How Defense Mechanisms Help us Survive


He was a large man, tall and muscular from the physical labor he did every day as a framing contractor. At first he tried to suppress the tears, but they got the better of him, and ended up streaming down his face.

Just minutes earlier he was so filled with rage he was punching his fist on his thigh with such force I was worried he would hurt himself.

The reason for all this emotion? He was convinced his wife of eight years, the dark haired, petite mother of three who sat across from him in my office, was having an affair.

She was pleading with him, and me. When would she have time for an affair? She worked full time and was raising three children. He knew where she was every minute. Frankly, she was getting a little tired of having to report to him, and being accused of infidelity each time she went to buy groceries.

Here’s the interesting thing. I knew that she was faithful, and that HE was the one who was attracted to another woman, a waitress he met in a cafe he frequently visited. He was using a classic Defense Mechanism as described by Sigmund Freud called Projection. He was taking his uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and attributing them to his wife.

Freud? That old timer?— Yep.

Today, Freud’s basic constructs have been expanded, improved upon and updated to more accurately reflect current thinking. He was the father of it all, a genius, whose theories have become a part of our common vocabulary.

According to Freud, a Defense Mechanism is a distortion of reality. Something we do unconsciously to protect ourselves. He described 10, but not all of them make sense today.

I’m going to share my favorites with you, and you can see which ones you use to keep yourself safe. Don’t even start to think that you don’t use Defense Mechanisms, because we all do at one time or another.

My personal favorite is Rationalization. It means explaining away actions in a seemingly logical way to avoid uncomfortable feelings, especially shame and guilt. Examples might be, “Everyone cheats on their taxes” and “Just one more cigarette won’t hurt”.

The ability to keep dangerous or threatening thoughts from even entering our conscious mind is called Repression. How can an eight year old manage to go to third grade after watching her drunken father beat her mother … again? Simple, she represses the memory, goes to school and learns long division.

Another great lifesaver is Denial. With Denial, we protect ourselves from unpleasant realities by simply not being aware of them. What we don’t know can’t hurt us. For example, the parent whose teenager suddenly looks red-eyed and is sleeping more than usual, and  might find the idea of substance use hard to face, so he simply fails to notice the signs.

Bringing Defense Mechanisms into consciousness is the first step toward resolution. The awareness that he was Projecting allowed the framing contractor to examine HIS issues  regarding the waitress. You may be happy to know that he also realized he wasn’t about to give up an eight-year marriage, for a restaurant attraction.

In summary, it is only fitting to end with a quote by Freud himself,
“Man should not strive to eliminate his complexes but to get in accord with them.”