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Defense mechanism

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The following article is about the defense mechanism as a psychological concept. Since her time researchers have identified many more defense mechanisms, however on this page only Anna Freud’s defense mechanisms are described.

Defense mechanisms are unconscious mechanisms aimed at reducing anxiety that arises from three different scenarios:

  • When the id impulses are in conflict with each other;
  • When the id impulses conflict with superego values and beliefs;
  • When an external threat is posed to the ego.

For example, when the id impulses (e.g. desire to have sex with a stranger) conflict with the superego (e.g. belief in societal conventions of not having sex with unknown persons), then the feelings of anxiety come to the surface. To reduce these negative feelings, defense mechanisms are employed.

The concept of the biological id impulses comes from Sigmund Freud’s structural model. Id impulses are based on the pleasure principle: instant gratification of one’s own desires and needs. Sigmund Freud believed that id represents the instinctual impulses in ourselves, which are aggression, and sexual. The sexual drive is our drive to live, to thrive and to grow. The aggression drive is our drive for safety and protection of our lives. Those two impulse drives are the motivating factors of our actions.

In the ego, there are two processes going on. First, there is the unconscious primary process, where the thoughts are not organized in a coherent way, the feelings can shift, contradictions are not in conflict or are just not perceived that way, and condensations arise. There is no logic and no time line. Lust is the important motive for this process. On the contrary, there is the conscious secondary process, to which strong boundaries are set, and in which the thoughts must be organized in a coherent way. More cognitions arise here.

The impulses from the id cannot be focused on the satisfaction, they must respect the reality of the world and the superego. The superego represents the learned (in the process of growing up) and internalized set of values and ethics, which gives individual the sense of what is right and what is wrong to do, feel and think.

When the anxiety becomes too overwhelming it is then the place of the ego to employ defense mechanisms to protect the individual. Feelings of guilt, embarrassment and shame often accompany the feeling of anxiety. Anna Freud describes in her book Ego and mechanisms of defense (1936) the concept of signal anxiety; she states that it is ‘not directly a conflicted instinctual tension but a signal occurring in the ego of an anticipated instinctual tension’. The signalling function of anxiety is thus seen as a crucial one and biologically adapted to warn the organism of danger or a threat to its equilibrium. The anxiety is felt as an increase in bodily or mental tension and the signal that the organism receives in this way allows it the possibility of taking defensive action towards the perceived danger. Defense mechanisms work by distorting the id impulses into acceptable forms, or by unconscious blockage of these impulses.

Defense mechanisms are helpful and, if used in a proper manner, are healthy. However, if misused, the defense mechanisms may also be unhealthy. The maladaptive use of defense mechanisms can occur in a variety of cases, e.g. when they become automatic and prevent individuals from realizing their true feelings and thoughts. Also, a maladaptive use of defense mechanisms is when they are being employed in a continuous way that disrupts reality-testing. Denial and paranoid projection are considered to be psychotic in its nature, as their repeated use can cause people to lose touch with the real world and their surroundings and consequently isolate themselves from it and dwell in a ‘created’ world of their own design. For example, addicts are known to misuse such defense mechanisms as denial. Defense mechanisms can also be harmful if:

  • There are too few defenses which can be employed in coping with threats;
  • There is too much superego activity, which causes the use of too many defenses.

Sigmund Freud was the first person to develop the concept of defense mechanisms, however it was his daughter Anna Freud who clarified and conceptualized it. She has described ten different defense mechanisms:

  • Denial. An ego defense mechanism that operates unconsciously to resolve emotional conflict, and to reduce anxiety by refusing to perceive the more unpleasant aspects of external reality;
  • Displacement. An unconscious defense mechanism, whereby the mind redirects emotion from a ‘dangerous’ object to a ‘safe’ object. In psychoanalytic theory, displacement is a defense mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet;
  • Intellectualization (isolation). Concentrating on the intellectual components of the situations as to distance oneself from the anxiety provoking emotions associated with these situations;
  • Projection. Attributing to others, one’s own unacceptable or unwanted thoughts or/and emotions. Projection reduces anxiety in the way that it allows the expression of the impulse or desire without letting the ego recognize it;
  • Rationalization. The process of constructing a logical justification for a decision that was originally arrived at through a different mental process;
  • Reaction formation. The converting of unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites;
  • Regression. The reversion to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable impulses;
  • Repression. The process of pulling thoughts into the unconscious and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness;
  • Sublimation. The refocusing of psychic energy (which Sigmund Freud believed was limited) away from negative outlets to more positive outlets. These drives which cannot find an outlet are rechannelled. In Freud’s classic theory, erotic energy is only allowed limited expression due to repression, and much of the remainder of a given group’s erotic energy is used to develop its culture and civilization. Freud considered this defense mechanism the most productive compared to the others that he identified. Sublimation is the process of transforming libido into ‘social useful’ achievements, mainly art. Psychoanalysts often refer to sublimation as the only truly successful defense mechanism;
  • Suppression. The conscious process of pushing thoughts into the preconscious.
  • Dissociation: Separation or postponement of a feeling that normally would accompany a situation or thought.
  • Idealization: Form of denial in which the object of attention is presented as "all good" masking true negative feelings towards the other.
  • Identification:The unconscious modelling of one's self upon another person's behaviour.
  • Introjection: Identifying with some idea or object so deeply that it becomes a part of that person.
  • Inversion: Refocusing of aggression or emotions evoked from an external force onto one's self.
  • Isolation:Inability to simultaneously experience the cognitive and affective components of a situation.
  • Somatization: Manifestation of emotional anxiety into physical symptoms.
  • Splitting: Repressing, dissociating or disconnecting important feelings that are "dangerous" to psychic well-being. Causes person to get out of touch with her/his feelings and feelings to "fragmented self".
  • Substitution: When a person replaces one feeling or emotion for another.

Defense mechanisms are psychic processes that are generally attributed to the organized ego. They organize and maintain optimal psychic conditions in a way that helps the subject's ego both to confront and avoid anxiety and psychic disturbance. They are therefore among the attempts to work through psychic conflict but if they are deployed in an excessive or inappropriate way they can compromise psychic growth.

There is no clear distinction in Sigmund Freud's work between a defense and a defense mechanism, (the latter referring to the unconscious processes by which the defense operates). The concept of defense first appeared in his article "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1894a) and was next discussed in "Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1896b) and "The Aetiology of Hysteria" (1896c). Finally, in the text entitled "Instincts and their Vicissitudes" (1915c), turning against the self and reversal into the opposite were identified as defense mechanisms, in addition to repression and sublimation.

For Freud, the concept of defense refers to the ego's attempts at psychic transformation in response to representations and affects that are painful, intolerable, or unacceptable.

He abandoned the concept of defense for a period in favor of the concept of repression. He then reintroduced it in "Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality" (1922b [1921]). Freud ascribed a defensive significance to introjection (or identification) and projection by terming them all "neurotic mechanisms." Then in an addendum to Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d [1925]), he reconsidered this concept in relation to that of repression, suggesting that: "It will be an undoubted advantage, I think, to revert to the old concept of 'defence,' provided we employ it explicitly as a general designation for all the techniques which the ego makes use of in conflicts which may lead to a neurosis, while we retain the word 'repression' for the special method of defense which the line of approach taken by our investigations made us better acquainted with in the first instance" (p. 163). Freud added that: "further investigations may show that there is an intimate connection between special forms of defense and particular illnesses, as, for instance, between repression and hysteria" (p. 164). By this he meant, more specifically, that the ego protects itself against the tendency towards conflict by means of a counter-cathexis. It was this counter-cathexis that came to represent the supreme essence of the defense mechanisms.

This idea was taken up by Heinz Hartmann (1950) in the context of his theory of the autonomous functions of the ego. He argued that once the energy of the counter-cathexis had been withdrawn from the tendency that caused the conflict, it was neutralized. For him, the autonomous processes (organization, cathexis, delay) can be the precursors of defense mechanisms. In general, neurotic defense mechanisms constitute an exaggeration or a distortion of regulating and adaptive mechanisms.

With strong support from the ego-psychology movement in her studies on ego functions, Anna Freud listed and described the ego's defense mechanisms. For her, "every vicissitude to which the instincts are liable has its origin in some ego-activity. Were it not for the intervention of the ego or of those external forces which the ego represents, every instinct would know only one fate—that of gratification" (1937, p. 47). To the nine defense mechanisms that she identified: "regression, repression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self and reversal," she suggested that, "we must add a tenth, which pertains rather to the study of the normal than to that of neurosis: sublimation, or displacement of instinctual aims" (p. 47).

Finally, for adherents of the Kleinian school, the defense mechanisms take a different form in a structured ego from the one they assume in a primitive, unstructured ego (or an undifferentiated id-ego). The defenses become modes of mental functioning. For Susan Isaacs (1948), all mental mechanisms are linked to fantasies, such as devouring, absorbing, or rejecting. Melanie Klein herself (1952, 1958) principally identified the following primitive defenses: splitting, idealization, projective identification and manic defenses.

The terms "defense" and "defense mechanism" are still used interchangeably today, which suggests a degree of confusion between a descriptive approach to the concept of defense and an approach based on the analysis of psychic adaptations from an economic viewpoint.


   * Benassy, Maurice. (1969). Le moi et ses mécanismes de défense:Étude théorique. In La théorie psychanalytique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
   * Freud, Anna. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. New York: International Universities Press.
   * Freud, Sigmund. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.
   * Hartmann, Heinz. (1950). Comments on the psychoanalytic theory of the ego. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 5, 74-96.
   * Isaacs, Susan. (1952). On the nature and function of phantasy. In M. Klein, P. Heimann, S. Isaacs and J. Riviere (Eds.), Developments in psycho-analysis (p. 67-121). (Reprinted from International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 29 (1948), 73-97.)
   * Klein, Melanie. (1952). Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant. In Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963 (pp. 61-93). London: Hogarth, 1975.
   * ——. (1958). On the development of mental functioning. In Envy and gratitude and other works, 1946-1963. (pp. 236-246). London: Hogarth, 1975.


See Also

The term "defense" refers to all the techniques deployed by the ego in conflicts that have the potential to lead to neurosis. In the sense in which Freud first used the term, defenses are unconscious because they stem from a conflict between the drive and the ego or between a perception or representation (memory, fantasy, etc.) and moral imperatives. The function of the defenses is thus to support and maintain a state of psychic stability by avoiding anxiety and unpleasure. The concept of defense was broadened somewhat when Freud attributed an...

From his earliest works, Freud situated the concept of defence (défense) at the heart of his theory of neurosis.

Defence refers to the reaction of the ego to certain interior stimuli which the ego perceives as dangerous.

Although Freud later came to argue that there were different "mechanisms of defence' in addition to repression[1], he makes it clear that repression is unique in the sense that it is constitutive of the unconscious.

Anna Freud attempted to classify some of these mechanisms in her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936).

Lacan is very critical of the way in which Anna Freud and ego-psychology interpret the concept of defence. He argues that they confuse the concept of defence with the concept of resistance.[2] For this reason, Lacan urges caution when discussing the concept of defence, and prefers not to centre his concept of psychoanalytic treatment around it. When he does discuss defence, he opposes it to resistance; whereas resistances are transitory imaginary responses to intrusions of the symbolic and are on the side of the object, defences are more permanent symbolic structures of subjectivity (which Lacan usually calls fantasy rather than defence). This way of distinguishing between resistance and defence is quite different from that of other schools of psychoanalysis, which, if they have distinguished between defence and resistance at all, have generally tended to regard defences as transitory phenomena and resistances as more stable.

The opposition between desire and defence is, for Lacan, a dialectical one. Thus he argues in 1960 that, like the neurotic, the pervert "defends himself in his desire," since "desire is a defence (défense), a prohibition (défense) against going beyond a certain limit in jouissance."[3] In 1964 he goes on to argue: "To desire involves a defensive phase that makes it identical with not wanting to desire."[4]


  1. see Freud, 1926d
  2. Ec, 335
  3. E, 322
  4. Sll, 235

See Also


  • Fonagy, P. and Target, M. (2003). Psychoanalytic Theories: Perspectives from Developmental Psychopathology. London: Whurr Publishers.
  • Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
  • "The Complete Guide to Social Work". Independent Study for the ASWB exam

Online papers