Defining Defense Mechanism

People use defense mechanism to relieve anxiety. The definitions below will help you determine whether your patient is using one or more of these mechanism.


People use defense, or coping, mechanisms to relieve anxiety. The definitions below will help you determine whether your patient is using one or more of these mechanisms.

Acting Out

Acting out refers to repeating certain actions to ward off anxiety without weighing the possible consequences of those actions.


Also called substitution, compensation involves trying to make up for feelings of inadequacy of frustration in one area by excelling or overindulging in another.


Person in denial protects himself from reality- especially the unpleasant aspects of life- by refusing to perceive, acknowledge, or face it.


In displacement, the person redirects his impulses (commonly anger) from the real target (because that target is too dangerous) to a safer but innocent person. An example is the patient who yells at the nurse after becoming angry at his mother for not calling him.


Fantasy refers to creation of unrealistic or improbable images as a way of escaping from daily pressures and responsibilities or to relieve boredom. For instance, a person may daydream excessively, watch TV for hours on end, or imagine being highly successful when he feels unsuccessful. Doing these things makes him feel better for a brief period.


In identification, the person unconsciously adopts the personality characteristics, attitudes, values, and behavior of someone else (such as a hero he emulates and admires) as a way to allay anxiety. He may identify with a group to become more accepted by them.


Also called isolation, intellectualization refers to hiding one’s emotional responses or problems under a façade of big words and pretending there’s no problem.


A person introjects when he adopts someone else’s values and standards without exploring whether they fit him.


In projection, the person attributes to others his own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and impulses.


Rationalization occurs when a person substitutes acceptable reasons for the real or actual reasons that are motivating his behavior. The rationalizing patient makes excuses for shortcomings and avoids self-condemnation, disappointments, and criticism.

Reaction Formation

In reaction formation, the person behaves the opposite of the way he feels. For instance, love turns into hate and hate into love.


Under stress, a person may regress by returning to the behaviors he used in an earlier, more comfortable time in his life.


Repression refers to unconsciously blocking out painful or unacceptable thoughts and feelings, leaving them to operate in the subconscious.


In sublimation, a person transforms unacceptable needs into acceptable ambitions and actions. For instance, he may channel his sex drive into sports and hobbies.


In undoing, the person tries to undo the harm he feels he has done to others. A patient who says something bad about a friend may try to undo the harm by saying nice things about her or by being nice to her and apologizing.


Withdrawal refers to growing emotionally uninvolved by pulling back and being passive.

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Posted on Nov 12, 2010