The way in which individuals consciously manage their relationship with reality is influenced by the intervention of unconscious psychic mechanisms that result in decreased levels of anxiety. The purpose of such adaptation mechanisms relate to:

  • restoration of mental homeostasis (equilibrium);
  • reduction of an intrapsychic conflict;
  • reducing the anguish born from inner conflicts between instinctual demands and moral and social laws;
  • mastering, controlling and channeling internal and external dangers or protecting the individual from anxiety or the perception of internal or external dangers or stressors.

Some of the classical defense mechanisms as identified in psychoanalysis refer to: repression, regression, reactionary formation, isolation, retroactive cancellation, transformation into the opposite, sublimation, introjection, projection, return to self.

  • Cognitive psychology considers defense mechanisms to be strategies or procedures for processing negative information with the function of reducing distress, such as: denial (refusal), repression, projection, rationalization, intellectualization / isolation.


  1. Denial: is the refusal to accept reality, one of the most primitive defense mechanisms as it is characteristic of early childhood development. It acts as if a painful event, thought, feeling, does not exist. (avoid facing painful feelings or part of life that they don’t want to admit)
  2. Projection: is the inappropriate attribution of a person’s thoughts, feelings, or impulses to another individual who does not have those thoughts, feelings, or impulses. It is often the result of a lack of understanding and recognition of one’s own motivation and feelings, this making impossible the expression of those.
  3. Introjection – is the process by which an individual creates an image of another person as part of himself. The majority of us tend to introject images (parts) of our parents that show up in attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. As such, it represents an identification with the significant ones, making it problematic to overcome.
  4. Projective identification – the projection of oneself onto someone else in such a way that it massively distorts him, is a fusion of projection and introjection.
  5. Dissociation – occurs when the individual loses track of time and/or self and finds another representation of himself in order to continue in this moment. A person who dissociates often loses track of time or himself, searching to be ‘’disconnected’’ from the real world, without unbearably painful thoughts, feelings or memories. People who have a history of childhood abuse often suffer from some form of dissociation. In extreme cases, dissociation can lead to a person believing they have multiple “selves” (“multiple personality disorder”).
  6. Compartmentalization – is a smaller form of dissociation, where parts of oneself separate from awareness of other parts and behave as if one had separate sets of values.
  7. Cleavage – compartmentalization of feelings, splitting, the individual faces contradictions in behavior, thought or affect which he treats with indifference or denial. The danger lies in the distortion of reality, and a psychotic subject loses the ability to differentiate good from bad.
  8. Conversion – Active symptom formation mechanism in hysteria and especially in conversion hysteria. This mechanism consists in transposing a psychic conflict into somatic, motor (for example paralysis) or sensitive (anesthesia or localized pain) symptoms and trying to solve it this way. The symbolic meaning expresses repressed representations through the body. The term conversion explains in psychopathology the manifestation of the psyche in somatic “innervation”.


  1. Regression – is a return to an earlier stage of development in the face of unacceptable thoughts or impulses. For example, an extremely stressed adult may regress and refuse to engage in normal, daily activities.
  2. Exhibitionism – an extreme behavior of a person who feels unable to express them otherwise. When acting, the person feels a release of pressure, and often helps the individual feel calmer and peaceful again.
  3. Repression – the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts, feelings and impulses, giving the individuals the impression of control over their processes.
  4. Redirection – the process by which thoughts, feelings, and impulses are directed toward one person or object but taken up by another person or object. People often use redirection techniques when they cannot express their feelings safely to the person to whom they are directed. The classic example is the employee who is angry with his boss but cannot express his anger to his boss for fear of being fired. Instead, he comes home and starts hitting his dog or arguing with his wife.
  5. Intellectualization – represents the process of over-emphasizing the psychological function of thinking when the individual faces an unacceptable impulse, situation or behavior, in absence of any emotions or of the psychological function of feeling.
  6. Rationalization– the process of putting in a different light or offering different explanations for the individual’s perceptions or behavior in the face of a change in reality. Rationalization is the logical justification that camouflages an unacceptable behavior, attitudes, or beliefs, thus keeping hidden the true reasons behind them. There is practically a way to release the tension of denying reality.
  7. Returning to a previous moment – the individual’s attempt to undo an unconscious behavior considered unacceptable or offensive.
  8. Sublimation – is simply the channeling of unacceptable impulses, thoughts and emotions into more acceptable ones. Redirecting these unacceptable or harmful impulses to a productive purpose helps the individual to redirect energy that would otherwise have been wasted or used in a way that might have increased his anxiety.
  9. Compensation – is the process of psychological counterbalancing of the individual’s perceived weak points by emphasizing the strong points. Compensation is the excessive development of interest and activity in one area to mask a major dissatisfaction in another area.
  10. Repression – means motivated forgetting or ignoring. It happens within internal states, thus there is the rejection in the unconscious of some unacceptable impulses, representations or ideas that remain active, yet remain inaccessible to the conscious.
  11. Retroactive cancellation is the successor of omnipotent control and represents the unconscious effort to counterbalance an affect. Basically, the individual opposes conscience, or following the previous shameful or aggressive behavior tries to deny, elaborate and clarify through an opposite action or self-punishment.
  12. Returning to one’s own person is a more mature method of introjection. This mechanism represents the redirection of negative attitudes, anger, resentment from another person, towards oneself: “Assuming”.
  13. The reactionary formation – means to transform an affect, a desire or an impulse into its opposite, this mechanism appears to negate ambivalence. This can be beneficial in competitive situations, where both feelings of hatred and admiration appear. In this situation the individual does not accept the duality of a feeling and considers only one extreme valid.
  14. Moralization is an unconscious transformation of impulse into moral duty. Rationalization is an advanced version of it.

Once you notice some of these defense mechanisms, you can further identify and employ healthy coping mechanisms, with few options available and at hand presented in the following articles.

If you need support to work through this, please be inn touch with a specialist, coach, counsellor or therapist to support your journey.

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Camelia Krupp

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