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Defense Mechanisms: Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:04 Definition of Defense…
  • 1:13 Most Common Defense Mechanisms
  • 3:13 Positive & Negative
  • 3:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Messex

Amy has a master's degree in social work (MSW) and has taught social work theory and practice at the University level.

Learn about defense mechanisms and how they help people cope with difficult situations. Explore the most common types of defense mechanisms and consider examples of each one.

Definition of a Defense Mechanism

You are relaxing at home, watching TV, and feeling a bit hungry. You remember that there is a carton of fudge ripple ice cream in the freezer, but you have really been trying to watch calories and your expanding waistline lately. 'Well,' you think, 'just a little ice cream as a reward for getting through this hard week,' as you head toward the fridge.

What you have just done is called rationalization, or creating excuses for resultant behavior out of stressors, and that is one of the many common defense mechanisms that people use in their daily lives. Defense mechanisms are simply ways of coping with difficult feelings; your mind's way of dealing with stress. These little mental tricks, distortions of reality, help you meet your needs in socially acceptable ways.

In the example we're talking about, rationalization will let you eat that tasty treat without feeling too guilty about it. Your brain finds an acceptable reason for digging into that fudge ripple ('I deserve it after this hard week') and you can now ignore the part of your brain that knows ice cream isn't really recommended for your diet. Problem solved!

Most Common Defense Mechanisms

Aside from rationalization encouraging that snack attack, how do defense mechanisms play out in people's lives? Consider some of these other common defense mechanisms:

Denial: Refusing to believe something that you find too upsetting. Example: you just got a phone call letting you know that your favorite uncle died unexpectedly. You think to yourself, 'No way, that's ridiculous, of course he didn't die,' and you go back to the show you were watching.

Projection: Putting an unpleasant thought onto somebody else. Example: accusing your boyfriend of being interested in his cute co-worker, when in reality it's you who have an eye on someone at work.

Somatization: Shifting an emotional problem into a physical complaint. Example: you got yelled at by your boss, and for the rest of the day you have a pounding headache.

Regression: Reverting to earlier, younger ways of coping with your problems. Example: you are overwhelmed with all the studying you have to do for finals, and you throw your pencil across the room in a little tantrum.

Intellectualization: Keeping very aloof and logical about painful topics. Example: while planning your uncle's funeral, you focus on all the little details that need to be planned (the type of flowers, the music, etc.) so you don't have to feel the sadness about his loss.

Repression: Pushing very upsetting memories deep down, away from conscious thought. Example: a war veteran might not be able to remember a specific battle where a friend was killed.

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