The Purpose of Common Psychological Defense Mechanisms

In essence, a psychological defence is a method someone develops to cope with painful situations and avoid emotional overload. Far from meaningless psychobabble, they play a major role in people’s lives, affecting relationships and shaping perceptions.

George Vaillant

In 1977, the American psychiatrist George Vaillant published the results of a study titled Adaptation to Life. Over a 30 year period, he had observed and analyzed a group of Harvard University students, using questionnaires and follow-up interviews. Anyone who showed physical or psychological problems had been excluded, though, in Vaillant’s own words, “none survived the game of life without pain, effort, and anxiety.” Vaillant was curious to see what influenced them and what techniques or methods they would develop in order to cope.

Most striking was the simple fact that all of them did develop coping strategies. Vaillant had selected the most privileged, intelligent, wealthy, and emotionally mature young people he could find, and yet even they had had to deploy psychological defences to get them through. Vaillant divided these defences into the immature, the neurotic, and the mature.

Immature Defences

Some learnt to defend themselves by pretending things were different from the way they really were. In other words, they chose fantasy as their defence. At its most simple, this meant escaping into daydreams and imagination. A classic example is the man who feels physically and socially inferior to his work colleagues. Instead of hitting the gym and being more friendly and open, he escapes into a fantasy world, imagining what it would be like if he were tall, handsome, and popular.

But such immature defences can be more complex than mere escapism. Someone may begin to ‘project’ their failings on to other people. For example, a man who is always flying into rages and upsetting his family and work colleagues will claim that they are provoking him and that, far from being the aggressor, he is in fact the victim.

Whatever form it took, those with an immature defence system had one thing in common – they didn’t believe anything was wrong with them. And the consequences were dire. Vaillant found that most had lost touch with their family and had failed to develop any deep, intimate friendships. They also tended to be paranoid. Those who escape into fantasy and refuse to deal with the real world usually externalise their inner conflicts and see danger and threats everywhere.

Neurotic Defences

Those students who had developed neurotic rather than immature defences also tended to avoid reality. But, though they often distorted it to suit their needs, they were more realistic than those at an immature level. They also paid far greater attention to the needs and wishes of others.

Repression is the most common form of neurotic defence. Sometimes people simply repress the thought but not the feeling. So an individual may feel anxious or depressed without knowing why. Others do the reverse, repressing the feeling but not the thought. Such a person would know they are sad, angry, or bereaved, but wouldn’t feel the actual emotion.

Displacement is another common neurotic defence. Someone who displaces will move his thoughts and feeling around. Imagine, for example, a stressed middle-aged man who hates his job. His new boss is younger and less experienced than him, but orders him about with an arrogant swagger. The man is bitter and resentful, but he cannot allow these feelings to surface in case he loses his job. Instead, he goes home and picks fault with his wife or children, venting all his pent-up rage on them.

Finally, there is ‘reaction-formation’. This is particularly common when people are ashamed of their sexual desires. Reaction-formation essentially means pretending to feel the polar opposite to what you really feel. An obvious example is the man who rages against homosexuals because he feels sexually attracted to his male colleague.

Mature Defences

First, mature people shield themselves by anticipating what something will be like. For example, if their partner has been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, they will ask the doctor how things are likely to progress and how long their partner has left. And they will ask their doctor to be brutally honest. Knowing what is going to happen demands great courage, but it does at least prepare you.

Altruism is another very healthy form of defence. For example, bereaved people often find great comfort in volunteering to work with the sick or the homeless. Rather than feeling sorry for themselves, or convincing themselves that they have been hard done by, they fill the void by sharing their love, kindness, and compassion.

Humour is another healthy defence. When British cities were bombed during the Second World War, for example, posters were often placed outside the entrance to a destroyed building with the words “please wipe your feet” written on them.


Perhaps the most interesting result of Vaillant’s study was that those who employed the more mature forms of defence tended to be much happier. In fact, Vaillant found that those students who had gone on to develop such defences were four times more likely to be happy than those who used immature or neurotic defences. He also found that the vast majority enjoyed their career and had chosen it because it gave them pleasure rather than because it made them rich. They also had more friends and healthier relationships than those in the other two groups. Perhaps most astonishing of all, even their mortality rate was lower!

It should never be forgotten that developing some form of defence is quite natural. At times, however, they can interfere with your quality of life. But Vaillant also concluded that they are not fixed. Change is always possible.

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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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