What Defence Mechanisms Are and How to Recognise Them

Defence Mechanism
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Donovan - Life Coach

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Defence Mechanism

Defence mechanisms are psychological strategies that individuals use to protect themselves from uncomfortable or painful feelings, thoughts, or experiences. These mechanisms can manifest in various ways and can be either conscious or unconscious.

Defence mechanisms can be adaptive, helping individuals cope with stressors in their environment. However, they can also be maladaptive and interfere with an individual’s ability to function in their daily life.

In this article, I’ll explore the most common defence mechanisms, how to recognise them, and their potential impact on mental health.

What are Defence Mechanisms?

Defence mechanisms are unconscious psychological processes that people use to protect themselves from anxiety, stress, or other unpleasant emotions. They can be thought of as mental shortcuts that allow individuals to avoid confronting difficult emotions or experiences.

Defence mechanisms can be adaptive, helping individuals cope with challenging situations. For example, someone who experiences a traumatic event may use a defence mechanism like repression to block out the memory and avoid experiencing the associated emotions.

However, defence mechanisms can also be maladaptive, causing individuals to experience negative consequences in their lives. For example, someone who uses denial to avoid confronting an addiction may be unable to seek treatment and continue to engage in harmful behaviour.

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How to Recognise Defence Mechanisms

Identifying defence mechanisms in oneself or others can be challenging, as they often operate unconsciously. However, several signs may indicate the use of a defence mechanism, including:


Rationalisation is a defence mechanism that involves creating logical explanations for behaviours or events that may be unacceptable or uncomfortable. Individuals may use rationalisation to justify their actions or to avoid taking responsibility for negative outcomes.

Example: “I didn’t get the job because the interviewer was biased against me, not because I’m underqualified.”


Denial involves refusing to acknowledge the existence of a problem or negative emotion. Individuals may use denial to avoid confronting difficult situations or to protect their self-esteem.

Example: “I don’t have a drinking problem. I can stop whenever I want.”


Projection involves attributing one’s negative qualities or emotions to others. Individuals may use projection to avoid confronting uncomfortable aspects of themselves or to shift blame onto others.

Example: “I’m not the one with anger issues. You’re the one who’s always yelling.”


Regression involves reverting to an earlier stage of development or behaviour. Individuals may use regression to cope with stressors by returning to a time when they felt safer or more secure.

Example: “I can’t deal with this adult stuff. I just want my mom to take care of me.”


Sublimation involves channelling negative or unacceptable emotions into socially acceptable outlets, such as art, sports, or other hobbies. Individuals may use sublimation to cope with stressors and positively express themselves.

Example: “I paint to deal with my anxiety. It helps me relax and express my emotions.”

The Impact of Defence Mechanisms on Mental Health

While defence mechanisms can help manage stress and anxiety, overreliance on them can have negative consequences on mental health. Maladaptive defence mechanisms can interfere with an individual’s ability to function in their daily life, leading to difficulties in relationships, work, and other areas.

Some of the potential consequences of maladaptive defence mechanisms include:

  • Increased anxiety and stress
  • Difficulty regulating emotions
  • Poor coping skills
  • Problems in relationships
  • Reduced self-esteem
  • Avoidance of difficult situations

How To Overcome Maladaptive Defence Mechanisms?

The first step in overcoming maladaptive defence mechanisms is to recognise them. It can be helpful to work with a life coach to identify and address maladaptive defence mechanisms.

Life coaches may use a variety of techniques, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, to help individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms. This can involve learning how to identify and challenge negative thought patterns, practising mindfulness, and developing problem-solving skills.

Additionally, engaging in self-care activities, such as exercise, meditation, and spending time with supportive friends and family, can help individuals build resilience and reduce the need for maladaptive defence mechanisms.

How To Help a Friend or Loved One with Maladaptive Defence Mechanisms?

If you suspect that a friend or loved one is using maladaptive defence mechanisms, it can be challenging to know how to help. It’s important to approach the situation with empathy and compassion, as defensive behaviour may be a sign that the person is feeling vulnerable or threatened.

Some strategies for helping a friend or loved one with maladaptive defence mechanisms include:

  • Expressing concern and offering support
  • Encouraging the person to seek professional help
  • Helping the person identify healthier coping mechanisms, such as exercise or journaling
  • Avoiding judgement or criticism


Defence mechanisms are common psychological processes that individuals use to protect themselves from uncomfortable or painful emotions. While defence mechanisms can help manage stress and anxiety, overreliance on maladaptive defence mechanisms can have negative consequences on mental health.

Recognising and addressing maladaptive defence mechanisms can be challenging, but it’s an important step towards building resilience and improving mental health. By working with a therapist or mental health professional and engaging in self-care activities, individuals can develop healthier coping mechanisms and improve their overall well-being.

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