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Blog Short #182: Three Defense Mechanisms You Shouldn’t Use and One You Should

Photo by Dilok Klaisataporn, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Part of being self-aware and guarding your mental health is understanding defense mechanisms – specifically, why you use them and how they affect you.

Today, we’ll go through three defense mechanisms you should avoid and one that’s good for you. Let’s get right to it.

What Are Defense Mechanisms?

Defense mechanisms are behaviors and responses to situations that people use to:

  1. Avoid anxiety
  2. Maintain their self-image or self-esteem
  3. Sidestep painful feelings

In general, they’re strategies you use to avoid thinking about or dealing with something that makes you uncomfortable or threatens how you feel about yourself.

Depending on the source you’re citing, there are somewhere between 20 and 30 defense mechanisms. We’re discussing four today that are widely accepted by psychologists.

Knowing how and when you use these four will help you create better coping skills and improve your overall interactions with other people. A side benefit is that you’ll also be able to identify when someone else is using them in a way that negatively impacts you. Let’s start with denial.


Denial is widespread and has found its way into mainstream conversation. It’s not unusual to hear someone say something like, “He’s in denial” or “She’s living in la la land.”

Denial is an outright rejection of something’s existence. You block something you don’t want to acknowledge because it causes you anxiety, challenges your beliefs, or threatens you in some way.

Denial is a means of protecting yourself from what you think you can’t handle or cope with.

Sometimes, denial is a total rejection of the reality of something, and other times, it’s a way to minimize the effects of a situation.

For example, an alcoholic might completely deny that they have a drinking problem even in the face of evidence. Or they may not deny it but pass it off as not that serious because they can stop any time they want.

Some instances of denial are the outgrowth of repression, another defense mechanism.

Repression is an unconscious process whereby something that occurred or felt is completely repressed and out of conscious memory. It’s different in that there’s nothing to deny because there’s no recognition that something happened.

A story that always comes to mind when I think of repression is about an incident that happened to Stephen King. When he was four, he and a friend were playing near a railroad. He saw his friend run over by the train and killed, yet to this day, he has no memory of what he saw.

An experience like that is so traumatic that the mind represses what seems too horrible to acknowledge and feel.

Repression, along with suppression and denial, are attempts to avoid emotions that are painful. However, denial is a conscious act, whereas repression is unconscious.


Projection is also an attempt to deny something, but the dynamic is different. It’s a means of transferring something you don’t want to someone else.

A familiar example is a situation in which someone accuses you of behaving in a way that, in actuality, they behave. For instance, you’re late meeting up with your friend for the first time ever, and she tells you, “You’re always late to everything!” The truth is that she’s late to most everything and is known for that, not you.

Your friend denies to herself that she has a problem with punctuality and projects this unwanted issue onto you.

Think of it as a game of hot potato. When you dislike something about yourself and find it unacceptable, you throw it to someone else so you don’t have to feel the heat.

Projection is the source of many arguments because it distorts reality and feels like a personal attack that’s unwarranted.

Projection, like denial, is used to avoid dealing with the anxiety and pain that would come from recognizing something about yourself that threatens your self-esteem or self-image.


Splitting is a defense mechanism you’ve likely only heard of if you work in psychology. However, it is widely used and is the basis of all-or-nothing thinking.

Splitting is the practice of seeing things as only good or only bad.

It originates during the toddler years. The 2-year-old sees Mommy as all good when she meets his needs and allows him free rein to explore but as all bad when she tells him “no” or thwarts his desires and drives.

It’s cute at that age, although sometimes exasperating. But it’s not pretty when adults act similarly.

Splitting is the inability to see things in wholeness where both good and bad coexist, along with many shades of grey.

People who have difficulty with this developmental stage ping-pong between the extremes. They play them out in relationships and within themselves.

For example, when your partner is attentive, loving, and affectionate, he’s a good partner. But if he’s temporarily preoccupied and does something to disappoint you, you see only what you don’t like about him.

We all do this occasionally, but the person who consistently engages in splitting operates this way most of the time.

Splitting also applies to your self-image: you see yourself as all good when you’re performing well and all bad when you make mistakes—even just one. There’s no in-between. You can’t see yourself objectively as an evolving person with ups and downs and positive and negative characteristics.

Although this all-or-nothing approach is considered a cognitive distortion, splitting is more than that. It’s a developmental problem that has lingering effects from childhood into adulthood and affects most facets of functioning. It’s the basis of the us-versus-them mentality.

Now for a healthy defense mechanism.


Sublimation is channeling an unwanted and unacceptable impulse into an acceptable activity that provides an outlet for expression.

Here are some examples:

You compete in sports, which allows you to sublimate your aggressive drives into regulated, socially acceptable activity that satisfies those urges.

You have a heated argument with your partner, but instead of yelling and ranting and saying things you can’t take back, you go for a walk to cool off and regain some objectivity, thereby protecting the relationship from harm.

Sometimes, people use the trauma they’ve experienced to write novels and poems or pursue other artistic outlets that allow them to express their emotions and help move through them.

You had a chaotic day at work and are feeling anxious about your job, but once you’re home, you give the kitchen a good cleaning and get everything organized and in place, thereby relieving your anxiety for the night.

You get the idea. You channel the negative into the positive and provide yourself with emotional release and relief.

The only hitch is that sublimation is not a solution to issues that need resolution. Taking a walk to prevent a conversation from going south is a good strategy, but you still need to resolve the problem that started the argument. Your clean kitchen relieves you tonight, and you’ll sleep well, but the issues at work are still there, and you’ll need to attend to them tomorrow.

That’s all right. Sublimation is a wonderful stop-gap and coping mechanism that provides emotional space.

How to Use This Information

Knowing about defense mechanisms can help you develop better coping skills.

Today, you learned about denial, projection, and splitting, which are all defensive methods of avoiding reality. They allow you to skirt around issues and emotions you don’t want to face, but there’s a cost. There’s always a cost when you ignore reality because you’re operating in the dark.

The way to overcome negative defense mechanisms is to consistently watch and increase awareness of when you use them and substitute better coping skills, like sublimation.

  • Observe your behavior.
  • Question your assumptions.
  • Use journaling to review daily situations where you’ve used them and write what you could have done instead.

Letting go of defense mechanisms is an ongoing process and takes time and diligence. They’re habits that have taken a long time to form and will take time to undo, but the benefits are significant. You become happier with yourself and others, and you free up emotional energy to pursue your goals. It’s worth your time.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


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