Psychological Defenses

Use of the term defense within psychology and counseling has a long and complex history beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the revolutionary and, at the time, controversial theoretical contributions of Sigmund Freud. Freud is considered the founder of the psychoanalytic movement within psychology and psychiatry. As theoretical advances, modifications, and challenges to the metatheory of psychoanalysis emerged through the latter half of the 20th century, this central construct of Freudian thinking evolved and developed through the works of such seminal writers as Anna Freud, Carl Jung, Heinz Hartmann, Ronald Fairbairn, Melanie Klein, Jacques Lacan, D. W. Winnicott, Otto Kernberg, and a host of other contributors to, and critics of, psychoanalytic theory.

Basic Formulation of Psychological Defenses

Psychoanalytic theory emerged onto the historical stage at the end of the Victorian era, a time that viewed human sexuality with both horror and fascination. When Freud advanced his theory of sexuality in 1905, his ideas were met with a storm of controversy, the echoes of which can still be heard today. Freud proposed that fundamental human behavior is organized largely by biological forces, chief among which is the sexual drive. Within the contemporary context of Victorian morals and mores that were predominant in Western Europe, the open expression of sexual feelings and desires was considered unacceptable in the social milieu of the time. Freud suggested that an internal war was being waged between the basic biological urge to express our sexual needs and the conservative nature of societal expectations to suppress them. Freud believed the mind generated internal psy-chological barriers to protect itself from the anxiety these dangerous and unacceptable sexual thoughts, images, and impulses would create if we were to become conscious of them. He called the psychological activity of building and maintaining such barriers the defense mechanism. In order for a defense mechanism to operate, two key functions must obtain: it must distort reality to some degree, and the psychological activity that accompanies this distortion will operate unconsciously. Freud’s accompanying theory of the unconscious is perhaps his most distinctive, profound, and influential contribution to modern and postmodern thought. It is a contribution that has permeated virtually every level of philosophical, scientific, social, and popular culture.

Post-Freudian Development of the Construct

Anna Freud, nearly as famous as her father, Sigmund Freud, made her own significant and far-reaching con-tribution to psychoanalytic theory by exploring the second element of her father’s tripartite theory of mind, the ego. The ego houses the conscious sense of self and shapes the power of will and choice in everyday life. Key to Anna Freud’s conceptualization of the ego is her elaboration of a series of psychological activities she called ego defense mechanisms. Although Sigmund Freud had originated the idea of the defense mechanism, Anna Freud is generally credited with the full exploration and development of this central psychoanalytic idea. It is her work on the subject, published in 1937, which is commonly cited when referring to psychological defense.

Defense Mechanisms

Anna Freud’s model of psychological defense includes the following specific mechanisms: regression, repression, reaction-formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self, and sublimation. Each mechanism operates in specific ways to protect the ego from unwanted and disturbing impulses, generally thought to reflect the basic biological drives and urges including sexuality and aggression. The name of each mechanism more or less describes the nature of its operation, and these terms are familiar to many readers outside psychology and related fields. Of these, sublimation is a less obvious term and refers to the transformation of unacceptable impulses into socially desirable inclinations and activities. Projection is one of the more complex defenses in that it attributes to others various thoughts, feelings, motives, and intentions that we find unacceptable in ourselves. We may then find ourselves reacting to those attributed personality characteristics as if they originated in the other person, who, in turn may begin to counterreact in specific ways to us. Thus, a complex exchange of problematic projections, reactions, and counterreactions is created and often encountered in the therapeutic relationship.

Contemporary psychoanalytic writers have added to the list and typically differentiate defense mechanisms thought to be more primitive, including those that blatantly distort reality (such as denial), from those considered more sophisticated (such as identification, in which we model ourselves after admired or desired others). There is no “complete” list of defense mechanisms, as psychoanalytic theorists and writers continually elaborate and develop more complex models of this psychological operation. Otto Kernberg is often mentioned as one of the more influential modern psychoanalytic thinkers who contributed significantly to our understanding of personality disorders and the role played by psychological defense mechanisms in maintaining the psychopathology of those conditions.

Psychological Defense and the Therapeutic Process

Although the ongoing development of the psychological defense construct has added both sophistication and explanatory power to theoretical models, it is in the realm of the therapeutic relationship where this idea has proven to be of the greatest utility and value. Early analytic writers, following the tradition of Sigmund Freud and his immediate circle, understood the appearance of psychological defense in the course of treatment to be a manifestation of resistance, which is defined as the patient’s reluctance to allow unconscious psychological material to enter into awareness. It was further understood that part of this resistance was also manifested in the avoidance of a deeper and more intimate relationship with the therapist through which interpretations of unconscious material might provide insight into and understanding of the patient’s symptoms and behavior. It should be pointed out that even Sigmund Freud, and certainly Anna Freud, recognized that the use of psychological defenses, while by definition neurotic, was not necessarily pathological. Rather, defenses are used by relatively healthy adults as coping mechanisms for dealing with the challenges, setbacks, and disappointments that life typically provides.

It is perhaps not surprising that the ethos of Freud’s time, global war, may have contributed to his conceptualization of psychological treatment as a conflict between the will of the therapist to help the patient recover and the pathological condition of the patient’s will to resist that goal. In that parlance, conflict was inevitable within the therapeutic dyad and only by overcoming it could the patient find a cure for his or her psychological ills. As the utility of psychological defense as a coping mechanism became better understood and more accepted, its role in the therapeutic process also evolved.

The emergency of self-psychology, attributed primarily to the writing of Heinz Kohut, suggested the need to move away from the drive-defense model of classical psychoanalysis and to conceptualize the human psyche in more holistic and less conflict-oriented terms. Although Kohut’s work is not as thoroughly covered in academic training settings as that of Sigmund Freud, he has nevertheless had a profound influence in the understanding of what occurs between client and therapist.

Working with the Defense

Recent and contemporary models of counseling and psychotherapy, even those that include a psychodynamic perspective, now tend to see the operation of psychological defense as a potential expression of the client’s need for independence, autonomy, and maintaining healthy psychological boundaries. This is not to argue that all defensive operations are healthy and appropriate, but that the therapist needs to distinguish those that require restructuring and those that are a relatively healthy expression of the client’s sense of self.

Interpersonal and process-oriented psychotherapy practitioners tend to take the perspective that clients’ psychological defenses are attempts to cope with the demands life is placing upon them, in the best way possible given the psychological and material resources available at that point in time. This approach provides clients with a normalizing experience of their current functioning; depathologizes, where appropriate, the choices being made; and allows for a positive self-experience through the use of healthy defenses against despair, hopelessness, shame, and guilt. As therapists work with the clients’ defenses, they seek to make it safe for clients to explore alternate choices, perspectives, and perceptions in a climate of acceptance and support.

Future Directions

Contemporary practitioners of counseling and psychotherapy have a broader range of theoretical and applied models available to them than ever before. The search for “evidence-based” or “empirically supported” treatments has encouraged practicing professionals to seek out approaches that are grounded in research and that reflect solid scientific thinking. There is a relative paucity of findings that unequivocally support the classical psychoanalytic theory of psychological defense, but the same may be said of many other current theoretical models as well. The longevity of any psychological construct is intimately connected to its utility in the practice arena. The construct known as psychological defense has demonstrated its utility across both time and theoretical formulation in explaining the vicissitudes encountered when therapist and client enter upon the healing way. From that perspective, it is likely to be with us, in some form, into the foreseeable future.


  1. Freud, A. (1937). The ego and the mechanisms of defence. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
  2. Freud, S. (1976). An outline of psycho-analysis. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 23, pp. 141-207). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1938)
  3. Freud, S. (1976). The psychopathology of everyday life. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (Vol. 6, pp. 1-279). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1904)
  4. Hartmann, H. (1958). Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation. New York: International Universities Press.
  5. (Original work published 1939) Hartmann, H. (1964). Essays on ego psychology. New York: International Universities Press.
  6. Kernberg, O. (1967). Borderline personality organization. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 15, 641-685.
  7. Kohut, H. (1977). The restoration of the self. New York: International Universities Press.
  8. Teyber, E. (2006). Interpersonal process in therapy: An integrative model (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson/Wadsworth.

See also: