Freud’s Ego Defense Mechanisms (Psychoanalysis)

In his article titled “On The Psychology of Self-Deception”,  Shapiro, (1996) asks: “Self-deception can easily seem paradoxical. How can the knowing deceiver also be the unknowing deceived? How can one intentionally, knowingly, not know?”   While many of Freud’s concepts have long been dismissed, several aspects of his work have made a lasting impact on the field of psychology.  One of these concepts pertains to the notion of repression within the mind’s subconscious.  So why is it we lie to ourselves and hold outside our awareness a critical component of reality from our understanding??  Baumeister, et al, (1998) state the following:

“Nearly all adults hold preferred views of themselves. In most cases, these are favorable views of self—indeed, somewhat more favorable than the objective facts would entirely warrant, as nearly all writers on the self have observed. A recurrent problem of human functioning, therefore, is how to sustain these favorable views of self. Patterns of self-deception can help create these inflated self-perceptions (p. 110).”

According to Freud, upholding a preferred view of ourselves and the world we live requires some mental gymnastics of sorts.  “Defense Mechanisms are, in essence, attentional tricks we play on ourselves to avoid pain….the ostrich policy” (Goleman, 1996, p. 118).  Rosenthal, (2005) describes defense mechanisms as the mind’s ability to conceal from our awareness anything that causes us pain or anxiety. What follows is a list of common defense mechanisms.


Repression is a simple defense mechanism that involves “keeping a thought, impulse or memory from awareness” (Goleman, 1996, p. 119).  Shameful and dreadful memories or impulses that run counter to our values or idealized self-perception are “forgotten” and blocked from memory.  Freud notes that ordinary individual efforts are generally unsuccessful in recalling this information. Psychoanalysis is required (Rosenthal, 2005).  It occurs unconsciously.


Sublimation occurs when we channel an unacceptable and unconscious urge into something socially acceptable.  For example, a person with violence and aggressive urges can take up a job as a professional boxer (Rosenthal, 2005).   Goleman, (1996) notes that this defense mechanisms “satisfies the unacceptable impulse indirectly by taking on an approved object…[it] is the great civilizer, the force which keeps mankind manageable” (p. 121).

Reaction Formation

“Denial is a refusal to accept things as they are…[a] common first reaction to devastating loss” (Goleman, 1996, p. 120).  On other occasions, denial can pertain to an unwanted or shame-inducing impulse and/or desire.  With reaction formation we start by denying this fact or impulse and then transforming it denied into its polar opposite.   Reaction formation replaces  anxiety by producing impulses and unconsciously rejects them by producing an instinct to do the exact opposite in our mind (Rosenthal, 2005).  In doing so, it seems that we are able to prove ourselves we aren’t we what we loathe.  I’m definitely guilty of doing this as an INFP with OCDish tendencies who loathes her own absentmindedness.


Suppression is a deliberate choice to not think about something (Rosenthal, 2005).  In other words, this defense mechanism involves a willful denial of reality.  In contrast, repression is an unconscious process that occurs out of our arenas.  It generates traumatic anxiety and pertains to those things that are way too painful to directly address.  A convenient example of this can be found here and here on my blog.


“Occurs when a person revers to a behavior that he/she has outgrown” (Rosenthal, 2005).  In this instance, individuals hope to refer to a time when they feel happy and secure.  The most convenient example I know if, includes my teenage boy’s behaviors shorty after his last heart surgery.  Normally your typically independent teenage male, in a hurry to grow up, the pain after his surgery was overwhelming.  Suddenly he had reverted to that kid who always needed me around.  Click on this link to read more about my experiences as a parent raising an ill child.  


Rationalization involves attempting to defend behavior and/or life outcome by utilizing a socially acceptable explanation (Rosenthal, 2005). “Rationalization allows the denial of one’s true motives by covering over unpleasant impulses with a cloak of reasonableness” (p. 121).  In other words, these are slick lies we tell others and ourselves in order to avoid revealing our true motives.  The best example I have of this comes from my youngest son, during dinner.  He looks at me with his best innocent smile and states: “I want to save some of this for you”, and then grabs dessert.


Projection involves attributing a character trait to other people that you despise in yourself (Rosenthal, 2005).  Goleman (1996) describes this as a distancing of one’s own emotions.  This occurs in a two-step process.  First, we deny a certain aspect of ourselves that we dislike.  Then, once blocked out of consciousness, we “displace those feelings outward onto someone else…Once cast out onto someone else, the projected part of the self is encountered as though it were a complete stranger” (Goleman, 1996, p. 121).  For a convenient example of projection, click here.


Displacement is a defense mechanism that refers to how we handle pent up negative feelings.  It involves expressing hidden and unconscious feelings or instincts onto a convenient target.  The first step in this process involves a denial of some hidden emotion or instinct.  The second step involves a purging of negative emotions associated with this denied aspect of ourselves.  For example, lets say you’re mad at your husband and frustrated at work.  So you go home and scream at your wife and kick the dog.  This is displacement.


Baumeister, R. F., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. L. (1998). Freudian defense mechanisms and empirical findings in modern social psychology: Reaction formation, projection, displacement, undoing, isolation, sublimation, and denial. Journal of Personality66(6), 1081-1124.
Goleman, D. (1996). Vital lies, simple truths: The psychology of self deception. Simon and Schuster.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge.
Shapiro, D. (1996). On the Psychology of Self-Deception.  Social Research, 63(3). Retrieved from:

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