Psychological Defenses


Defense mechanisms are automatic psychological processes that protect an individual from anxiety and the awareness of internal or external threats or stressors. People are often unaware of these processes as they operate (although others may be painfully aware of them!). Defense mechanisms can be classified into groups or levels that indicate how they affect an individual’s functioning.

High Adaptive Level: Defense mechanisms in this group result in optimal adaptation to stress. The defenses usually maximize feelings of well being and do not interfere with the conscious awareness of feelings, ideas, and their consequences.

•Affiliation involves dealing with stressors by turning to others for help or support. This involves sharing problems with others but not trying to make someone else responsible for them.

•Altruism involves dealing with stressors by dedicating yourself to meeting the needs of others. The individual receives satisfaction vicariously or from the response of others.

•Anticipation involves dealing with stressors by anticipating the consequences and feelings associated with possible future events and considering realistic solutions.

•Humor involves dealing with stress by emphasizing the amusing or ironic aspects of the situation.

•Self-Assertion involves dealing with stress by expressing your feelings and thoughts directly in a way that is not aggressive, coercive, or manipulative.

•Self-Observation involves dealing with stress by reflecting on your own thoughts, feelings, motivation, and behavior, and then responding appropriately.

•Sublimation involves dealing with stress by channeling potentially disruptive feelings or impulses into socially acceptable behavior (e.g., playing rugby to channel angry impulses).

•Suppression involves dealing with stress by intentionally avoiding thinking about disturbing problems, wishes, feelings, or experiences.

Mental Inhibition Level: Defense mechanisms in this group keep potentially threatening ideas, feelings, memories, wishes, or fears out of awareness. Diminished awareness can affect the person’s ability to relate to others.

•Displacement involves dealing with stress by transferring strong feelings about on situation onto another (usually less threatening) substitute situation.

•Dissociation involves dealing with stress by breaking off part of memory, consciousness, or perception of self or the environment to avoid a problem situation (e.g., amnesia).

•Intellectualization involves dealing with stress by excessively using abstract thinking and generalizations to avoid or minimize unpleasant feelings.

•Reaction Formation involves dealing with stress by substituting behavior, thoughts, or feelings that are the exact opposite of your own unacceptable thoughts or feelings (which the person is usually not aware of).

•Repression involves dealing with stress by removing disturbing wishes, thoughts, or experiences from conscious awareness. The person may still be aware of the feelings associated with the repressed issue, but will not know where the feelings come from.

•Undoing involves dealing with stress by using words or behaviors designed to negate or make amends symbolically for unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or actions.

Disavowal Level: Defense mechanisms in this category try to keep unpleasant or unacceptable stressors, impulses, ideas, feelings, or responsibilities out of awareness.

•Denial involves dealing with stress by refusing to acknowledge some painful aspect of reality or experience that is apparent to others.

•Projection involves dealing with stress by falsely attributing your own unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts to another person.

•Rationalization involves dealing with stress by concealing the true motivations for a thought, action, or feeling by using elaborate, reassuring, and self-serving (but incorrect) explanations.

Action Level: This level is characterized by defenses that deal with internal or external stressors by action or withdrawal.

•Acting Out involves dealing with stress by using action rather than reflection or feeling. Defensive acting out is often associated with “bad behavior” when there are underlying emotional conflicts.

•Help-Rejecting Complaining involves dealing with stress by complaining and making repeated requests for help that disguise hidden feelings of hostility toward others, which is then expressed by rejecting the suggestions, advice, or help that others offer. The complaints may involve physical or psychological symptoms or life problems.

•Passive Aggression involves dealing with stress by indirectly and unassertively expressing aggression toward others. The person displays an outward superficial cooperativeness that masks the underlying resistance, resentment, and hostility. This defense may be adaptive in situations where direct and assertive communication is punished (e.g., abusive relationships).

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