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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.

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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.Polarized thinking: Using all-or-nothing thinking because your mixed feelings are confusing. Example: your boyfriend dumps you, but instead of remembering both the good and bad times you had together, which would be too painful, you tell yourself that he was a total jerk and you are glad to be rid of him.

Positive ; Negative

Some experts might include a few others on their lists, but it’s generally agreed that these are the most common. All of these defense mechanisms are normal human adaptations to stress, and only become a problem if they are used in very rigid ways, like if someone constantly rationalizes those junk food binges and ends up with major health problems as a result. But using defense mechanisms to manage major stress can be very healthy, for example when someone needs time to emotionally process the news about a death in the family.

Lesson Summary

Defense mechanisms are ways that people manage difficult emotions, often involving unconscious distortions of reality to make things easier to swallow. Some of the most common defense mechanisms include denial, or refusing to believe something that you find too upsetting; rationalization, or creating excuses for resultant behavior out of stressors; projection, or putting an unpleasant thought onto somebody else; intellectualization, or keeping very aloof and logical about painful topics; regression, or reverting to younger ways of coping with problems; repression, or pushing upsetting memories deep down; somatization, or shifting an emotional problem into a physical complaint; and polarized thinking, or creating all-or-nothing thinking to deal with emotional confusion.Using defense mechanisms can be either healthy or unhealthy, depending on the context and how rigidly they are used. You can thank your mind for playing tricks on you; they help you cope with hard situations. A little fudge ripple ice cream from time to time can really brighten your day.


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