The Theory of the Mechanisms of Defense

The theory of the mechanisms of defense was proposed by Sigmund Freund as part of his psychoanalysis study. Psychological defense is closely connected with the peculiarities of the motivational and emotional sphere of a person. As a rule, a variety of perceptual, intellectual, and motor automatisms, which function as psychological protection regulate the intensity of the emotional states, feelings, and passions, which can compromise the integrity of the ego.

According to Anna Freud, ego is the medium through which we try to get a picture of other psychic institutions such as the id and the superego (Freud, 1993). The unwanted information that can trigger strong emotions in a person may simply be ignored, forgotten or interpreted in a way convenient for the individual, provided it gains admission to the information storage system. Psychological defense is a consistent distortion of the cognitive and affective components of the image of the actual situation. It aims to weaken the emotional stress, which threatens the individual in case of an adequate reflection of an event.

There are various mechanisms that help cope with the problem; the American psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant divided them into four categories, including

  1. pathological defenses (such as psychotic denial and delusional projection),
  2. immature defenses (fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out),
  3. neurotic defenses (intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression), and
  4. mature defenses (humour, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation (Longhofer, 2015).

The latter is known as the coping strategies. This work shall focus on the three types of defenses, one from each category (with the exception of mature defenses) – denial, projection, and regression.

The least mature form of psychological defense, denial is an unwillingness to accept the undesirable events, both from the present and the distant past. It is one of the most common methods of self-preservation, serving as a psychological barrier to the penetration of the devastating tragedy into the inner world of a person and his/her conceptual system of values and meanings. For example, many people have a panic fear of the serious illnesses.

Due to the triggering of denial, a person would not take notice of the occurrence of disease symptoms, which makes this mechanism harmful. There is also a beneficial side to it since denial allows the subject to process the tragic situation in small doses, gradually assimilated by the semantic sphere of a personality. It may be helpful after such traumatic event as a loss of one’s relative. A person needs time to come to grips with the loss, and the realization is delayed. Denial is also common in family relationships when one spouse completely ignores the existence of problems with its partner.

Projection is a defense mechanism consisting in the unconscious attributing of own motives, traits and experiences to others, resulting in the lack of responsibility for them. This protective mechanism is a consequence of displacement. Due to the displacement, the wishes are suppressed and concealed; however, it does not make them disappear, and they continue to exert their influence on the person. Eradicating one’s wishes is too painful, so they are projected onto the other people. Projection often manifests itself in adolescents who ascribe their negative qualities, instincts, attitudes and deeds to other people; hence its other name, the blame-shifting. Projection is one of the main defense mechanisms of paranoid and hysteroid personality disorder. However, the same mechanism underlies empathy, which improves mutual understanding among people.

Regression is a return to the more primitive emotional and behavioral responses that a person had at an earlier age. This protection is based on the fact that people usually treat children in a special way. In order to avoid a feeling of disharmony, a person goes into a state of regression to the former oral stage to feel safe and protected, just like a little baby (Elzer & Gerlach, 2014). Sometimes, people actually help the person; but regression may trigger even when there is no one around. In those who abuse the regression, it may develop into hypochondria accompanied by somatization with clear signs of infantilism. Regression is also typical for hysteroid personalities.

When it comes to the relationship between the personality traits and the mechanisms of defense, there can be revealed some connections to the temperament. For example, regression as a psychological defense mechanism is characteristic of the sanguine type, since such person easily changes the emotional states, shifts his/her attention, and takes up different roles. It is the same mobility and flexibility required by the swift transition from childhood to adulthood. The connections between the defense mechanisms and personality were approved by various researches. According to them, choleric persons often use such protection mechanisms as denial and intellectualization, less often – displacement. Due to the sensitivity, vulnerability, and passivity, the melancholiacs mostly adhere to substitution, intellectualization, and regression.

Phlegmatics are characterized by repression, denial, and intellectualization. In view of the above said, it can be concluded that there is a close connection between the personality and the mechanisms of defense. Since the coping mechanisms coexist with other areas of human personality, along with the social and the biological component of human motivation, they present an integral part of the overall structure of human personality.


Elzer, M., & Gerlach, A. (2014). Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: A Handbook. London, UK: Karnac Books.

Freud, A. (1993). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence, London, UK: Karnac Books.

Longhofer, J. (2015). A-Z of psychodynamic practice, London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

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