We all have thoughts and feelings that we’d like to deny ever having. These desires and impulses are so offensive to the conscious part of the mind that it launches various psychological defence mechanisms to keep them out.

We use these psychological defence mechanisms to protect ourselves from feelings of anxiety or guilt, which arises from unacceptable thoughts or feelings or when we feel threatened.

Defence mechanisms operate at an unconscious level and help ward off unpleasant feelings (i.e., anxiety) or make good things feel better for the individual. Most defence mechanisms are natural and normal. But it’s when they get used out of proportion (i.e., used with frequency), neuroses develop, such as anxiety states, phobias, obsessions and compulsions.

 The goal of this blog is to help you identify which defence mechanisms you use and to become aware of them in order to better understand yourself and to improve and modify your behaviours in a healthy constructive way. There are 3 levels of defence mechanisms:

  1. Immature / Primitive Defence Mechanisms

These mechanisms are present in children and are often present in adults. They lessen stress and anxiety produced by people who are threatened or by an uncomfortable reality. Excessive use of such defences is seen as socially undesirable, in that they are immature, difficult to deal with and seriously out of touch with reality. These are the so-called “immature” defences and overuse almost always leads to serious problems in a person’s ability to cope effectively.


Refusal to accept reality because it is too threatening. To argue against something by stating it does not exist; to resolve emotional conflict and reduce anxiety by refusing to see or acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of reality.“ I don’t have a problem”


Is a way to prevent people from hurting us. It helps us to reject others before they can reject us. It is, therefore, more common to behave arrogantly towards strangers, out of fear of rejection. However, this approach is a poor strategy in the short to long term due to its social undesirability.

Acting out

Means to act out what is inside of us without self-control. Thoughts, feelings and emotions. Direct action of an unconscious wish or impulse, without conscious awareness of the emotion that drives the behaviour. Children’s temper tantrums for example. Self-harm may also be a form of acting out, by expressing in physical injury what one cannot stand emotionally or what one cannot express emotionally.

Passive-Aggressive Behaviour

Indirect expression of hostility. Is characterized by a pattern of indirect resistance to the wishes of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation. Pretending not to understand is a typical passive-aggressive strategy. Such behaviour is often opposed by others, evoking frustration or anger, and labelled “catty”, “manipulative”, or “acting dumb”.


 Occurs when a conflict arises between your unconscious feelings and your conscious beliefs. In order to subdue conflict, you attribute these feelings to someone or something else. In other words, you transfer ownership of these troubling feelings to some external source. You effectively trick yourself into believing that these undesirable qualities actually belong elsewhere – anywhere but as a part of you. ~ Spot it you got it ~

Wishful thinking

When the desire for something to be true is used in place of/or as

 evidence for the truthfulness of the claim. Making decisions according to what might be pleasing to imagine instead of by appealing to evidence, rationality, or reality.


Wherein parts of oneself are separated from awareness of other parts and behaving as if one had separate sets of values. An example might be an honest person who bribes a policeman out of a fine or prosecution. They keep these two value systems distinct and unintegrated while remaining unconscious of the cognitive dissonance.

  1. Neurotic / Less-Primitive Defence Mechanisms

These mechanisms are considered neurotic, but are fairly common in adults. Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as a primary style of coping with the world. These include:


Defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more suitable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a “safer” outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening.


Is being disconnected from the here and now, and disconnected from yourself. When people are dissociating they disconnect from their surroundings, which can stop the trauma memories and lower fear, anxiety and shame. A person who dissociates often loses track of time, themselves and their usual thought process and memories. Often caused by childhood trauma such as physical or sexual abuse.


Concentrating on the intellectual components of a situation so as to distance oneself from the associated emotions; separation of emotion from ideas; thinking about situations in formal, effectively dull terms and not acting on them; avoiding unacceptable emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects.


The involuntary process of attempting to resist desires towards pleasurable instincts, caused by a threat of suffering if that desire is satisfied; the desire is moved to the unconscious in the attempt to prevent it from entering consciousness. Repression becomes evident with seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one’s own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.

Isolation (Withdrawal)

Is a more severe form of defence. The tendency to escape from or avoid situations that may be experienced as emotionally or psychologically challenging. It entails removing oneself from events, stimuli, and interactions under the threat of being reminded of painful thoughts and feelings. This strategy must not be confused with dangerous situations in recovery. When one withdraws or isolates in norma everyday, healthy situations, personal growth is severely stunted.


Is an attempt to take back a behaviour or thought that is unacceptable. A person tries to ‘undo’ an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought by acting out the reverse of the unacceptable. This involves symbolically nullifying an unacceptable or guilt-provoking  thought, idea, or feeling by confession or atonement.

Upward and downward social comparisons

Is used as a means of self-evaluation. Individuals will look to another individual or comparison group who are considered to be worse off in order to dissociate themselves from perceived similarities and to make themselves feel better about themselves or their personal situation.

  1. Mature Defence Mechanisms

These are commonly found among emotionally healthy adults and are considered mature, even though many have their origins in an immature stage of development. They have been adapted through the years in order to optimise success in human society and relationships.

The use of these defences enhances pleasure, happiness and feelings of control. These defences help to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, whilst still remaining effective. Those who use these mechanisms are usually considered virtuous and everyone is encouraged to peruse and master as many of these as you can. Mature defences include:


Realistic planning for future discomfort.7p’s Proper prior planning prevents poor pathetic performance


Transformation of unhelpful emotions or instincts into healthy actions, behaviours, or emotions, for example, playing a heavy contact sport such as football or rugby can transform aggression into a game. Playing music, painting or any of the arts to express feelings and emotions.


Is the act of stopping yourself from thinking or feeling something. The conscious decision to delay paying attention to a thought or emotion in order to cope with the present reality; making it possible later to access uncomfortable or distressing emotions whilst accepting them. A voluntary form of repression.


 Is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strengths in other areas. By emphasising and focusing on one’s strengths, a person is recognising they cannot be strong at all times and in all areas of their lives. For example, a person may say “I may not know how to cook, but I can sure do the dishes” they’re trying to compensate for their lack of cooking skills by emphasising their cleaning skills instead. When done appropriately and not in an attempt to over-compensate this mechanism helps reinforce a person’s self-esteem and self-image.


Is the emphasis on a person’s needs or thoughts in a manner that is respectful, direct and firm. Communication styles exist on a continuum, ranging from passive to aggressive, with assertiveness falling neatly in between.

People who are passive and communicate in a passive manner tend to be good listeners, but rarely speak up for themselves or their own needs in a relationship.

People who are aggressive and communicate in an aggressive manner tend to be good leaders, but often at the expense of, not being able to listen emphatically to others and their ideas and needs.

People who are assertive strike a balance where they speak up for themselves, express their opinions or needs in a respectful yet firm manner, and listen when they are being spoken to.

Becoming more assertive is one of the most desired communication skills and helpful defence mechanisms that most people want to learn, and would benefit from doing so

My practice is currently closed:

For support and guidance please contact SADAG 0800 567 567

From April 2023 I will be available again.

Don’t hesitate to get in touch with me for an online counselling session. Let’s together create an environment where you can connect with yourself again, an environment that fosters and encourages authenticity. An environment where you can follow your gut and get to know what it looks like.

After doing an intake I might be able to help you with a few sessions using BWRT (Brainworking Recursive Therapy) read more about BWRT on another blog on my website: https://thewellsamaria.co.za/what-is-brainworking-recursive-therapy-or-bwrt/, or we will use another technique depending on your unique needs.




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