Defenses of the Ego

Defense mechanisms are automatic, involuntary, usually unconscious psychological activities by which human beings attempt to exclude unacceptable thoughts, urges, threats, and impulses from negative outcomes.

Dr. Sigmund Freud

The defense expresses the forbidden impulse in symbolic, external form and serves to bind anxiety.  These defenses are based on the research of Sigmund Freud, and his psychoanalytical theory and therapy.

In deliberate contrast to behavioral psychology psychodynamic psychology ignores the trappings of science and instead focuses on trying to get ‘inside the head‘ of individuals in order to make sense of their relationships, experiences and how they see the world.

The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.

Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g. Jung (1964), Adler (1927) and Erikson (1950).  (

Repression: Expressed clinically by amnesia or symptomatic forgetting serving to banish unacceptable ideas from the consciousness.  Example: A child who is abused by a parent later has no recollection of the events, but has trouble forming relationships.

Compensation: Enables one to make up for real or fancied deficiencies.  Examples:   A person who stutters becomes a very expressive writer.  A small statue man assumes an overbearing manner.

Conversion: Repressed urge or stress is expressed disguised as a disturbance of body function, usually sensory, or motor; not intentional or under conscious control of the patient.  Example, blindness, dementia, seizure, twitches, etc.. Someone who wants to hit another person suddenly becomes paralyzed in that arm. 

Denial:  Distorts reality, protects, primitive defense, inability to acknowledge true significance of thoughts, or external reality factors.  Examples:  Denial may happen consciously, for example, when the person lies to cover up, or it may happen unconsciously, for example, when they genuinely believe that they do not have a problem. Denial may be partially conscious, for example, when someone admits that they drink more than is sensible, but deny that it causes them problems, when in fact many of the problems they experience are consequences of their drinking.

Displacement:  Directing an impulse, wish, or feeling toward a person or situation that is not its real object.  Example, Someone who is angry at their spouse, but kicks the cat.

Dissociation:  A wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional reality. It is commonly displayed on a continuum.  The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality – rather than a loss of reality as in psychosis. Example:   At the “low” end of the continuum, dissociation describes common events such as daydreaming while driving a vehicle. Further along the continuum are non-pathological altered states of consciousness. 

Idealization: An overestimation of an admired aspect or attribute of another (may be conscious or unconscious) Example:  A teenager in awe of a rock star idealizes their idol, imagining them to have a perfect life, to be kind and thoughtful, and so on. They ignore the star’s grosser habits and rough background.

Identification:  Patterning yourself after a significant other, plays a major role in personality development, especially the super ego.  Example:  a teenager joining a sports team, or social clique.

Identification with the Aggressor:  Mastering anxiety by identifying with a powerful aggressor, to counteract feelings of helplessness and to feel powerful oneself.  Example: abusing others after one has been abused oneself.

Incorporation:  A person figuratively ingests the psychic representation of another person, or parts of another person.  Example: a person who picks up traits from their friends.

Inhibition:  Loss of motivation to engage in activity (usually pleasurable) avoided because it might stir up conflict.  Example, social shyness or work blocks

Introjection:  Loved or hated external objects are symbolically absorbed within self.  Examples:  unconscious unacceptable hatred is turned towards self, taking someone’s feelings as your own and act as if you feel this way, a verbally abused child believing “I’m bad”. 

Isolation of Affect:  unacceptable impulse, idea, act is separated from its original memory source, thereby removing the original emotional charge associated with it.  Example:Acting aloof and indifferent toward someone when you really dislike that person.

Projection: primitive defense: attributing one’s disowned attitudes, wishes, feelings to some external object (person),  Ex. – You get really mad at your husband but scream that he’s the one mad at you.

Rationalization:  Giving believable explanation for irrational behavior. Ex. I always study hard for tests and I know a lot of people who cheat so it’s not a big deal I cheated this time.

Reaction Formation: person adopts affects, ideas, attitudes, behaviors that are opposites of those he harbors – being excessively sweet to mask unconscious anger

Regression:  return to more infantile patterns of reacting or thinking

Sublimation:  potentially maladaptive feelings or behaviors are diverted into socially acceptable channels – person who has angry feelings channels them into athletics

Substitution: unattainable or unacceptable goal, emotion, or object is replaced by one more attainable or acceptable.

Symbolization: An object or act represents a complex group of objects and acts, some of which may be conflictual or unacceptable to the ego; objects or acts stand for a repressed desire.  Examples: (1) a soldier, when asked why he volunteered, he said, “To defend the flag.” He rejects as irrelevant a question about the purpose of the war. (2) a boy asks for a girl’s hand (in marriage). As in the second illustration, symbolization is often combined with displacement. it is one of the mechanisms usually involved in phobias.

Undoing: Trying to reverse or undo a thought by performing an action (opposite) – you have feelings of dislike for someone and you buy them a gift.  Or,  a person compulsively washing hands to deal with obsessive thoughts.

Turning Against Self – defense to deflect hostile aggression or other unacceptable impulses from another to self.

Splitting: Everything in the world is seen as all good or all bad with nothing in between.You think your best friend is absolutely worthless because he forgot a lunch date with you.

Projective Identification:  As in projection, the individual deals with emotional conflict or internal or external stressors by falsely attributing to another his or her own unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts.  Unlike simple projection, the individual does not fully disavow what is projected.  Instead, the individual remains aware of his or her own affects or impulses but mis-attributes them as justifiable reactions to the other person.  Not infrequently, the individual induces the very feelings in others that were first mistakenly believed to be there, making it difficult to clarify who did what to whom first. (Borderline personality organization: on exam – unconsciously perceiving other’s behavior as a reflection of one’s own identity. 

Devaluation: a defense mechanism frequently used by persons with borderline personality organization in which a person attributes exaggerated negative qualities to self or another. It is the split of primitive idealization.

Acting Out: emotional conflict is dealt with through actions rather than feelings; ex. instead of talking about feeling neglected, a person will get into trouble to get attention

Decompensation:  deterioration of existing defenses

Affiliation:  Turning others for support and help, but not making them responsible for your problems

Altruism:  the individual deals with emotional conflict by dedication to meeting the needs of others. Satisfaction from the response of others.

Anticipation:  deals with emotional conflict by experiencing emotional reactions in advance of

Autistic fantasy:  The individual deals with emotional conflict by excessive daydreaming as a substitute for human relationships or problem solving

Help-Rejecting Complaining:  dealing by complaining or making repetitious requests for help that disguise covert feelings of hostility or reproach toward others..


Omnipotence: feeling or acting as if he or she possesses special powers or abilities and is superior to others

Passive Aggression:  indirectly and unassertively expressing aggression toward others. “overt compliance”

Self assertion:  dealing with conflict by expressing your thoughts and feelings directly in a way that is not coercive or manipulative

Self-observation:  reflecting on your thoughts and feelings and motivations – responding appropriately

Defense Levels and Individual Defense Mechanisms

High adaptive and Individual Defense Mechanisms









Mental inhibitions (compromise formation) level – keeps it out of awareness




Isolation of Affect

Reaction Formation



Minor image-distorting level – distortions in the image of self, body, or others that may be employed to regulate self-esteem




Disavowal level – unpleasant or unacceptable stressors, impulses, ideas, affects, or responsibility out of awareness with or without a misattributions of these external causes




Major image-distorting level – gross distortion or misattributions of the image of self or others

Autistic fantasy

Projective Identification

Splitting or self-image or image of others

Action level:  This level is characterized by defensive functioning that deals with internal or external stressors by action or withdrawal

Acting out

Apathetic Withdrawal

help-rejecting complaining

Passive aggression

Level of defensive dysregulation:  failure of defensive regulation to contain the individual’s reaction to stressors, leading to a pronounced break with objective reality

Delusional projection

psychotic denial

psychotic distortion


A. List in order, beginning with most prominent defenses or coping styles

(you list 7)

B. Predominant Current Defense Level: __________________________________

Axis I:  296.32  Major Depressive Disorder, Recurrent, Moderate

                305.40 Sedative, Hypnotic, or Anxiolytic Abuse

Axis II 301.83  Borderline Personality Disorder

                                Antisocial personality Disorder

Axis III   881.02    Lacerations of wrist

Axis IV:               Recurrent arrest

                                 expulsion from home by parents

Axis V:  GAF – 45(current)

A. Current Defenses or Coping Styles

1. Splitting

2. projection identification

3. acting out

4. devaluation

5. omnipotence

6. denial

7. projection

B. Predominant Current Defense Level:  major image-distorting level

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