How to Figure out your Primary Psychological Defense Mechanism

This post is based on information from Joseph Burgo’s book, Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives.

Apsychological defense mechanism is an unconscious psychological strategy used to deal with uncomfortable and difficult situations. Our chosen mechanisms works to reduce our anxiety, sadness, and/or anger and to maintain our self-image. In fact, defense mechanisms are often what stand between us and reality!

There are two key ways of figuring out your primary defense mechanism Click To Tweet

As they shape our personalities in profound ways, it is essential to become aware of how, when, and which psychological defense mechanism we use. If we continue to use psychological defense mechanisms, we never create genuine freedom over our responses. Instead, we react in old habitual ways.

The goal of knowing about defense mechanisms is ultimately to stop using them. This post outlines two key ways you can identify your primary psychological defense mechanism.

Where are they from?

Defense mechanisms are from psychodynamic theory. Psychodynamic theory draws a distinction between conscious desires and beliefs from unconscious desires and beliefs. Defense mechanisms help us to keep the hidden self concealed, by excluding unacceptable thoughts and feelings from awareness.

The first way: using your key area of psychological concern

The first way to identify your primary defense mechanism is outlined in Joseph’s book. It states that we can figure out our defense mechanisms with reference to our most wounded psychological area. We use psychological defense mechanisms to help us to cope in whatever is the dominant problematic area. 

Our psychological concerns can be divided into three areas:

  • Bearing need and dependency as an inevitable part of relationships. I.e. how we feel about depending on others. 
  • Managing intense emotions. I.e. how comfortable we are with expressing anger, for example. 
  • Developing a sense of self-esteem. I.e. how we are able to contextualize negative experiences such as rejection. 

We aren’t ever likely to achieve perfection in our areas of psychological concern. However, how things might look if we are healthy is:

  • Tolerating dependency reasonably well, with an overall sense of getting what we need more often than not.
  • Feeling deeply without fear of overwhelm, confident that emotions give meaning to life and relationships.
  • Trusting our sense of who we are; although not being 100% satisfied with ourselves, we are certain we’re people with value.

For each psychological area, there are two extreme positions on either side of good health. For instance, if need and dependency is the problematic area, a person could show signs of learned helplessness, which is one extreme, or over-independence.

How to figure out your most challenging psychological area

You might be able to identify it from the descriptions above. However if you cannot: below are six groups of statements, separated into three clusters of the psychological areas above. The statements give an example worldview on each side of the spectrum within the categories. 


Cluster A – Need and dependency 

1: ‘I don’t trust other people to be there when I need them’ (the person that is uncomfortable with depending on others, and so creates extreme independence).

2: ‘When a problem happens, I often fantasize that others will fix it for me’ (the person who creates codependent situations).

Cluster B – Strong emotions 

3: ‘Strong displays of emotion make me feel uneasy’ (the person who is typically unemotional).

4: ‘I often overreact to situations and feel bad afterwards’ (the person who is over-emotional).

Cluster C – Self-esteem 

5: ‘I probably spend too much time in front of the mirror’ (the person who seems vain and overly preoccupied with themselves).

6: ‘I often feel ‘beneath’ my friends and acquaintances’ (the person that seems to lack self-belief and worth).


We will get to the second way of figuring out your primary defense mechanism after looking at the mechanisms themselves.

The 8 most common psychological defense mechanisms

1. Repression and denial

Repression means keeping an experience or emotion at arm’s length. Any unacceptable or painful feeling could be repressed from your awareness, for example, anger, guilt or grief.

When we use denial, we are completely blocking our awareness of the emotion or feeling, refusing to recognise it.

Let’s say you identified mostly with the ‘need and dependency’ area above. You may repress or deny neediness, leading you to develop relationships with people who you see as needing you too much.

Using food or other physical substances in a compulsive way indicates denying or repressing a people-connected need.

2. Displacement and reaction formation

Displacement is when you have a feeling that you are unable to express, and end up ‘taking it out’ on an innocent party. The classic example is getting pissed off at work, and taking it home to the husband/wife or kids. 

Reaction formation is converting an unacceptable feeling or impulse into the direct opposite. For example, if you are disgusted by someone’s behaviour, being overly sweet in their presence keeps your disgust invisible. 

Reaction formation is converting an unacceptable feeling or impulse into the exact opposite Click To Tweet

If ‘strong emotion’ is your wounded area, you may use displacement by overreacting, or displacement formation by ‘killing with kindness’ a person that you don’t like. 

3. Splitting

Splitting is a way to resolve the discomfort of holding conflicting desires in our awareness. It is the same as adopting black-and-white thinking.

Let’s say ‘self-esteem’ is your key area of concern. If you use splitting, when a loved one does something that frustrates you, you may feel a lot of hate quickly. You are splitting off your love for the person to take refuge in rage.

4. Idealization

Idealization is a form of splitting. It happens when we attribute exaggeratedly positive qualities to either ourselves (narcissism) or others (romantic infatuation is a form of idealization)!

Idealization during child development is natural. For example, we all tend to idealize our parents. If the developmental stage was interrupted by trauma, our ability to appreciate others as complex is never developed.

If ‘need and dependency’ is your problem area and you use this defense mechanism, then you might go through cycles of being infatuated with people, and then feeling deeply disillusioned with them.

5. Projection

This is probably the most well-known defense mechanism.

Everyone projects. In its most everyday form, we tend to project unpleasant feelings like tiredness onto whoever is around, causing them to feel bad. We also commonly project guilt, project in romantic love, and project aspects of our character.

If your problem area is ‘strong emotions’, you disown anger, and you find people around you getting angry for no good reason – this indicates projection is at play. 

6. Control

Control is a response to the experience of helplessness. A person who is using this defense mechanism values order, tradition and routine. 

If ‘esteem’ is your problematic area, you might use this defense mechanism to attempt to control other people’s impressions of you, wanting too much to look your best in front of strangers.

7. ‘Thinking’

Thinking defenses fall into ‘rationalization’ and ‘intellectualism’.

Rationalization is confined to one area. Intellectualism pervades a person’s whole character: it is the massive effort to divert attention away from the bodily places where we notice feelings, and into the emotion free zone of the intellect. 

If ‘need and dependency’ is your problematic area, you may use rationalizing the urge to escape from emotional dependency in relationships by creating plausible reasons, such as ‘I’m not in a settled place in my life’.

8. Defenses against shame – narcissism, blaming and contempt

Those who struggle with shame tend to use narcissism, blaming and contempt, with narcissism being the primary defense. One definition of narcissism is making extreme effort to control how you are perceived by others. 

If ‘strong emotions’ is your weak spot and you defend with narcissism, you might try to provoke feelings of envy in others to rid yourself of such painful feelings. 

An alternative way of knowing which defense mechanisms you use

The second way of figuring out your primary psychological defense mechanism is to use the Enneagram to help you. The Enneagram is a personality awareness system.

Use your Enneagram type to help you to figure out your primary defense mechanism Click To Tweet

The reason the Enneagram can help us is that the way we use psychological defense mechanisms is closely related to our ego structures and the Enneagram is the most useful thing we have for observing our ego structures. Specific defense mechanisms are strongly associated with each Enneagram style.

Here are the primary defense mechanisms used by each type.


Most common psychological defense mechanism for each Enneagram type:

Ones: Reaction Formation
Twos: Repression
Threes: Identification
Fours: Introjection
Fives: Isolation
Sixes: Projection
Sevens: Rationalization
Eights: Denial
Nines: Narcotization


There are three defense mechanisms here that were not covered above:

Identification is where a person unconsciously incorporates attributes and characteristics of another person into his or her own personality and sense of self.

Introjection is where, instead of repelling critical information and negative experiences that can cause a person anxiety or pain, individuals introject the information – that is, they fully absorb, internalize, and incorporate these data into their sense of self. It is like swallowing something whole without being able to differentiate between truth and untruth.

Narcotization is where individuals unconsciously numb themselves to avoid something that feels too large, complex, difficult, or uncomfortable to handle.

Summary

I think that disarming our defense mechanisms is a key element of personal growth. Once we understand our primary defense mechanism, we are able to ourselves in the throes of using it. And once we can do that we can ask ourselves: what is really occurring? What the defense mechanism is protecting?

Disarming your defense mechanisms is key to personal growth Click To Tweet

For example, when I recognise myself rationalizing (my primary defense mechanism), I can ask myself probing questions – for example, what pain am I trying to avoid feeling here? What am I evading responsibility for?

I encourage you to let this be the start of your self-discovery into psychological defense mechanisms.