What are defence mechanisms and why do people have them?

This article may read like a fact sheet, but in my own life I have been learning about defence mechanisms and so I thought it would be a good way of putting my learning into practice by speaking about what I have found out, and by giving my opinions of why people may have these. I must stress that the opinions given in this article are my own, and are stated for the purpose of discussion.

There are many definitions for what defence mechanisms are, but generally speaking, they are strategies people unconsciously use to deal with aspects of life that are uncomfortable or traumatic. And because they are unconsciously made, people do not realise they have been created. These defence mechanisms include:

  • Regression – when a person regresses back to a child-like state in order to gain the attention they want/need.
  • Humour – a person uses humour as a mask to hide the painful feelings they have about a situation.
  • Repression – this is where a person unconsciously forgets painful memories.
  • Rationalisation – a person rationalises things in their life to make them easier to deal with.
  • Projection – people use this defence mechanism to allow their own anxieties to be directed towards other people.
  • Introjection – a person takes in the attitudes of other people to allow them to mentally continue.
  • Denial – this is used when a person denies something is happening to allow them to avoid the consequences of dealing with the situation.
  • Displacement - a person uses this to aim their thoughts and feelings that are deemed unacceptable towards someone who isn’t the focus of them.
  • Reaction Formation – this is used by a person when they are fighting to control their emotions so expresses the opposite of their impulses.


Regression is something that I was surprised to learn about, but I think it actually makes a lot of sense. This occurs when a person, in order to cope with a situation, goes back to an earlier development stage. An example of when this is used is when someone is ill – nurses often see patients act like they are children in order to gain the attention they crave. Perhaps by unconsciously allowing themselves to act younger, the person is also allowing themselves to process the pain of being unwell by gaining more attention, which also allows them to deal with it in a better manner.


A person using humour to hide their true feelings is something that is quite common, I think. We probably all know someone who laughs or tries to make light of a serious situation, and that is because it is probably their way of unconsciously coping with it and how they feel towards it. From watching the TV show ‘Friends’ growing up, my view of this defence mechanism will always be attached with its character ‘Chandler Bing’. Chandler uses humour a lot, deliberately, in his everyday life, and is even told that it is a way of coping in an early episode of the show.

In my opinion, I think this defence mechanism may also be linked to passive-aggressiveness; if a person doesn’t like portraying anger, being passive aggressive could be the next best option. They can show their anger by saying things alongside humour or by laughing.


I think repression is probably the most commonly known defence mechanism – it was certainly the one I was most familiar with before I learnt about all of them. Repression is where a person unconsciously forgets or buries painful and traumatic memories in order for them to continue with their lives. An example of this occurring is a person not consciously being aware of a traumatic experience they went through in their childhood; their unconscious has buried it because it is too painful for them to deal with.


Rationalisation is when a person rationalises something to make it easier to deal with. In my own experience, I believe this is something that can commonly be viewed; if someone doesn’t like dealing with the pain or hurt of something, by rationalising it, they are making it not seem as bad as it is, and can therefore deal with it more easily. An example of this could be a person failing an exam they had invested so much time and energy studying for, and then they say that they were not sure they wanted to carry on with that subject anyway, and that it doesn’t matter that they failed.


Projection is a defence mechanism I have experience with, which I wasn’t aware of before learning about it. A person uses projection by allowing, unconsciously, their own anxieties to be directed towards other people. An example of this could be Person A thinking that their friend, Person B, thinks certain things about them, but really it is Person A’s own feelings towards themselves they are talking about, not those of Person B.


Someone uses introjection when they unconsciously take in the attitudes of other people to allow them to continue and deal with their life. My view of this is when a person who is in an emotionally abusive relationship ends up taking on the views of their partner because continuing to express opposing views causes too much mental trauma for the situation they are in.


I think denial is another commonly known defence mechanism, possibly as much as repression. Denial is used when someone wants to unconsciously think that something isn’t happening to avoid dealing with the consequences of it occurring. A possible example of this is the concept of death, which is also possibly an extreme example. People know they are going to die one day, but may pretend it isn’t going to happen so they don’t have to think about what that will mean, and how they truly think about it happening at some point.


A person uses displacement when they want to aim their thoughts and feelings towards the object they want to, but they can’t, so instead they aim them at someone else. I think this is quite a common defence mechanism, depending on a person’s employment situation, for example. An example of this occurring, therefore, is when someone has had a bad day at work and is annoyed at a colleague. Instead of having told this colleague their feelings, they go home and these feelings come out when talking to a family member or person they live with, in an argument, or by their general attitude. Because the person feels as though they can’t say what they want to the person they have an issue with, it comes out in another way.

Reaction Formation

Reaction formation is unconsciously used by a person when they are fighting to control their emotions about something, so they express the opposite. The main example I can think of with this is when a person is having difficulty coming to terms with their sexuality, and may express negative views towards other people with the same sexuality as theirs because they are struggling with how they really feel about it.

This article has looked at my own thoughts and opinions on the different defence mechanisms people can have, and why and how they may use them. Again I will stress that these are my own opinions, made from my own learning on the subject, and if anyone would like to find out more information about them, I would suggest reading an academic book on the study of psychology and/or counselling. I think everyone will have their own opinions, interpretations and experiences of defence mechanisms, and may not even realise they have been active within their own lives. But, like with many things in life, knowledge is power, and if being armed with the knowledge that these exist, it might be the case that someone can see that they are using defence mechanisms for a particular reason and then be able to focus on changing that. The process is unconscious, but in my own experience, I have realised that why I think and do certain things is due to particular defence mechanisms, and I therefore become aware of these having happened. Defence mechanisms are a person’s unconscious way of dealing with an issue, but dealing with that issue head on will be the only way to truly eradicate it or make it easier to deal with. Therefore, I hope this article has allowed for that knowledge to be created about what defence mechanisms are and why people may have them.

Sarah Keeping MBPsS MSc PgDip GDip BA (Hons)

Follow Sarah on twitter at @keepingapproach