A defence mechanism is an unconscious and automatic reaction of the body to avoid experiencing conflict or anxiety. It is a way of behaving or thinking to protect or “defend” our sense of self from threatening or unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Defence mechanisms can be useful in the short term as a way of deceasing distress and allowing us to continue to function when confronted with high stress or pressure, tragedy or trauma, but they are self-defeating in the long-term. This is because when we attempt to use emotional control strategies to push away, avoid, suppress, or change unwanted and difficult thoughts and feelings, they always come back bigger and stronger.

Defence mechanisms have been categorised into primitive, intermediate and mature.

Primitive defence mechanisms

Primitive defence mechanisms rely on a deliberate misrepresentation or ignoring of reality in order to function. These defence mechanisms are often used by children and adults who are emotionally delayed or haven’t learnt better ways of coping with stress or traumatic events in their lives. Primitive defence mechanisms also can interfere with a person’s accurate perception of reality, so that it puts them at high risk rather than allowing them to function in a healthy and productive way.

  1. Denial

Denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, acting as if a painful event, thought or feeling did not exist. It is considered one of the most primitive of the defence mechanisms because it is characteristic of early childhood development. For example, an alcoholic may deny they have a drinking problem based on how well they function in their job and relationships.

  1. Splitting

This is when a person polarises their view of a person as “all good” or “all bad” and any evidence to the contrary is ignored. For example, “My boss is evil”, after being terminated from work, when in reality, the boss had no choice in the matter and was acting under orders herself. It allows people to block thoughts about certain experiences.

  1. Regression

Regression is when a person reverts to an earlier stage of development when confronted with unacceptable thoughts or impulses. For example, an adolescent who is experiencing growing sexual impulses might become clingy and start exhibiting earlier childhood behaviours such as bed wetting.

  1. Acting Out

Acting Out is performing an extreme behaviour in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing. Instead of saying, “I’m angry with you,” a person who acts out may instead throw a book at the person or punch a hole through a wall.

  1. Dissociation

Dissociation is when a person loses track of time and instead finds another representation of their self in order to continue in the moment. A person who dissociates can “disconnect” from the real world for a time and live in a different world that is not cluttered with thoughts, feelings or memories that are unbearable.

  1. Compartmentalisation

Compartmentalisation is a lesser form of dissociation, where parts of the person are separated from their awareness of other parts and they behave as if they had separate sets of values. For example, an honest person who cheats on their income tax return separates their two value systems so that they don’t experience any cognitive dissonance.

  1. Projection

Projection is the misattribution of a person’s undesired thoughts, feelings or impulses onto another person who does not have those thoughts, feelings or impulses. For example, a spouse may be angry at their significant other for not listening, when in fact, they are the one who does not listen.

  1. Reaction Formation

Reaction formation occurs when a person converts unwanted thoughts or feelings into their opposites. For example, a woman who is angry with her boss and would like to quit her job may instead be publicly kind and generous toward him and express a desire to keep working there.

  1. Help-Rejecting Complaining

This occurs when people frequently complain and ask for help but then consistently reject it. It covers hostile feelings or feelings of inadequacy that the person cannot express overtly.

  1. Conversion

Conversion is a physical reaction to anxiety. For example, a person may get sick before a challenging and feared task.

  1. Passive Aggression

Passive Aggression occurs when a person behaves passively rather than expressing aggression directly. For example, they don’t do a task they’re supposed to, which ultimately causes a problem for the person they are angry with.

  1. Provocative Behaviour

This is when a person attempts to provoke someone into behaving badly as a way to express their hostility but blame the other person for it.

  1. Fantasy

When life seems mundane or distressing, people often use fantasy as a way of escaping reality. For example, they may fantasise about winning the lottery.

  1. Substitution

This is when a person does something else instead of the task they should be doing such as cleaning their desk or making a phone call.

Intermediate defence mechanisms

An intermediate level of defence mechanisms is defined by a more ambivalent relationship with reality, whereby the person recognises reality but avoids it. Many adults use these defence mechanisms, but they are not ideal ways of dealing with our feelings, stress and anxiety.

  1. Repression

Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses. For example, a person may have “repressed memories” that have been unconsciously blocked from their access.

  1. Displacement

Displacement is the redirecting of thoughts, feelings and urges from a person or object to another person or object. For example, a man is angry at his boss, but can’t express his anger to his boss for fear of being fired so instead he comes home and kicks the dog or starts arguing with his wife.

  1. Isolation

Isolation is when a person detaches feelings from a specific behaviour. For example, a person has an uncomfortable task to do such as terminating someone’s employment.

  1. Intellectualisation

Intellectualisation is the overemphasis on thinking without displaying any emotions when confronted with an unacceptable situation as a way to distance themselves from the event. For example, a person who has just been given a terminal medical diagnosis may focus on the details of all possible treatments rather than expressing their sadness and grief.

  1. Rationalisation

Rationalisation is viewing something in a different light or offering a different explanation for a behaviour or situation. For example, a man is unsuccessful in gaining a job and explains this away as, “I didn’t want the job anyway”.

  1. Undoing

Undoing is the attempt to take back an unconscious behaviour or thought that is unacceptable. For example, after unintentionally insulting his partner, a man might spend the next hour praising her to try to counteract the damage done.

  1. Rituals

This is when a person does the same thing to make themselves feel more comfortable. For example, they may sit in same seat or take some route to work each day.

Mature defence mechanisms

Mature defence mechanisms are behaviours defined by a healthy and conscious relationship with reality. Reality is accepted even when it is not appreciated. Mature defence mechanisms tend to be adaptive as uncomfortable feelings and thoughts are deliberately transformed into less threatening forms rather than being pushed aside.

Using mature defence mechanisms to cope involves a conscious effort by a person and they don’t just occur spontaneously. Mature defence mechanisms are often the most constructive and helpful to adults but may require practice and effort to put into daily use.

While primitive defence mechanisms do little to try and resolve underlying issues or problems, mature defences are more focused on helping a person be a more constructive component of their environment. People with more mature defences tend to be more at peace with themselves and those around them.

  1. Altruism

This is when a person avoids uncomfortable feelings by helping others.

  1. Humour

This is when a person emphasises the funny side of a situation that causes anxiety or pain, so it is often useful as it can reduce the intensity of a situation.

  1. Sublimation

Sublimation is channelling unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones. For instance, when a person has sexual impulses they would like not to act upon, they may instead focus on rigorous exercise.

  1. Identification

Identification is when a person avoids negative feelings, such as rejection or insecurity, by taking on the identity of the organisation, their leader or hero. It can be useful if the identify comes from a positive role model and a coach may help the client to actually choose a specific role model.

  1. Compensation

Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other arenas to reinforce a person’s self-esteem. They may over-strive in a “safe area” to make up for deficits in another area. For example, “I may not know how to cook, but I do the dishes well”.

  1. Affiliation

This occurs when a person turns to others for support rather than deal with uncomfortable feelings themselves. It can be useful if used appropriately but dysfunctional when it is an over-used leadership style and they become more affiliative rather than disciplinary or be assertive.

  1. Suppression

This is a conscious form of repression where a person chooses not to engage with distressing thoughts or feelings for a period of time. For example, a woman deliberately pushes away her worries about losing touch with her college friends after graduation as her time at university draws closer.

  1. Distraction

Distraction is consciously deciding to put off thinking distressing thoughts or feelings by temporarily focusing attention towards something less threatening. For example, watching TV as a way to stop worrying about medical tests results.

How to work with Defence Mechanisms in Coaching

Most defence mechanisms are fairly unconscious, so people often don’t realise they’re using them in the moment to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Psychologists can help a person become aware of what defence mechanisms they are using, how effective they are, reduce their use of less primitive ones, and employ more effective mechanisms in the future.

When a person presents for coaching, it is likely they are not aware that their defence mechanisms may be hindering their ability to achieve their goals. Coaches must be able to spot them and work with them. A Coach with a background in psychology understands that some defence mechanisms are an expression of anxiety or fear. Coaching Psychologists are often better prepared and able to work with these clients then Coaches without psychology training as they will be able to help the client identify which defences they’re using and attempt to disregard them when they become obstacles or barriers to progress.

The process that a Coaching Psychologist follows when dealing with clients’ defence mechanisms involves:

  • Recognising that the client is using immature defence mechanisms that may be inhibiting their progress towards their goals and identifying what these are. 
  • Raising the client’s self-awareness about their defence mechanisms. This involves normalising defence mechanisms and explaining that they are a part of our everyday life and everyone engages in some form of “self-deception” at least some of the time. The creation of defence mechanisms is a normal part of human development and occurs to provide psychological protection against pain due to uncomfortable thoughts, feelings or situations.
  • Giving feedback to the client on the specific behaviour observed in a clear and objective way.
  • Inviting discussion with the client and asking them for their view, “What do you think?”
  • Explaining to the client that an understanding of their defence mechanisms allows them to reduce their use of ineffective defence mechanisms and create new behaviours. It also helps clients’ ability to identify defence mechanisms in other people and how they are used in organisational politics. For example, the client chairs a meeting and is “baited” by another person and loses their temper. If they can recognise that the other person is employing a provocative behaviour defence mechanism, they may choose to respond differently.
  • Employing strategies to teach clients skills such as mindfulness to help them open up and accept their unwanted and unpleasant thoughts, emotions, and sensations rather than suppress, avoid or control them through the use of defence mechanisms.
  • Assisting clients in identifying their values and goals and utilising their strengths so that they can engage in valued life activities and live a meaningful and satisfying life, even when confronted with difficult and unpleasant life experiences.