Defence Mechanisms in Everyday Battles
Awareness Education

Defence Mechanisms in Everyday Battles


Imagine a situation, where you came 30 minutes late to the office due to the heavy rains. As soon as you get to your seat, your boss asks you to be in his cabin. Although arriving late was not all your fault, your boss makes you feel extremely guilty for losing 30 minutes of the business and asks you to submit all the pending work by the end of the day as you have wasted 30 minutes of this day. Raging in anger you complete all the work for the day and forget your little daughter asked to bring her some chocolates. Likewise, no sooner than you reached home, your daughter asked if you bought the chocolates she asked for. Instead of telling her that you forgot to bring them, you start yelling at her for nagging and crying. But why did you do so? You were not even angry with your daughter, so why did you yell at her?

Read More: Emotional Baggage in the Workplace

While you might not be able to describe such actions and feel guilty later, psychologists can answer on your behalf. The reason for such behaviour is a defence mechanism called “displacement”. And it’s not the only defence mechanism we use. In several scenarios in our daily lives, we use various defence mechanisms. But what are these? And how are they defending us from our Anxiety? Let’s know how…

The Origin of Defense Mechanism

Anna Freud defined defence mechanisms as “unconscious resources used by the ego” to decrease internal stress ultimately. The defense mechanism lies in the unconscious behaviour of an individual which people use to cope with their feelings of anxiety. Although the example above was not a positive example of the usage of defence mechanisms, no defence mechanisms are inherently bad or negative– in most cases they help an individual to deal with their emotions, and thoughts more effectively, channelling the negatives to a more positive one. But it all depends on the frequency or degree of usage– defence mechanisms can affect an individual negatively if used too often.

Some defences can be mature and more adaptive, while others can be immature, or primitive. As you might know, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was the first one who sketched the first outline of defence mechanisms. It was highly associated with his idea of the mind’s components i.e. The id, ego, and superego, and structure i.e. conscious, subconscious and unconscious. Freud Defined that the ego acts as a balance between the primary Id which is fueled by the pleasure principle and the superego which runs by the morality principle. As the unconscious mind is a complex storage of our most unfiltered, dark and primitive reflections of life, letting the unconscious material step into our conscious mind, will cause extreme anxiety.

So, to keep our conscious mind safe from anxiety-provoking thoughts, our ego builds its defence mechanism. This sketch further made its way to the minds of people from all across the world, through the studies by Anna Freud. Anna Freud first introduced us to defence mechanisms in her book “The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.” Since then, many psychoanalysts have worked towards the later development of the list of defence mechanisms.

The Types of Defense Mechanisms

Defence mechanisms can be divided into 2 major categories:

  • Primitive defence mechanisms: Primitive defence mechanisms, as the name suggests are innate and developmentally first to occur in an individual’s life. They can be further explained in two subtypes, either unstable or immature.
  • Higher-level defence mechanisms: Higher-level defence mechanisms are more adaptive. It is more or less a mature type of defence that helps an individual cope with stressors more easily and effectively. Mature defence mechanisms influence individuals to accept reality and then work towards the betterment of the situation.

9 Commonly Used Defense Mechanisms

Commonly Used Primary Defense Mechanisms:

  1. Denial: Dismissing uncomfortable external reality. For example- Disbelieving the death of a loved one.
  2. Schizoid fantasy: Withdrawal of self from the outside uncomfortable reality and building a more desirable retreat in one’s fantasy. For example- daydreaming.
  3. Repressing: Subconsciously blocking thoughts and impulses which are undesirable. For example- forgetting parts of memory that are traumatic or stressful.
  4. Regression: Shifting one’s behaviour to earlier developmental stages, especially childhood. For example- sleeping, and bed-wetting in the occurrence of a stressful situation.
  5. Displacement: shifting of undesirable feelings, thoughts and ideas from a more threatening individual, to a less threatening one. For example- the example is given in the first part of the article, where the person who was yelled at by the authority, displaces his anger on a less threatening outlet, his child.

Commonly Used Mature Defense Mechanisms:

  1. Humour: Decreasing the effect of a stressful or traumatic situation through comedy. For example- telling funny stories or making fun of the situation.
  2. Suppression: Consciously shifting the mind from an unpleasant or intrusive thought to a more pleasing one. For example- Shifting one’s mind to the brighter side of things.
  3. Anticipation: Thinking and planning about unpleasant events in the future to be all organized and set for the circumstances ahead. For example- Having a plan B if plan A doesn’t work.
  4. Sublimation: Channelling unacceptable or socially undesirable thoughts into more positive and socially acceptable behavioural patterns. For example- Working out, or lifting weights to release aggression.

How to Know If My Defense Mechanisms Are Healthy or Unhealthy?

As we have previously learnt defence mechanisms can help people cope effectively with the environment, they are more or less adaptive. Defence mechanisms are a great way to channel emotions and have more clarity towards one’s actions if used in the right way. They help us accept the reality we live in and work towards the betterment of it. But sometimes individuals can become over-reliant on defences, which can impact their personality and social skills. Here are some of the examples that you are over-reliant on defence mechanisms:

  • Refusing to believe the reality.
  • Accusing other people even if it is your fault.
  • Forgetting stressful memories of a situation.
  • Dismissing uncomfortable reality by escaping from it.
  • Acting as a child instead of acting responsibly according to your age.
  • Yelling and showing anger towards family members in minor inconveniences.

etc. But how to identify these unhealthy defence mechanisms?

  • Seek therapy to solve your deep-rooted issues within yourself.
  • Practising mindfulness will help you to be more connected to yourself.
  • Try to take time and respond instead of reacting to situations quickly.
  • Break down your behaviour to understand your defence mechanisms.
  • Take small steps towards creating a change in your thoughts. Try to look deeper into your thoughts and identify triggers.
  • Journaling and maintaining a thought diary is effective for every one of us to understand our triggers and help them reduce or eliminate them.

Defence mechanisms are not negative, bad or maladaptive, their sole purpose is to help you adjust to your reality more effectively and to help you defeat anxiety. We all have used multiple defence mechanisms in our life. This inbuilt mechanism that protects and navigates our consciousness, can be used until one doesn’t rely on it solely.

References +
  • A Short Textbook of Psychiatry(seventh edition)-2011 Textbook by Ahuja Niraj

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