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10 Common Defense Mechanisms And How To Treat Them

Defense mechanisms are behaviors, strategies, and ways of thinking that people use to distance themselves from uncomfortable thoughts or realities. It is a way of coping rather than dealing with the situation head-on. Some defense mechanisms can be healthy and support your mental health, but many are not.

There are many defense mechanisms that are known, but some are more common than others. Below is a list of ten unhealthy defense mechanisms that are fairly common.

If you want to learn more about defense mechanisms in general, you can find more information here. For now, let’s move on to ten of the most common defense mechanisms and how to treat them.

10 Common Defense Mechanisms

1. Denial

When someone is in denial, they refuse to accept reality or facts. Their minds block the facts they are uncomfortable with so that they don’t have to deal with the associated negative emotions.

People in denial will refuse to discuss the subject or act as though it never happened. They can be in denial about events from the past as well as current realities.

2. Regression

When someone uses regression as a defense mechanism, they revert to a previous stage of psychological development. This is a subconscious way of escaping painful or uncomfortable emotions or events.

For example, an adult who regresses may opt to cuddle with a stuffed animal when anxious or refuse to get out of bed when faced with many responsibilities that day.

3. Acting Out

While many defense mechanisms on this list are used to hide uncomfortable emotions, acting out allows the person to express their emotions, but in an unhealthy way. They express the emotion in an extreme manner, hoping to relieve the intensity of the emotion.

For example, someone who had a bad day at work may come home and punch a hole in their wall out of frustration. Instead of expressing their emotions healthily, such as journaling or discussing their day with their partner, they chose a form of violence to release the tension.

Acting out like this may relieve the emotion temporarily, but it does not fix the problem that caused the anger. Furthermore, acting out is only likely to make the person feel bad about their behavior, which only continues the cycle.

4. Projection


Projection is the act of misattributing your uncomfortable thoughts and emotions to another person. People who do not have much awareness of their thoughts or emotions will use this defense mechanism to express their uncomfortable emotions without owning them.

A common example is that employees will project their insecurities or setbacks onto another coworker every time they make a tiny mistake.

5. Repression

Similar to denial, a person who uses the repression defense mechanism will hide painful memories, thoughts, or beliefs unconsciously, hoping to forget them.

However, though the person may not consciously remember the event, the memories usually stay with them subconsciously.

Repressed memories have a habit of coming out through subconscious beliefs and actions. For example, a child who was abused may not remember the exact events but will struggle to connect with others and create meaningful relationships.

This is usually out of a subconscious fear of being hurt again. However, since the abuse memories are hidden, the person does not realize that the event is linked to their current behavior or problems.

6. Displacement

People who use displacement as a defense mechanism will take out their emotions on someone or something that does not seem threatening.

For example, a person who is angry at their boss may hide their anger for fear of getting fired. Then, when they get home, they take it out on their spouse. They may erupt in a rage over tiny situations, such as a chore not being done, and extreme cases may escalate into domestic violence.

If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for help, guidance, and support.

7. Rationalization

Rationalization occurs when a person uses “facts” to either justify their emotions or behavior or avoid them. These facts may be real or they may be made up. Nevertheless, these facts can create a new reality in the person’s mind that helps them feel better but prevents them from truly accepting reality.

8. Dissociation

Dissociation is a way that people can remove themselves from their thoughts and emotions in a way that allows them to temporarily disconnect from reality.

This defense mechanism operates on a spectrum, ranging from moderate daydreaming to being disconnected from the self and not believing that reality is real.

9. Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization comes in two forms. The first form occurs when someone separates their life into separate sectors and keeps them apart.

For example, someone may have a strict rule of not talking about their personal life at work and thus not allow these two sectors of their life to interact.

The second form of compartmentalization involves a person blocking out certain aspects of their life or personality, particularly the aspects that are uncomfortable.

This commonly occurs when someone acts in a way that is against their values. They will compartmentalize the behavior so that they can push it away so that it doesn’t come into conflict with their values.

 10. Intellectualization

Some people use intellectualization when they would rather deal with the facts and logic of a situation rather than the emotions. For example, a person who is diagnosed with cancer and uses intellectualization may focus on the treatment strategies and medical bills but avoid the fear that comes with the diagnosis.

How To Treat Unhealthy Defense Mechanisms

When encountered with uncomfortable thoughts, emotions, or events, it is perfectly normal to want to push them away. However, we have to face our emotions at some point or another, no matter how uncomfortable they are. Defense mechanisms may make the pain go away temporarily, but they rarely heal it. Therefore, a treatment strategy is needed.

Mindfulness is key to working through these issues. You cannot treat the pain if you are unable to develop the awareness that the pain exists. People with more primitive defense mechanisms often lack this awareness.

Furthermore, therapy is a great tool to work through your defense mechanisms and unprocessed emotions. Together, you and your therapist can work through these unresolved thoughts and feelings, as well as process the events that triggered them.

Finally, the best way to work with your emotions is by developing healthy defense mechanisms. The defense mechanisms in this article are primarily unhealthy, but there are a few good options available.

Healthy mechanisms allow you to deal with the emotions healthily, especially if you are not at a good moment to process them through therapy, journaling, or some other means. Some healthy defense mechanisms include sublimation, humor, and assertiveness.

Final Thoughts

Defense mechanisms are very common ways of dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. However, they are rarely helpful with processing these emotions or dealing with the situation at hand.

Luckily, some mindfulness, therapy, and the development of healthy mechanisms can help you deal with these thoughts and emotions without further harming your mental health or the people you love.

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