How We Use Psychological Defences

how we use psychological defences

How We Use Psychological Defences

Psychological defences are creative ways we use to manage strong emotions. We use psychological defences to lessen strong emotions. Watch my video to find out more. They can be helpful in the short term, to help you manage and adapt.

We all use them daily, to cope with life and build relationships. They are a normal part of our psychological functioning.

However, in the long term, if they are used abusively or too rigidly, they are harmful. This is because the underlying feelings remain and still cause distress. This means part of your energy is taken up with working harder at managing what is underneath.

There are lots of ways of defining psychological defences initially described by Anna Freud, not Sigmund Freud, as many mistakenly believe. I have loosely based this article on Nancy McWilliam’s Book on Psychanalytic Diagnosis.

Psychological defences are vital as they help you avoid strong, threatening feelings. Thus you can manage self-esteem so that you can form stronger bonds with others. Consequently, you have a stronger sense of self which you can also use to conditions such as depression and anxiety.

How We Choose Our Defences

This choice is made unconsciously. This is based on the personality and character you are born with and how they develop.  Your parents and caregivers will also have modelled or taught you the effectiveness of certain defences, the childhood stresses and traumas such as moving school, your parents divorcing, or long-term illness also shape the defences you use.

Primary defences are developed at an early age. They are about how you make sense of the world around you.

Secondary defences form later and are more likely to be based on reality checking.

If you choose, therapy can help you learn fresh, defensive mechanisms, as an adult. These reinforce new behaviours and can lead to a more satisfying life. I mention these at the end of the article.

The world can seem a scary place, especially in uncertain or economically tough times. Whatever you can do to make it feel safer will make sense to you. Your defences got stronger when you saw their benefits. It’s about acknowledging what they are and keeping an eye out for over-use.

Is this something you can relate to? If so, please like or comment below.


Psychological Defences
Psychological Defences


Definitions Of  Defences

Common Primary Defences


We pull away into a different consciousness to protect ourselves. This removes us from the situation which is threatening. It also means we are not sorting the problem with those around us. Often, we are also disengaging our feelings.

For example, stopping talking to our partner when they bring up a difficult subject.


This is when we refuse to accept something is happening. It is a natural go-to place for catastrophes and traumas. We also do it to adapt to a situation.

For example, if we see others say mean things when we cry, we will stop ourselves from crying.


This is when we think internal pain is caused by something outside. Thus, we misunderstand the source of the pain and so make false assumptions about how to relieve it.

For example, if a baby assumes the pain of colic comes from their nappy rubbing against them.


Understandably, we separate complex, distressing experiences in our head. We classify them as either good or bad. This is also known in CBT as black and white thinking.

For example, we visit one set of grandparents all the time and don’t speak to others.



Common Secondary Defences


This is when we just can’t remember something because of its power to upset us. We aren’t aware we do this. It’s unconscious.

For example, someone who has a traumatic childhood, yet can recall few details about it.


We all do this to a greater or lesser extent, when under stress. This is a coping mechanism when we resort to younger behaviours to deal with emotional overwhelm.

For example, you miss your ex and you cuddle their t-shirt to feel better.


Seeking ways to feel it’s one’s duty to do something, even if other people feel or think differently.

For example, strongly implying that you ought to send a thank you letter for a gift.


This is a useful way of allowing 2 conflicting situations to exist without feeling bad or appreciating the conflict.

For example, a person having an affair with another and being sexually close to their partner.


This is when we separate what we know from what we feel. It protects us from having a strong emotional response to something traumatic, overstimulating or upsetting.

For example, someone tells of a traumatic event and says they have no feelings about it.


This is talking about feelings in an unemotional way. It’s also a way of handling the emotional overload. However, it’s like ignoring a broken bone, the underlying emotional pain doesn’t go away.

For example, a college student who deals with the grief of leaving home by engaging in logical tasks like planning what to pack.


Basically, this is a way of telling ourselves that bad things aren’t so bad after all.

For example, we get spurned in love and tell ourselves we didn’t want a relationship with that person anyway.


This is the conscious effort to counterbalance wrongdoing. Cleverly, we aren’t aware of guilt or shame about wrongdoing, when we are doing something about it.

For example, buying your friend an expensive gift to compensate and so make ourselves feel better about an argument.

Turning Against Self:

This is how we make sense of and gain a sense of hostile environments or attitudes, ‘there must be something wrong with me.’

For example, a child blaming themselves for the breakup of their parents’ relationship.


When we feel anxious about doing something, we put energy into doing something else instead. We do this to lessen our anxiety.

For example, cleaning your desk or washing your car when you have an important work deadline to meet.


This is the conscious effort to counterbalance wrongdoing. Cleverly, we aren’t aware of guilt or shame about wrongdoing, when we are doing something about it.

For example, buying your friend an expensive gift to compensate and so make ourselves feel better about an argument.

Reaction Formation:

This is a big name for something straightforward to describe. You feel something on the inside. On the outside, you express the opposite feeling.

For example, you lust after an unattainable classmate. You spread nasty rumours and bully them so those around you believe you hate them.



Constructive Defence Mechanisms

Dr John Grohol describes these ‘mature defence mechanisms are often the most constructive and helpful to most adults but may require practice and effort to put into daily use.’

If you keep using primary defence mechanisms, it is unlikely to actively harm you. However, you may still benefit from rectifying long-standing issues. This can be done through therapy and helps you to be more at peace and enjoy your life more.


This is about making turning urges, emotions and thoughts you don’t want to act on into those that you do.


Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, compensation helps you concentrate on your strengths. Compensation is a process of psychologically counterbalancing perceived weaknesses by emphasizing strength in other areas. This can bolster your self-esteem, as long as you aren’t over-compensating.

For example, someone who finds it hard to cook, emphasizes their ability to ride a bike.


Being assertive means being clear, considerate and emphatic. You take into account what other people are saying and listen attentively, even when you disagree.

For example, someone who has trouble asking for what they want respectfully and clearly requests a new job opportunity.

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