Facts About Defense Mechanisms: From Introjection to Denial

These mechanisms provide temporary relief that doesn't last

Defense mechanisms such as fantasy, denial, and introjection may temporarily ease symptoms of anxiety, but in time, they can actually worsen your disorder. Instead, panic-focused psychodynamic psychotherapy (PFPP) is a great treatment for panic disorder. The treatment analyzes defense mechanisms to explore how they contribute to one’s current anxiety and panic symptoms.

Simply put, defense mechanisms are psychoanalytic concepts believed to be normal responses to anxiety.

 Sigmund Freud’s theory of personality proposes that defense mechanisms prevent the ego from being overwhelmed. Defense mechanisms can be good in that they allow us to adjust to our environment. However, they can become problems when they prevent us from facing and living in reality. The common defense mechanisms that follow continue to play a role in psychoanalytic concepts of behavior.


You’ve probably heard people refer to someone as being “in denial.” This defense mechanism is one of the most common. By denying the existence of threats to one's reality, a person can continue feeling protected. But this may change how someone thinks, feels, and behaves. If one is in denial, he may not address problems in an effective and healthy way.


Displacement is a way of coping in which people focus on a safe target rather than the true source of their distress. For example, a person who experiences bullying in the workplace may then go home and treat family members abusively.


When we feel hurt or disappointed, rationalization provides a defense for the anxiety that stems from a bruised ego. A student who is failing algebra might rationalize his performance in the class by stating, “I don’t know why I need this course anyway.”


Compensation is used to cope with anxiety resulting from feelings of inferiority or perceived weaknesses.

The individual focuses on his or her accomplishments or strengths. This defense can be healthy, or it can be an attempt to avoid certain troubling aspects of oneself.


Projection is attributing to others one’s own unacceptable desires, feelings, or impulses. It’s a way of linking certain characteristics to someone else rather than taking responsibility for them. For example, someone involved in a situation she is unable to handle may feel like a coward, so she projects her insecurities to another, making that individual's perceived cowardice to blame for the situation instead of her own.

Reaction Formation

When someone is confronted with disturbing desires or impulses, he may actively express the opposite impulse. This involves displaying an attitude that is the opposite of the repressed traits. For example, someone might mask a negative reaction to a person by being overly polite.


Repression is one of the most important psychoanalytical concepts. It involves an unconscious process of blocking painful thoughts and feelings from awareness. Though hidden in the unconscious, these painful thoughts and emotions influence current behavior.


Identification can be an attempt to overcome inferiority by taking on the characteristics of someone important, such as a parent or teacher, but it is often part of a more natural development process.

The person feels that taking on these traits will help her be perceived as worthwhile, enhancing self-worth. Identification is adaptive in that it creates a process of assuming culturally appropriate behaviors, but it can also be negative when it is used to mask feelings of inferiority.


Fantasy involves retreating to a safe place in one’s own mind. It can be a very useful defense mechanism to deal with anxiety. But it can also become addictive and negatively impact one’s ability to deal with anxiety in the real world.


As children, we generally have few demands and rely on others for care.

In the face of stress or anxiety, regression takes us back to these earlier times, causing immature and inappropriate behaviors for the individual’s current stage of development. For example, an adult who gets sick may display childlike behaviors to elicit the care of others.


Sublimation involves redirecting unacceptable sexual or aggressive impulses to socially acceptable ones. An example would be someone with aggressive impulses who becomes a star athlete.


Introjection involves incorporating into oneself the standards and values of another person. This defense can have positive or negative consequences. For example, it is positive when it involves incorporating appropriate parental values. But it becomes negative if the parental values are not acceptable, such as when an abused child becomes an abusive parent.


When a person acts inappropriately, it sometimes produces anxiety. To counter this anxiety, the person may try to negate the original behavior. For example, a child who becomes unruly at the dinner table but then offers to help during cleanup.

Emotional Insulation

Withdrawal into passivity to avoid disappointment or hurt is the main component of emotional insulation. For example, someone who really wants to ask someone out for a date but doesn’t do so to avoid the prospect of rejection. Emotional insulation can prevent one from fulfilling many goals because the individual may avoid taking risks for fear of rejection or disappointment.


Corey, Gerald. (2009). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

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