Defence Mechanisms and Coping: Unconscious Ways of Coping

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Defence Mechanisms and Coping: Unconscious Ways of Coping

The current narcissism engendered by the idea of just ’being oneself’ involves the belief that psychological characteristics and sexual proclivities are entirely conscious choices made by the individual, and not the functions of the unconscious or instinctual life as well. (R. Rosen, Psychobabble)

Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through ( R.D. Liang, The Politics of Experience)

According to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defence mechanisms (DMs) are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to cope with anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings. These DMs are used by healthy persons throughout life and only become pathological when they are constantly overused — leading to abnormal behaviour wherein the physical or psychological health of the individual is severely affected.

DMs have six definitional characteristics:

1 They usually operate unconsciously (outside of awareness).

2 They operate to protect self-esteem by keeping unacceptable thoughts, impulses and wishes out of awareness.

3 They function to protect the person from experiencing excessive anxiety.

4 They are part of normal personality functioning.

5 They can lead to pathology if one or more is used excessively.

6 They are distinguishable from one another.

The list of DMs is extensive and no theoretical consensus on the exact number or their classification has ever been agreed upon. Vaillant’s (1977) taxonomy of defence styles was a welcomed breakthrough in the area. He proposed a developmental hierarchy of four defence levels ranging from pathological mechanisms, which allow the individual to alter current external experiences to remove any need to deal with reality; to mature mechanisms, which have been adapted throughout an individual’s life in order to cope with current circumstances, helping the individual to effectively eliminate conflicting emotions and thoughts. Within these extremes, on reaching adulthood, individuals are also expected to display immature defences, which reduce distress and anxiety that are caused by uncomfortable surroundings or unpleasant company; and neurotic defences. These can provide short-term benefits in coping and individuals often have problems with relationships, work and life satisfaction.

Defence Level

Defence Mechanism




Refusal to accept unpleasant aspects of an external situation because one finds it too threatening.


Changing and reshaping reality as one sees fit.


Lessens anxiety by expressing undesirable desires without being consciously aware; shifting these unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses to someone else.


Acting out

Unconscious expressions/impulses without being aware of the emotion behind it.


Tendency to escape reality to resolve internal and external conflicts, e.g. excessive day-dreaming.


Perceiving individuals to possess more positive qualities than they actually have.


Expressing anger or frustration through indirect methods onto other people.


Role modelling; taking on behavioural patterns of another person.



Shifting emotions onto another target considered more acceptable or less threatening.


Perceptions of an unknown illness as a reaction to negative feelings toward others.


Using logic and intellectual components of a situation to distance oneself.


Separating emotions from events i.e. talking about a situation without displaying any feelings.


Convincing oneself that things are fine through false rationale, e.g. ’making excuses’.

Reaction formation

Behaving in a manner that is opposite of how one truly feels to avoid anxiety.


Reverting to an earlier stage of development rather than handling the unpleasant situation in a way concurrent with one’s current development stage.


Preventing uncomfortable thoughts streaming into the conscious.



Behaviour that brings pleasure to others and internal satisfaction.


Knowing and accepting that future discomfort may occur.


Expressing unpleasant thoughts in a humorous way, i.e. making fun of uncomfortable situations.


Identifying with a person or object so much that it becomes part of the individual.


Turning negative emotions into more positive actions, behaviour or emotions.

Thought suppression

Consciously pushing thoughts into the unconscious, i.e. not paying attention to an emotion in order to cope with the present situation.

There are various self-report defence mechanism measures that exist, most notably the Defense Mechanism Inventory, the Defence Style Questionnaire and the New Defence Style Questionnaire. So you can get some feedback on your personal DMs.

Classic psychoanalytic theory posits gender differences in personality, indicating that women tend to have a passive orientation and men an active one (Freud, 1936). In line with Freud’s original theory, research findings have been categorized along an internal—external taxonomy with results generally converging to suggest that women use more internalizing defence mechanisms and men more externalizing defences. While the underlying processes of differential gender defence strategies is beyond the scope of the present entry, previous research has implied the role of socialization patterns, which favour the development of certain defences over others in men and women.

It has been speculated that as a consequence of their greater passivity, women find it more difficult to express aggression outwardly and so are more likely to turn it on themselves and rely on defences that modify inner thoughts and feelings (e.g. denial). In contrast, men depend more on defences that locate conflict in the external world (e.g. projection). However, despite this broad classification, results are far from systematic and vary with sample and methodology employed. For example, while men have been found to score higher on projection, displacement and aggressive forms of acting out, results for reaction formation (internalizing defence mechanism) have been less consistent.


Cramer, P. (2006). Protecting the self: Defense mechanisms in action. New York: Guilford Press.

Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. New York: International Universities Press.

Vaillant, G.E. (1977). Adaptation to life. Boston: Little, Brown.