Defense Mechanisms- How We Use Them

If you are wondering why you often talk to yourself…

You use your defense mechanisms, mental mechanisms, or coping methods, to rationalize life frequently, even though you often do not realize it. When you act a certain way, it often gets a replay in another form. This is to try to make sense of the action, making it seem less important, or more important.

Every human uses defense mechanisms, through their mind thoughts. It is a natural part of the human being. With that introduction: let’s explore more about what are defense mechanisms-understanding yourself and others.

Not everyone is aware that we often use defense mechanisms to cover for our less-than-perfect actions. You try to make sense of acting in what you think is an improper way.

Defense-Mental Mechanisms Definition: 

In the psychology world, these are defined by “defense mechanisms,” or manners in which we behave or think in a certain way to better protect or “defend” ourselves.

These coping methods are stated as being part of your learned behaviors with the interaction of other people in your environment. The actions are often unconscious, automatic processes, which underlie all behavior and help to shape a person’s lifestyle.

Healthy and Unhealthy People Use Defense Methods

Both healthy and unhealthy individuals can use these defenses or coping methods in a variety of combinations. However, it is not just one method that determines you are healthy or unhealthy. They tend to give a personal perception of him or themselves and the world they live in.

These defense mechanisms are learned behavior from childhood. As you grow older, if you keep learning it helps to find better ways to cope with stress or traumatic events in life.

Some psychologists and motivational speakers alike break these down into three categories:

  1. Primitive Defense Mechanisms
  2. Less Primitive, More Mature Defense Mechanisms
  3. Mature Defense Mechanism – or less primitive are those used as mature defense mechanisms.

In Basic Psychiatric Nursing, these do not have a set classification. There are 15 knowns and studied defense-mental mechanisms.

Here is a breakdown for these for what are defense mechanisms- understanding yourself and others:

Primitive Defense Mechanisms– This classification is those learned, and used early in life (as children).

  • These consist of denial, regression, acting out, dissociation, compartmentalization (defense of mental discomfort or anxiety caused by a person having conflicting values, emotions, and beliefs, etc. within themselves. Re: Wikipedia), projection, and reaction formation.

Less Primitive, More Mature Mechanisms

These are mechanisms that you can see yourself having used at some time or the other. Do not feel inadequate, or shameful; we all have reacted the same way.

  1. Repression – When you are dealing with strong unacceptable feelings, thoughts, and impulses, you unconsciously block out the unpleasant.
  2. Displacement -With this mechanism, individuals will redirect the thoughts, impulses, and feelings at another person or object.
  3. For instance, someone has hurt your feelings, said something disrespectful, and you cannot voice your opinion back to that person. You go home and take it out on the wife, husband, or kids.              Sometimes the next person you meet.
  4. Intellectualization – When confronted with something that normally should bring our emotions front and center, you start to thinking of ways to confront, or counter the unacceptable situation, or behavior. For instance, he or she has just learned that their spouse has filed for divorce.
  5. Rationalization – Have you ever tried to rationalize why this and so happened? More than likely you have. This is when we are trying to make sense of something or change how we really feel when we actually thought differently.
  6. For instance, you become friends with someone with whom you have gained a lot of trust and faith. Suddenly, they change. You then want to rationalize this as, “I thought there was something not quite right.”
  7. Undoing – You slipped up and said something way out of line. At least to the person you were talking with. When realizing what you have said has made them upset, you change to a more positive counter conversation of praise for their qualities, beauty, and/or intelligence.

Mature Defense Mechanisms – Strength for Mental Well Being

Psychologists believe these defenses are more constructive for adults. These often do not come to us naturally. They usually take some practice to implement them in our daily life.

Professionals state mature defense mechanisms are focused more on generating help to an individual for resolving the issues that are not apparent to the person. Those issues, which are beneath the surface and, will allow them to become instinctive to their surroundings.

The List

Sublimation – This is simply the ability to direct his or her unacceptable impulses, emotions, or thought patterns into something more constructive. An example: When a person gets frustrated and has pent-up feelings of hostility with work, they take up a skill or hobby, which has the ability to calm and give satisfaction. Walking, jogging, knitting, gardening, and more are examples.

Some people make whatever it is that is not acceptable out to be something funny i.e., make a joke of it. This helps make the power of the situation easier to deal with.

Compensation – is the act of a person who makes up for their inadequacies or deficiencies, by excelling in another way. They focus on something they do well instead of what they do not feel is their best capability.

Assertiveness – according to the dictionary, assertiveness is the ability to be confidently aggressive, self-assured, and positive. Also, directness or firmness are descriptions of assertiveness.

Being assertive is not being overly aggressive. People with higher aggression traits have the ability to be good leaders but without great listening skills. This means that being overly aggressive is not the exact key to be a great leader with a balance of leading.

Passive Individuals

Passive individuals are good listeners, but rarely speak up for themselves and their own needs within a relationship.

Assertive individuals (those in-between the aggressive and passive, the happy medium, or balance), are the people who make good leaders, as they strike a balance. They speak up for themselves; give their opinions, needs, and desires, in a very firm but constructive manner. However, they listen when someone speaks to them.

Qualified Leader

The latter (assertiveness) is the most applicable to be a qualified leader. This is because their ability to listen to their team is an essential communication skill. We do not stop there because another tool for great leaders is being emotionally intelligent. A must-have in today’s corporate world, or any work environment for that matter.


How do you cope? Do you use these mental mechanisms? I just thought I would ask. If you do, and you probably do, you are very human and normal. When we talk to ourselves, it is absolutely okay.


References: Wikipedia, Basic Psychiatric Nursing Third Editions


Accessibility Toolbar