The Psychological Defense Mechanisms

The defense mechanisms are used in order to escape unpleasant emotional or psychological states. For example, a middle-aged man who experiences intolerable anger and frustration may be unable to express it normally, so he represses or projects it onto someone else. Life is difficult and such defenses help people to cope. Indeed, for many, life would be unbearable without them.

The Nature of Defense

Before looking at the defenses themselves, a few general points need to be made. First, people employ defenses either to reduce or to escape negative emotional states. And they often do so because they cannot rid themselves of it in a healthy, natural way. So, the angry, frustrated man in the above example may wish to punch his boss or scream at his wife, but he cannot. If he did, he would lose his job and possibly his marriage.

Most of the defense mechanisms also involve the distortion of reality. When someone represses or denies, for example, they ignore some feeling or some aspect of the environment. During projection, they attribute their own feelings or desires to somebody else. In the case of displacement, the individual expresses feelings towards one person which they really feel for another. In each case, they are denying reality.

Finally, people are not usually aware of what they are doing. This is not always so – suppression, for example, often takes place consciously. In general, however, people who employ defenses do so without realizing it. After all, if they were aware that they were distorting reality, the distortion would be unlikely to work.

Repression and Suppression

Repression and suppression are often treated as if they were synonymous. In fact, though similar, there are differences.

Repression involves the selective forgetting of material that causes distress. The nature of this material naturally depends on the individual. In general though, it usually involves some kind of conflict or stress.

First, it must be emphasized that selective forgetting is not the same as the loss of memory that occurs as people age. The individual eliminates conflict and stress from consciousness (and things associated with them) because they are painful to recall. Second, this material is not permanently deleted but is instead stored in the unconscious.

Freud wrote a great deal about repression, referring to it as “the cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests.” Indeed, he even distinguished two forms: ‘primal repression’ and ‘repression proper’. In the first, thoughts are pushed out of consciousness before the individual is even aware of them. ‘Repression proper’, on the other hand, takes place after the material has been recognized.

Suppression means avoiding specific thoughts by willing oneself not to think about them or by deliberately thinking about something else. Unlike repression, the suppressed thoughts are available but blocked by other thoughts – or ignored. Suppression is unique among the defenses in that the individual will often acknowledge that this is what they intend to do.


Projection is a very common, and sometimes very dangerous, form of defense. When someone projects, they attribute a motivation, fear, or personality trait to someone else. This is usually something they dislike in themselves. Three different sub-types have been identified: ‘attributive projection’, ‘complimentary projection’ and ‘classical projection’.

‘Attributive projection’ means the individual is conscious that they possess some trait. They then attribute it to others – often someone respected or admired. For example, a frightened soldier may accuse his commanding officer of being a coward to lessen the shame he feels about his own fear.

‘Complimentary projection’ involves attributing the cause of a feeling or character trait to someone else. So, a child who hates school and is generally afraid of people may refuse to go because, she claims, her teacher is a vicious bully. This enables the child to then skip school with a clean conscience.

Finally, there is ‘classical projection’. Freud described this as an aid to repression. In classical projection, an individual is unaware of the trait he is projecting.

The dangers of projection should be obvious. A great deal of unjustified violence and cruelty can follow from it. The most obvious example would be the violent homophobe who is himself a homosexual.


In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud distinguishes two different forms of displacement. First, there is ‘object displacement’, in which an individual feels a strong emotion towards one person but vents the emotion on someone else. The novelist James Joyce gives a frightening example of this in his short story Counterparts, in which a man, humiliated by his boss and then by friends in a bar, comes home and finds an excuse to viciously beat his son. He has displaced his pent-up rage. In reality, of course, he wishes to unleash this anger on his boss, but he cannot.

Freud also identified what he called ‘drive displacement’. This is where someone re-directs the energy associated with one feeling into a different feeling. So, whereas in ‘object displacement’ it is the object that changes, in ‘drive displacement’ the object remains the same but the feeling changes. Sex and aggression are often displaced in this way. Two people who feel tremendous physical attraction but cannot consummate this (because they are married to other people, for example), may transform their lust into aggression and constantly argue.

Of course, the psychological defenses are vastly more complex and numerous than is suggested here. ‘Regression’ is a form of defense, as is ‘identification’, ‘compensation’, ‘reaction-formation’ and several more. Those described above are perhaps the most common and best known, however, and at least provide an introduction to this fascinating topic.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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