Defense mechanisms are a necessary part of living in the human experience. Without an ego, and if we didn't have to deal with other people's egos (and all of the variations in health and coping strategies) we wouldn't need defense mechanisms.
These strategies or coping techniques allow a person to retain a level of ego coherence so that they aren't completely shattered when something happens that is ego-dystonic (or uncomfortable). Our defense mechanisms can be mature, neurotic or immature. Conversely, we can have a set of mature/healthy defense strategies and a few that are more neurotic (or vice versa).
There are levels of defense strategies* that range from pathological (which typically are only utilized when someone experienced extreme neglect or trauma or someone who lacks consciousness development) to immature (which are less pathological but nonetheless are not well-developed and more primitive or "young") to neurotic (which are your average moderate to slightly dysfunctional defense strategies that most people utilize) and finally healthy strategies.
We can view these defense strategies through the lens of human development. We develop the immature defense strategies between 4-9 years old, the neurotic strategies develop around ages 11-16, and ideally we move into adult strategies as we continue to age starting at around 18-20.
However, development is very rarely that smooth and we may find that certain strategies at the immature or adolescent stage work better to get our needs met than healthy strategies, so we stick with them. Or it could be that we grow up in a family system where healthy strategies weren't demonstrated so we're not sure how to even go about utilizing them.
In recognizing your defense strategies the goal is not making yourself "wrong" for using them, but to work to bring them into awareness and work (if necessary with a coach or counselor) or even a trusted friend to integrate those strategies or defenses that are causing you problems interpersonally. If you aren't sure which one's you use, ask your partner...they'll tell you ;-)
- Humility-Considering your own faults and human fallacies, you keep yourself from developing too high or too low of a self-assessment. (Ex., Submitting that while you may be very good at Words With Friends there could be someone better than you, or conversely that while you may have a sad story someone else's could be sadder).
- Mindfulness-Being aware of yourself and actions in the larger scheme of things in the present moment. (Ex., Keeping your awareness in the present moment and out of an imagined future or a sad past.)
- Acceptance-Practicing the art of non-resistance to what is occurring in your life that also acknowledges your emotions/thoughts. (Ex., Recognizing that even though you don't like it right now you don't have more money than you have).
- Gratitude-Recognizing your own current state of affairs, people and general "lot" in life and being grateful for those things that you do have, regardless as to what they are. (Ex., Acknowledging that even though you are still at your mid-level management position that you are breathing and that you have a job at all.)
- Altruism-Serving others in order to both help them and move ones focus out of your own individual concerns. (Ex., Volunteering at a soup kitchen during the Holidays because of your own guilt).
- Tolerance-Deliberately allowing what you do not approve of. (Ex., Granting someone passage to discuss something that makes you uncomfortable because you know it's important to them).
- Mercy- Showing compassion to those in a less powerful position. (Ex., Lessening or eliminating the punishment for a transgression because you understand the foibles of human error)
- Forgiveness- Ceasing to hold on to resentment, anger and hurt feelings about a perceived slight or transgression. (Ex., forgiving your parent for spanking you when you were eight years old)
- Anticipation- Planning for future discomfort. (Ex., Emotionally preparing yourself for a break up you know is coming.)
- Humor- Utilizing your sense of humor in order to find the comedy or irony in a painful or uncomfortable situation. Utilizing wit or self-deprecating humor that also brings other people enjoyment. (Ex. Making an appropriate joke in a tense situation to introduce some levity)
- Identification- Modeling yourself on someone else's positive behaviors or personality traits. (Ex. Purposely cultivating bravery because your favorite aunt was brave in your opinion)
- Introjection- Internalizing the thoughts, motivation, style and/or personality of those whom one admires so that it becomes part of the self. (Integrating qualities of bravery and valor because you internalize Martin Luther King Jr's life)
- Sublimation- Transforming negative thoughts or behaviors into positive renewing behaviors (Ex. Taking a kick-boxing class when your furious at your partner rather than beating up your partner).
- Thought Suppression- Consciously postponing negative or distressing emotional states with the intent to analyze or understand them at a more appropriate time/date when the immediacy of the situation is over. (Ex. Choosing to postpone brewing about your anger until you're out of the meeting when you can analyze what is really bothering you about it).
- Emotional Self-Regulation- The ability to emotionally monitor your emotional responses that is socially responsible. (Ex., Not telling off your boss because they made a simple request but you were just kind of pissy).
- Displacement (shifting unacceptable negative or sexual impulses into another arena).
- Dissociation (temporarily mentally and emotionally disconnecting from a situation/event in order to cope, some may have temporary shifts in identity conception-Like the need to become Sasha Fierce so you can be strong).
- Hypochondriasis (preoccupation with illness).
- Intellectualization (isolating or compartmentalizing a situation and mulling over the intellectual or factual details of a particular situation in order to avoid the emotional anxiety).
- Isolating (closing yourself off from contact in order to avoid emotional discomfort).
- Rationalizing (making excuses for behavior which would normally be unacceptable using false or faulty explanations).
- Reaction Formation (converting the unacceptable into something acceptable, or doing the opposite of what one actually feels).
- Regression (temporary reverting to an earlier less mature mode of thinking/behaving).
- Undoing (trying to undo an unacceptable action/thought through repentance or confession, symbolically nullifying a perceived wrong).
- Withdrawal (similar to isolation-removing oneself from a situation for threat of being emotionally or mentally traumatized).
- Wishful Thinking (engaging in fanciful thinking about a situation rather than acting on it).
- Idealization (unconsciously making someone more positive than the self).
- Passive Aggression (a latent aggressive act toward another person that is not forthright-procrastinating, excessive negative complaining, etc).
- Somatization (unconsciously converting an emotional problem or negativity about oneself or someone else into physical distress, pain or illness).
- Acting Out (directly acting out an undesirable behavior/motivation without consciously being aware of the wish or desire).
- Projection (projecting your motivations, thoughts, behavioral tendencies onto another).
- Fantasy (which is the act of retreating into a fictional mental story to avoid dealing with a problem, feeling or mental state).
Pathological Defense Strategies:
- Denial (unconscious refusal to see what is obvious to others).
- Superiority or Inferiority Complexes (positioning yourself as grossly above or below others due to an inability to self-reflect or see yourself as equal to others due to narcissism or extremely low-self worth).
- Splitting (making someone/something all bad or all good with no gray area)
- Distortion (grossly reshaping reality in a way that is clearly blown out of proportion).
- Extreme Projection (a severe denial of a psychological defect that is projected onto someone/something else and often reacted against aggressively).
*Based on the research of psychologist George Iman Vaillant