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The 12 Freudian Defense Mechanisms

Descriptions and Examples. How do they affect your life?

By WhoPublished 5 years ago 8 min read

I have always referred to myself as “one big ball of empathy,” because in every situation I have encountered, I whole heartedly feel others' emotions. This has been a gift I have had my whole life.

I consider it a blessing, because it has helped me to understand others in a way most would be ignorant too. Although it has brought me a better understanding of people and the world itself, it had also made me ignorant to an important, vital aspect of my own life; my emotions. When things would go wrong in my life, I couldn’t understand why I felt the way I did. I could understand why others felt the way they did, but when it came to myself, I struggled greatly and it did not make much sense to me. That was until I was introduced to the field of psychology, and more specifically Sigmund Freud.

Most people will try to discredit Sigmund Freud for his outrageous theories such as the Oedipus complex or for his addiction to cocaine. Although he was an eccentric man with many things that could be considered illegitimate, his theories on the unconscious and defense mechanisms prevail.

Sigmund Freud’s theory on defense mechanisms and the unconscious allowed me a better insight to my emotions and reactions when something happened in my life. It became easier for me to recognize what a healthy reaction to a problem was, and how I could use it to either better the situation, or better myself as a person. I am very young in a world that is unpredictable, I still have a lot of growth to encounter, and a lot of setbacks, but it gives me a slight hint of comfort knowing I have theories like these to guide me.

Sigmund Freud proposed 12 different defense mechanisms that we as humans use to compensate for our emotions. Some can be identified immediately, while others may be exercised by our unconscious. The 12 Freudian defense mechanisms are compensation, denial, displacement, identification, introjection, projection, reaction formation, rationalization, regression, repression, ritual & undoing, and sublimation.

1. Compensation

Compensation occurs when we do not like an aspect of our self or our behavior, and we perceive it as negative. In turn, we develop aspects and behaviors that we do in fact like about ourselves to compensate for the previously disliked concept.

A young girl is consistently told she is not beautiful, and she herself perceives this to be true. To mask this unwanted negative view of herself, she consistently studies hard to be perceived as intelligent. Her intelligence compensates for the negative feeling of not feeling beautiful.

2. Denial

Denial is a concept we as humans are fairly familiar with. It’s the act of rejecting a self-concept or notion that we in fact know is true, but that is not ideal and sometimes too unbearable to accept.

Someone in an abusive relationship may continuously tell themselves that their significant other is acting out of character when they incite harm on them. They are denying the fact that their significant other is no longer the person they knew, and is in fact abusive toward them.

In the event of a sudden death, it might take a family weeks, months, or even years to discard their loved one's belongings. This could also be considered a period of denial.

3. Displacement

Displacement is the process in which we let out our feelings and frustrations on a substitute target that is not the actual target of our emotions.

A college student may be overloaded with school work that is making them anxious and frustrated. Instead of taking it up with their professors who assigned so much work, they go home and yell at their mother for not having dinner ready whenever they got home. Their mother is the substitute target to the frustration their professors gave when they assigned so much work.

Someone who is having a hard time in their life at home may go to work and be rude to customers. The customers are the substitute target.

4. Identification

Identification is when we identify ourselves with an image that we see as ideal to our ego. We associate ourselves with groups, movements, and people we see as who we wish to be.

As a Pittsburgher my whole life, the Steelers are a huge concept of identity around my area. If you don’t identify as a Pittsburgh fan, you are scrutinized and feel as if you are truly not a Pittsburgher. People conform to the identify of a Steelers fan to feel included.

On a more serious note, identification should be taken heavily in the psychological field when diagnosing someone with a mental illness. A lot of times, patients will identify with their illness to cope with it. It is easier to say “I’m sorry, it’s just my anxiety” than taking account for their actions.

5. Introjection

Introjection is the process in which we accept standards to be true to avoid scrutiny. This can be looked at as an extreme form of conformity.

In grade school, teachers consistently tell us to study hard and go to college because it’s the “right thing to do.” We in turn listen, because we believe that to be the correct and easiest path to a successful future as opposed to creating our own unique routes to success.

6. Projection

Projection occurs when we attribute our negative self-concepts of our self onto others.

In an argument with her friend, a woman gets accused of being too insensitive to others issues. In turn, she may proclaim that it is in fact her friends that are the insensitive ones and not her. She has projected this unwanted self-concept of insensitivity from herself, to her friends.

Another example would be lying to your significant other about something, then accusing them of lying to you.

7. Reaction Formation

Reaction Formation is a process in which we mask negative emotions or self-concepts by doing the exact opposite of what that concept or emotion exhibits.

The person you absolutely despises approaches you. Instead of conveying your true feeling of hate towards them, you are overly nice, and show compassion towards them. Being overtly nice helps to mask the unwanted feeling of hate you actually have for them. Additionally, this helps to improve your self-image to others as well.

8. Rationalization

Rationalization is an explanation we conceive as to why we should or should not feel a particular way or take credit for our behaviors. It is what we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better about something.

A college student has an exam early in the morning, but all of their friends are going to a huge party. Instead of staying home to study, the student goes out to the party and ends up failing the exam. They rationalize with their decision by saying that they must live the whole college experience and would rather make memories than study to pass the exam.

9. Regression

Regression is the act of retreating to infantile defenses. We do this because as a child, life is less threatening. Retreating back to these defenses may make the situation feel less threatening than it really is.

In a very intense argument, one party may begin to throw things around while screaming at the other. Here, they have reverted back to being childlike by throwing things at the other person.

10. Repression

Repression may be the most unknown, yet interesting defense mechanism. Repression occurs unconsciously, and sometimes unknowingly. It is when our mind has perceived something as too painful for our own being, thus pushing it out of our conscious awareness. Repression may be a choice, but keeping it in our unconscious is done entirely by our mind without our saying so. When things are repressed, we have absolutely no awareness of it.

Someone may have an intense desire to murder. Instead of acting on it, they may repress that feeling until it is no longer in their conscious awareness.

Also, people who have had traumatic experiences may not be able to recall everything that has happened to them, this is due to repression.

11. Ritual & Undoing

Ritual & Undoing is the process of trying to undo some type of unacceptable behavior by masking it with a positive behavior, or ritual.

An absent father may attempt to make up for his absence by buying his children a lot of gifts occasionally.

Another example is the “Honeymoon” process in which abusive relationships fall under. The abuser will incite harm on their significant other. Then to gain their favor back, they will be as charming and nice as possible to make up for it.

12. Sublimation

Sublimation is the only defense mechanism that is positive in all of its aspects. It is considered the healthiest. Sublimation is the process of taking negative self-concepts and diverting them into more socially acceptable concepts that are beneficial.

Someone who has experienced an extreme trauma may use their experience to help others instead of compensating for it. A women who was abused by her significant other may join help groups to help women in need, instead of denying or repressing what happened to her.

A drug addicted may receive help and become clean. Instead of denying their struggle, they use it as their motivator to build a better life for themselves.

Defense Mechanisms are very interesting and important in our lives. They help us to understand our actions and emotions better than we would have normally. Personally, through my knowledge of defense mechanisms, I am able to distinguish between my reactions, and alter them to be more productive. Although there are many more developed theories on defense mechanisms, Sigmund Freud changed the way we think about our reactions through his 12 foundational defense mechanisms. Just like they have helped me in my life, I only hope they will help you as well.


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