Why We Use Defense Mechanisms

Why We Use Defense Mechanisms

Learn more about the unconscious mental gymnastics we perform to protect ourselves from painful thoughts and experiences.

According to Cramer (2015), there are three key aspects of all defense mechanisms. First, they are mental processes of which we are not consciously aware. Second, they help us avoid experiencing strong emotions that we would otherwise feel. Third, they protect our sense of self from threat – they keep our self-esteem and personal identity safe from experiences that seem to threaten those aspects of ourselves.

According to Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund Freud, defense mechanisms are also used to keep us from having to acknowledge our “instinctual drives” – the other primitive and socially unacceptable desires that each of us possesses (Freud, 1936). This purpose is closely related to protecting our ego and staving off unpleasant emotions. Sometimes the supposed threat comes from within us, and sometimes it comes from an outside source (Freud, 1936). 

Why Defense Mechanisms Are Important

Why do we have defense mechanisms in the first place? The simple answer is that they fulfill a very important function of self-preservation. As humans, whenever we experience stress, we naturally look for ways to reduce or avoid that stress. Defense mechanisms are highly effective (until we become aware of them – more on that in a moment) at protecting us from psychological distress, even though their overuse actually makes things worse (Cramer, 2015).

Defense mechanisms, in this sense, are similar to a form of coping. The differences between the two are that coping mechanisms are consciously and voluntarily undertaken, while defense mechanisms are unconsciously and unintentionally undertaken (Cramer, 1998). Also, defense mechanisms, when they are successful, allow us to continue to see the world as we would like to see it, while coping strategies involve admitting that we needed to work hard or change something to handle the situation we were in (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2001).

Interestingly, defense mechanisms generally don’t work if we are conscious of them. This means that we have to change our unconscious strategies over time. Defense mechanisms naturally evolve as we age, which has led scholars to say that certain defense mechanisms are typical of or appropriate for certain ages (Cramer, 2015).

“The hatred of money is almost always a defense mechanism.”
― Mokokoma Mokhonoana


We can break defense mechanisms into roughly two types: those that involve dissociation and those that involve cognitive distortions (Bowins, 2004). In dissociative defense mechanisms, one successfully avoids a distressing emotional experience, while in cognitively distorting defense mechanisms, we unconsciously replace thoughts that would hurt our egos with thoughts that make us feel better about ourselves. Let’s look in more detail at some examples of the primary types of defense mechanisms (Cramer, 2015):

● Projection

○ In projection, we see something undesirable about ourselves in somebody else instead of acknowledging that it is our own characteristic.

● Sublimation

○ In sublimation, we take feelings we think are inappropriate in their actual context and act them out in a different context instead.

● Displacement

○ Displacement is directing one’s feelings from their original target to another. Ever heard the saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger”? People displace their anger toward the nearest target instead of the actual cause of the anger all the time.

● Reaction Formation

○ In reaction formation, we express the opposite of what we are actually feeling, because that is more unconsciously acceptable to us.

● Rationalization

○ In rationalization, we come up with logical reasons for things that we did impulsively or without a clear reason.

● Repression

○ In repression, we simply suppress all memory of an experience.

Defense Mechanisms & Mental Health

There is a lot of research connecting the use of less effective defense mechanisms with negative mental health outcomes (e.g., Cramer, 2000). For example, people with serious mental health issues are likely to be avoiding fully acknowledging their situation, which can make things worse over time. While defense mechanisms may help in the short term to stop the negative feelings associated with mental health disorders, they will prolong the period of time before a person actually gets help and changes. At the same time, defense mechanisms can also cause people to overstate their degree of suffering (Steptoe & Vogele, 1992). All of this makes identifying the defense mechanisms in a client’s psychology a key objective for many therapists (Cramer, 2000).

In Sum

By now, you may be pretty suspicious of defense mechanisms. Most of the examples seem negative, like we are just avoiding the realities inside and outside our heads. We can also argue the opposite: defense mechanisms are an essential tool for survival.


● Bowins, B. (2004). Psychological defense mechanisms: a new perspective. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 64(1), 1-26.

● Cramer, P. (1998). Freshman to senior year: A follow-up study of identity, narcissism and defense mechanisms. Journal of Research in Personality, 32, 156-172.

● Cramer, P. (2000). Defense mechanisms in psychology today: further processes for adaptation. American Psychologist, 55(6), 637-646.

● Cramer, P. (2015). Defense mechanisms: 40 years of empirical research. Journal of Personality Assessment, 97(2), 114-122.

● Freud, A. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.

● Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2001). Further distinctions between coping and defense mechanisms? Journal of Personality, 69(2), 287-296.

● Steptoe, A., & Vögele, C. (1992). Individual differences in the perception of bodily sensations: the role of trait anxiety and coping style. Behavior Research and Therapy, 30(6), 597-607