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Understanding the Causes of Psychological Defenses and How to Recognize Them in Yourself


Psychological defenses are mental processes that protect individuals from experiencing anxiety, guilt, and other uncomfortable emotions. These defenses can develop in response to various factors, including early childhood experiences, trauma, and ongoing stressors. Recognizing these defenses in oneself is crucial for personal growth and improving mental health.

Causes of Psychological Defenses

Early Childhood Experiences

1. Attachment and Parenting Styles:

Early childhood experiences, particularly the nature of attachment and parenting styles, play a significant role in the development of psychological defenses. Children who experience inconsistent or harsh parenting may develop defenses like repression or denial to cope with fear and insecurity (Bowlby, 1988). For instance, a child who feels neglected might repress feelings of abandonment to maintain a sense of safety.

2. Traumatic Events:

Exposure to trauma, especially during formative years, can lead to the development of defenses as a means of coping with overwhelming emotions. A child who witnesses domestic violence might develop dissociation as a defense mechanism to detach from the painful reality (van der Kolk, 2014).

Trauma and Stress

1. Acute and Chronic Stress:

Both acute and chronic stress can trigger the use of psychological defenses. For example, someone experiencing prolonged workplace stress might turn to intellectualization, focusing on logical solutions while avoiding the emotional impact (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

2. Significant Life Changes:

Major life changes, such as divorce, job loss, or bereavement, can activate psychological defenses as individuals struggle to adapt. Denial might be used initially to avoid the pain of loss, while projection might occur in situations where individuals feel unable to accept their own negative feelings (Freud, 1936).

Recognizing Psychological Defenses in Yourself

Identifying psychological defenses in oneself requires self-awareness and introspection. Here are some signs to help recognize common defenses and understand their possible causes:

Mature Defenses

1. Humor:

Humor allows individuals to acknowledge and address emotional pain without being overwhelmed by it. For example, a person who has experienced a job loss might joke about having more free time to pursue their hobbies. This can help mitigate feelings of failure or inadequacy and foster resilience. In relationships, humor can diffuse tension during conflicts, making it easier for partners to address issues without escalating into arguments. However, overreliance on humor can sometimes prevent individuals from fully processing their emotions, potentially delaying healing (Vaillant, 1992).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Notice if you frequently use humor to deflect serious conversations or avoid addressing your feelings. If you find yourself making jokes during stressful or emotional discussions, it might indicate that you are using humor to avoid confronting deeper emotions. Reflect on whether your use of humor is a way to cope with feelings of inadequacy or fear of vulnerability, possibly stemming from early experiences where showing emotion was discouraged.

2. Sublimation:

Sublimation involves channeling negative impulses into positive, socially acceptable actions. For instance, someone with aggressive tendencies might take up a sport like boxing to release their energy constructively. This defense mechanism is beneficial as it transforms potentially harmful impulses into productive behaviors, improving self-esteem and social relationships. In the context of mental health, sublimation can reduce feelings of guilt and anxiety associated with negative impulses. In relationships, it can lead to healthier expressions of emotions, thereby strengthening bonds and communication (Freud, 1936).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Pay attention to whether you channel negative emotions into productive activities. If you find yourself engaging in intense physical activities or hobbies whenever you feel stressed or angry, it might be a sign of sublimation. Reflect on whether these activities help you manage underlying feelings of guilt or frustration, which might be rooted in early experiences where direct expression of these emotions was not allowed or was met with disapproval.

3. Suppression:

Suppression is the conscious decision to delay paying attention to a thought, emotion, or need to cope with the present reality. For example, a student might suppress their anxiety about an upcoming exam to focus on studying. While this defense can be adaptive in the short term, allowing individuals to function effectively under stress, it requires revisiting the suppressed issue later. In relationships, suppression can help manage immediate conflicts but should be followed by addressing the underlying issues to prevent long-term strain (Vaillant, 1992).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Be mindful if you consciously avoid thinking about certain stressors or emotions to focus on immediate tasks. If you notice that you often push aside feelings of anxiety or sadness to stay productive, it might be a sign of suppression. Reflect on whether this behavior stems from a need to maintain control or avoid appearing vulnerable, possibly influenced by early experiences where showing weakness was discouraged or punished.

Neurotic Defenses

4. Intellectualization:

Intellectualization involves focusing on the logical aspects of a situation to avoid emotional distress. For example, a person diagnosed with a serious illness might concentrate on learning about the disease's statistics and treatments rather than addressing their fear or sadness. This defense helps individuals cope with anxiety by creating a sense of control and predictability. However, it can also lead to emotional detachment, making it difficult for individuals to connect with their feelings or with others. In relationships, intellectualization can create barriers to emotional intimacy as one partner may struggle to understand or share their emotions fully (Freud, 1936).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Be mindful if you find yourself focusing excessively on facts and logic during emotional situations. If you often analyze problems without acknowledging your feelings, it might indicate that you are using intellectualization. Reflect on whether this approach helps you feel in control and detached from emotional pain, possibly linked to early experiences where emotional expression was not supported or valued.

5. Repression:

Repression is the unconscious blocking of unacceptable thoughts or feelings from conscious awareness. For instance, a person who has experienced a traumatic event might repress the memory to avoid the associated pain. While repression can provide temporary relief from distress, it often leads to long-term psychological issues such as anxiety or depression, as the unresolved emotions can resurface in other forms. In relationships, repression can result in misunderstandings and unresolved conflicts, as one partner may unknowingly withhold important emotions or experiences from the other (Freud, 1936).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Consider if there are significant gaps in your memory regarding distressing events. If you find it difficult to recall painful experiences or emotions, it might be a sign of repression. Reflect on whether this memory gap helps you avoid emotional pain, potentially stemming from early experiences where expressing or remembering distressing events was too overwhelming or unsupported.

6. Displacement:

Displacement involves shifting emotional responses from the original source of distress to a safer substitute target. For example, a person angry with their boss might redirect their anger toward a family member or pet. This defense can temporarily relieve stress by allowing expression of feelings that might be dangerous or inappropriate if directed at the true source. However, it can also create conflict in relationships and lead to unfair treatment of others who are not the true cause of distress (Freud, 1936).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Reflect on whether you frequently redirect your frustration or anger towards safer targets, such as family members or pets, instead of addressing the actual source of your stress. If you notice that your reactions are disproportionate to the situation, it might indicate displacement. Consider whether this behavior helps you avoid confrontation or potential retaliation, which might be rooted in early experiences where expressing anger towards the true source was not safe or acceptable.

7. Reaction Formation:

Reaction formation is behaving in a way that is opposite to one's unacceptable desires or impulses. For example, a person who feels hostility towards someone might act overly friendly to them. This defense can help individuals avoid the anxiety associated with their true feelings, but it can also lead to inauthentic behavior and confusion in relationships. Over time, suppressing genuine emotions can result in psychological strain and relational discord (Freud, 1936).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Notice if you act in a way that is opposite to your true feelings, such as being overly friendly to someone you dislike. If you find yourself going out of your way to show positive behavior towards someone or something you secretly have negative feelings about, it might be a sign of reaction formation. Reflect on whether this behavior helps you avoid internal conflict and anxiety, possibly stemming from early experiences where expressing negative emotions was not permitted or safe.

8. Rationalization:

Rationalization involves creating logical explanations to justify behavior that may otherwise be unacceptable. For instance, a person who cheats on a test might rationalize it by claiming everyone else cheats. This defense allows individuals to avoid guilt and maintain self-esteem, but it can also prevent them from taking responsibility for their actions and making necessary changes. In relationships, rationalization can lead to a lack of accountability and trust issues (Freud, 1936).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Observe if you frequently make excuses or logical justifications for your actions, especially when they are ethically questionable or harmful. If you catch yourself downplaying or explaining away your mistakes or negative behaviors, it might indicate rationalization. Reflect on whether this helps you avoid feelings of guilt or responsibility, which might be linked to early experiences where admitting fault or failure was heavily criticized or punished.

Immature Defenses

facts or reality, it might be a sign of denial. Reflect on whether this behavior helps you avoid emotional pain or fear, possibly influenced by early experiences where facing harsh realities was too overwhelming or unsupported.

11. Regression:

Regression involves reverting to behaviors characteristic of an earlier stage of development when faced with stress or conflict. For example, an adult under severe stress might start exhibiting childlike behaviors such as tantrums or excessive dependency. This defense can provide temporary comfort by retreating to a time perceived as safer or simpler, but it can also impair one's ability to cope with current challenges. In relationships, regression can lead to an imbalance where one partner may feel burdened by the other's dependence (Freud, 1936).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Observe if you revert to childlike behaviors or emotions when stressed or upset. If you notice that you often seek comfort in ways that are not age-appropriate or exhibit dependency behaviors, it might indicate regression. Reflect on whether this behavior helps you feel safe or comforted, possibly stemming from early experiences where regressing to earlier stages was a way to seek protection or attention.

12. Splitting:

Splitting involves viewing people or situations in black-and-white terms, without recognizing the complexity or middle ground. For example, a person might see someone as either entirely good or entirely bad, with no acknowledgment of mixed qualities. This defense helps individuals manage conflicting feelings by simplifying their perceptions, but it can also lead to extreme and unstable relationships. In mental health, splitting is often associated with borderline personality disorder and can result in intense, volatile interpersonal interactions (Freud, 1936).

How to Notice It in Yourself:

Reflect on whether you often perceive people or situations in extreme terms, without acknowledging the nuances. If you notice that you quickly shift from seeing someone as entirely good to entirely bad based on specific actions, it might be a sign of splitting. Consider whether this behavior helps you manage internal conflict or confusion, possibly linked to early experiences where understanding and integrating mixed feelings were challenging.


Understanding and recognizing psychological defenses in oneself is a crucial step toward personal growth and improved mental health. By becoming aware of these defenses and their origins, individuals can begin to address underlying issues, fostering healthier coping mechanisms and more authentic relationships. Engaging in self-reflection and, if needed, seeking professional help can aid in this journey, promoting emotional well-being and resilience.


Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.

Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. International Universities Press.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. Springer Publishing Company.

van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking.

Vaillant, G. E. (1992). Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers. American Psychiatric Press.


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