The 8 Psychological Defense Mechanisms that Explain Why You Do That

At a basic level, psychological defense mechanisms are the lies we tell ourselves to avoid pain.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of becoming aware of our own unique combo platters of PDMs. They shape our personalities in quite profound ways.

Defense mechanisms are from psychodynamic theory, and it was good old Freud that first coined the term. According to Freud and many theorists that have written about defense mechanisms since, our unconscious (the Shadow or Hidden self) carries thoughts and feelings which we either find too painful to bear, or do not accord with our self image.

Our defense mechanisms are the invisible ways that we exclude unacceptable thoughts and feelings from awareness. And in the process, we subtly distort our perceptions of reality. This has knock on effects in our personal relationships and our internal emotional terrain.

Our defenses served a useful function once – protecting us from being overwhelmed by painful situations when we were children. But most of us unwittingly allow our psychological defense mechanisms to outstay their welcome. Consequently, we never create the freedom and choice about how to respond to anything. 

Once you identify your most used psychological defense mechanisms, the goal is to practicing acceptance of pain, instead of relying on them. This is how we start to experience life differently. And becoming aware of psychological defense mechanisms has another profound benefit too. It makes you a lot more empathetic and generous towards others when they act out. 

Drawing on the outstanding book by Joseph Burgo, Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives, here are the 8 defense mechanisms we use frequently to evade anxiety producing or upsetting situations.

I suggest that you use this as a springboard for your self-inquiry. Get a basic sense of your areas of health for each psychological area (see below) and which mechanisms you use the most.

With awareness and a whole load of self-compassion, we can disarm our defenses – one emotional challenge at a time.

The three areas of psychological concern

Joseph’s book divides our psychological concerns into three succinct areas:

  • bearing need and dependency as an inevitable part of relationships.
  • managing intense emotions.
  • developing a sense of self-esteem.

So we are looking to possibly transform:

  • how you feel about depending on others.
  • your ability to cope with strong emotions.
  • the sensitive places that give rise to shame.

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 you need more often than not.
  • feeling deeply without fear of overwhelm, confident that emotions give meaning to life and relationships.
  • trusting your sense of who you are; you aren’t 100% satisfied with yourself but you are certain you’re a person with value who hasn’t stopped growing.

We use the psychological defense mechanisms (with varying degrees of success) to help us to alleviate our pain in whichever is our dominant problematic area. Joseph’s theory is that we have one dominant challenging area and his book contains an exercise that helps you to figure out which it is.

an exercise

The exercise gives six groups of statements, separated into three clusters of the psychological areas above. You use the statements to identify your problem area.

(By the way, if you do not currently experience challenges in your life, then you might not be using psychological defense mechanisms to an unhealthy degree. You might want to read them anyway to help you to identify how you were in the past.)

Here is a sample statement from each group:

Cluster A – need and dependency 

Group 1: ‘I don’t trust other people to be there when I need them.’

Group 2: ‘When a problem happens, I often fantasize that others will fix it for me.’

(The groups are flip side of the same issue.)

Cluster B – strong emotions 

Group 3: ‘Strong displays of emotion make me feel uneasy.’

Group 4: ‘I often overreact to situations and feel bad afterwards.’

Cluster C – self-esteem 

Group 5: ‘I probably spend too much time in front of the mirror.’

Group 6: ‘I often feel ‘beneath’ my friends and acquaintances.’

The 8 psychological defense mechanisms

So the defense mechanisms are brought in as a way to salve the wounded area of your psychology. You could be using one, or more likely a combination of them.

Other articles have made the distinction between more primitive and more mature psychological defense mechanisms. I have found Joseph’s distillation all I have needed to apply the knowledge to my real life situations. 

For each defense, I draw on an example from the book for how it would look played in it one of the areas of concern.

1. Repression and denial

The essence of repression is turning away from the thing, or keeping it at arm’s length. Any unacceptable or painful feeling could be repressed from your awareness – anger, guilt or grief.

When we employ denial, we are completely blocking our awareness of the situation, emotion or feeling. We refuse to recognise the truth.

Let’s say you identified mostly with the ‘need and dependency’ area above: you may repress or deny neediness, and be forever developing relationships with people who you see as needing you too much. Interestingly, Joseph mentions that 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 were unable to express, and end up ‘taking it out’ on an innocent party (the classic is getting pissed off at work and taking it home to the husband/wife or kids). Reaction formation is turning an unacceptable feeling or impulse into the direct opposite. So if you are feeling repulsed by someone’s behaviour, being all ‘nicey nicey’ in their presence. 

If ‘strong emotion’ is your weak area, you may use displacement and reaction formation by reacting intensely to something unwarranted, or by ‘killing them with kindness’.

3. Splitting

Splitting, which hasn’t really entered into mainstream yet, is a reaction to feeling uncomfortably ambivalent. It is a way to resolve the discomfort of holding conflicting desires in our awareness. Splitting is adopting a black and white thinking as a way to feel ok with reality again.

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 jump to hate quickly. You are splitting off your love for the person to take refuge in rage.

4. Idealization

In the same way that splitting simplifies the problem of ambiguity, idealization offers a simple solution to difficulties that unconsciously feel too hopeless and painful to confront. It is a way to fend off depression.

How this might show up if ‘need and dependency’ is your problem area is if you regularly go through cycles of being infatuated with people – friends too – and then feeling deeply disillusioned with them, so as to devalue the relationship. You may be using idealization as a defense.

5. Projection

Everyone projects. In its most everyday form perhaps, we tend to project unpleasant feelings like tiredness onto whoever is in the vicinity, causing them to feel bad. We do it because we are finding things difficult to bear. We also commonly project guilt, project in romantic love, and project aspects of our character.

Projection works together with splitting to deal with ambivalence.

If your problem area is ‘strong emotions’ and you disown anger for example, you may 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. Think of order, tradition and routine but taken to extremes. Neat freak.

If ‘esteem’ is your Achilles Heel, 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 discrete, whereas intellectualism pervades your whole character: it is the massive and ongoing effort to divert attention away from the bodily places where we notice our feelings, and into the emotion free zone of the intellect.

If ‘need and dependency’ is your problem 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, then heavily defended narcissists might try to provoke feelings of envy in others to rid themselves of such painful feelings. 

Disarming our defenses

As Joseph states, we can never get rid of anything in our psyche. We can only grow and develop aspects of ourselves to compensate for it. That is what we do in the process of becoming aware. We are developing the ability to recognise and then make different choices. Like anything, it takes time.

I encourage you to let this be the start of your inquiry.