Individual Differences


Defence Mechanisms
in Psychodynamic Theory

Last updated:
22 Sep 2003

Anxiety comes from realistic sources in the external world and conflict within oneís own mind. A common conflict is when the id desires something that ego and/or superego donít agree with. An important function of the ego is to operate defense mechanisms.

Psychological defenses are the way we deal with anxiety:


Denies source of anxiety exists (I didnít fail my exam, it must be a mistake. Man keeps setting the table after his wife has left him; denying therefore that she has left. Denial often shows up in daydreams and fantasies. Daydreaming about how things might have been is a common way we cope with anxiety by denying that things happened the way they did).


Banishing the memory: banishing old, bad memories, or even current things. (For example, you might fancy fondling the leg of the person next to you and this could cause you anxiety so you repress the desire!).


Moving back to an earlier stage (when highly stressed, we abandon adult coping strategies and move back to the stage at which we are fixated; e.g. stressed: oral personality might smoke more; anal character may become even more compulsive and obstinate than usual).

Reaction formation

Doing or thinking the opposite (woman who is angry with boss goes out of her way to be kind and courteous; one of the hallmarks of reaction formation is excessive behaviour)


Ascribing unwanted impulse to someone else (the unfaithful husband who is extremely jealous of his wife, always suspecting she might be unfaithful; George Pell).


Finding a rational explanation for something youíve done wrong. (You didnít fail the exam because you didnít study hard enough but because I set bad questions. Your boyfriend breaks up with you and you rationalize that you never really liked him that much anyway).


Turn the feeling into a thought the person who finds his/her partner has cancer, deals with it by becoming an absolute expert on cancer and focuses on the disease intellectually rather than dealing with the emotions),


Moving an impulse from one object (target) to another (angry with boss: go home and yell at your partner or kick the dog)


Transforming impulses into something constructive (Freud saw this as the most adaptive of the defense mechanisms: go out and chop wood when youíre angry). Freud believed that the greatest achievements in civilization were due to the effective sublimation of sexual and aggressive urges.