In displacement, the person redirects his impulses (commonly anger) from the real target (because that target is too dangerous) to a safer but innocent person.
    • Example: A patient yells at a nurse after becoming angry at his mother for not calling him.
  5. Fantasy
    • Fantasy refers to creation of unrealistic or improbable images as a way of escaping from daily pressures and responsibilities or to relieve boredom.
    • Example: A person may daydream excessively, watch TV for hours on end, or imagine being highly successful when he feels unsuccessful. Engaging in such activities makes him feel better for a brief period.
  6. Identification
    • In identification, the person unconsciously adopts the personality characteristics, attitudes, values, and behavior of someone else (such as a hero he emulates and admires) as a way to allay anxiety. He may identify with a group to be more accepted by them.
    • Example: An adolescent girl begins to dress and act like her favorite pop star.
  7. Intellectualization
    • Also called isolation.
    • Intellectualization refers to hiding one’s emotional responses or problems under a façade of big words and pretending there’s no problem.
    • Example: After failing to obtain a job promotion, a worker explains that the position failed to meet his expectations for climbing the corporate ladder.
  8. Introjection
    • A person introjects when he adopts someone else’s values and standards without exploring whether they fit him.
    • Example: An individual begins to follow a strict vegetarian diet for no apparent reason.
  9. Projection
    • In projection, the person attributes to others his own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and impulses.
    • Example: A student who fails a test blames his parents for having the television on too loud when he was trying to study.
  10. Rationalization
    • Rationalization occurs when a person substitutes acceptable reasons for the real or actual reasons that are motivating his behavior.
    • The rationalizing patient makes excuses for shortcomings and avoids self-condemnation, displacements, and criticisms.
    • Example: An individual states that she didn’t win the race because she hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep.
  11. Reaction Formation
    • In reaction formation, the person behaves the opposite of the way he feels.
    • Example: Love turns to hate and hate into love.
  12. Regression
    • Under stress, a person may regress by returning to the behaviors he used in an earlier, more comfortable time in his life.
    • Example: A previously toilet-trained preschool child begins to wet his bed every night after his baby brother is born.
  13. Repression
    • Repression refers to unconsciously blocking out painful or unacceptable thoughts and feelings, leaving them to operate in the subconscious.
    • Example: A woman who was sexually abused as a young child can’t remember the abuse but experiences uneasy feelings when she goes near the place where the abuse occurred.
  14. Sublimation
    • In sublimation, a person transforms unacceptable needs in acceptable ambitions and actions.
    • Example: He may channel his sex drive into his sports or hobbies.
  15. Undoing
    • In undoing, the person tries to undo the harm he feels he has done to others.
    • Example: A patient who says something bad about a friend may try to undo the harm by saying nice things about her or by being nice to her and apologizing.