Freudian Defense Mechanisms

We as humans, on both conscience and unconscious levels, are immediately prone to alleviate added stress and mental complications. We create defense mechanisms that serve as a mental cushion to prevent stress. It is through these mechanisms that we protect ourselves. The most common defense mechanisms are repression, projection, displacement, denial, and sublimation. Second tier defense mechanisms such as regression, rationalization, intellectualization, and reaction formation are additional Freudian defenses.

Repression occurs when a subject unconsciously holds back unwanted or stressful emotions to protect themselves from reliving or acknowledging the experience. A subject can wholly or partially repress certain thoughts depending on the extent of the personal trauma. Patients suffering from post traumatic stress disorders commonly use repression as a defense mechanism. In the example of sexual molestation between a child and parent, the child may completely repress the memory. This is done unconsciously to protect the child from all those feelings of shame, humiliation, and embarrassment. Rather than trying to confront those feelings head on, and reliving the experience, the child will resort to whole repression as the defense mechanism.

Partially repressed memories can lead to the development of abstract and “made up” memories to replace the more traumatic ones. In Abnormal Psychology, the authors compare the functions of the human mind to that of an editor (Seligman, Walker, & Rosenhan 90). While in editorial function, the mind may take a traumatic experience and edit it by removing the unpleasant experience and replacing it with something more tolerable. The same molestation victim may replace the unpleasant childhood memories with pleasant fictitious memories, such as going to the zoo.

Projection occurs when a subject denies certain feelings and then attributes them to another person. These feelings are usually repressed. The writers at define projection as placing unacceptable impulses in yourself, onto someone else. An example of projection occurs when an alcoholic tells their best friend that they have a drinking problem. The alcoholic represses the notion of their own drinking problem by projecting it onto their friend.

This defense mechanism plays a double role in psychological distress according the book (Seligman, et al., 90). “First, it reduces distress by allowing a person to attribute an anxiety-provoking impulse to another person, rather than to the self,” (Seligman et al.,91). This serves as a lack of responsibility of the subject because they are not holding themselves accountable for their feelings and/or impulses. A victim of gender identity disorder will use projection as a defense mechanism to protect himself from being “called out.” A closeted transsexual man will repress his own feelings of homosexuality by taking his anger out on other homosexuals. These actions will project his own insecurities and resentment towards his lifestyle onto others, while releasing the anxiety that his own anger creates.

Treating an individual that uses projection to account for their actions may be difficult because the therapist often becomes the targeted individual. All of the patient’s inadequacies, feelings, and anxieties, would be projected onto the therapist, thus making treatment more difficult. If the patient views the therapist in an untrue or distorted manner, it will stir uneasy feelings of resentment in the patient. This will make issues of trust more difficult to achieve, which would further delay or prolong treatment.

Displacement occurs when a subject takes their own frustrations and fears out on a less threatening target. If a college student is overwhelmed by the daily stresses of juggling between school and work related duties, they may take their frustrations out on a roommate, friend, or pet. These targets serve as more optimal outlets for their frustrations because they do not directly affect any of the school and work related problems. Yelling at a roommate will not cause you to lose your job. Whereas yelling at your boss would ultimately result in termination.

People with manic health issues may use this defense mechanism to the extreme by displacing their anger on unsuspecting targets such as animals or even children. A man with bipolar disorder may become consumed with excess mania. During this time, his senses appear to be heightened causing him to work overtime at his job. If the work goes upraised or is criticized by his boss, he may take out his frustrations on the unsuspecting family dog. The man uses the less threatening target as a medium for his feelings.

Denial is the fourth Freudian defense mechanism. Denial is defined as, “arguing against an anxiety provoking stimuli by stating it doesn’t exist,” according to A common example is when a person receives a doctor’s diagnosis that they have cancer. Rather than acknowledging the life altering news, they pass off the statements as untrue. This protects the subject, because they are choosing not to acknowledge their diagnosis, while eliminating all possible feelings of sadness and hurt.

Subjects may resort to denial in attempts to postpone certain feelings because they are not ready to deal with them. Denial is also common amongst people with body dysmorphic disorder. A woman with BDD will deny that she has an eating disorder even though she limits her caloric intake and exercises profusely. She may not be ready to accept her disorder, so she chooses to deny it.

Sublimation is the fifth most commonly used DM. It is characterized by acting out unacceptable impulses in a socially acceptable way. According to, aggressive motivations can be redirected into the more acceptable framework of becoming a boxer. In Understanding Psychology, Charles Morris and Albert Maisto describe how sublimation is not necessarily a bad characteristic trait from a Freudian perspective. “People who can transform their sexual and aggressive drives into more socially acceptable forms are clearly better off, for they are able to at least partially gratify instinctual drives with relatively little anxiety and guilt,” (Morris & Maisto, 402).

A large problem with sublimation occurs when a subject’s motive are self gratifying at the expense of other people. If a person is battling pedophilia, it is not socially acceptable for them to run a day care center out of their house. The longer that the person is exposed to children; the more likely he is to relapse. This makes treatment difficult because, though the intentions to rejoin society are good, it can have a negative impact on others.

Regression is when a subject reverts back to childlike behaviors and defenses. When people are exposed to high amounts of stress, they often cannot stand feeling helpless. Morris explains that children are helpless and dependant everyday and becoming childlike makes total dependency more bearable (Morris et al., 401). When a child doesn’t get his/her way, they will throw tantrums to express their frustration. This also represents the lack of control they have over the situation. If the mother says no dessert after dinner, there is nothing the child can do about it. Therefore, the tantrum serves as an easy outlet for all frustrations and feelings of helplessness.

Everyone has met an uncontrollable source of frustration before, but the line of acceptability is fickle. If a colleague is constantly throwing tantrums, it can be interpreted as a cry for sympathy. Many individuals revert back to their childhood mannerisms because they are incapable of dealing with things rationally and age appropriately.

This defense mechanism is common amongst individuals suffering from PTSD. A child abuse victim may revert back to a childlike state because she is incapable of dealing with her feelings of anger, humiliation, and resentment. This type of behavior represents a roadblock in treatment because psychologists must first identify the root of the behavior and then work to treat it.

Rationalization is realizing that one’s motives are not always pure or publicly acceptable, and substituting appropriate motives, according to A student may rationalize poor performance on an exam by stating they he was “exhausted.” Exhaustion is a legitimate and serious reason for cutting study time short. It is socially acceptable because no one can perform well if they are tired. Being “lazy,” on the other hand, is not an acceptable excuse.

Patients with obsessive compulsive disorder use this defense mechanism as a crutch for their actions. If a patient with OCD is frequently late because they had to check the locks on the door 32 times before leaving the house, they will rationalize their actions by saying, “If I didn’t do it, my house could be robbed.” This justification often trumps out accountability because it turns into, “but I had to do it becauseâÂ?¦”

Intellectualization is one of the more evasive forms of the defense mechanisms. As defined by, it occurs when subjects avoid unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects. This most often occurs when family members suffer a death in the family. Rather than sitting around sharing feelings, they choose to confront their issues by intricately planning the funeral. In truth, the problem is completely avoided. Conversation is restricted to the details involved in the planning of the funeral, and no one is forced to confront their feelings head on.

This defense mechanism is interesting because in treatment, the patient must first accept that something is wrong. Keeping their feelings below the surface while covering them with intellectual pollutants will not solve anything long term. If there is a death in the family, the patients needs to understanding the importance of the grieving process. Hypochondriacs often use intellectualization as an effort to mask their own disorder by replacing it with ailments and medical jargon.

Reaction Formation “refers to a behavioral form of denial in which people express, with exaggerated intensity, ideas, and emotions that are the opposite of their own,” (Morris 402). The main clue that someone is using the reaction formation is exaggeration. The example given in Understanding Psychology is a man’s ambivalent feelings toward fatherhood. He may spend excessive and disproportionate amounts of time with his children to prove that, indeed, he is a good father. These actions convince the man that his motives are pure (Morris et al., 402).

The authors at elaborate on the definition of reaction formation as “taking the opposite belief because the true belief causes anxiety.” This defense mechanism is unusual because the subject is denying their true feelings towards something, and covering them up to the extreme by partaking in the activities they despise. People with histrionic disorder tend to use the reaction formation to exaggerate facts for attention. The class handout profile on Lynn, illustrates this defense mechanism. Events from her childhood may have caused her to feel the insistent need for attention. Perhaps she had a troubled relationship with her parents as a child, so she made up the delusion, of her parents miraculously curing her polio.

We as humans use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from feeling or pain, guilt, and sadness.

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