Defense mechanisms come in handy when you’re trying to justify that you’re still a good person even though you just committed murder. Or, say, when you scolded your child out of anger when he didn’t deserve it. Or whenever you do or say something—reality—that conflicts with who you think you should be. People use defense mechanisms to assuage the fear and anxiety that result when who we think we are conflicts with who we really are.


It’s human nature. You defend your ego with a combination of repression, reaction formation, and projection.

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Repression. This is an unconscious, but active, forgetting of ideas and emotions that you have that are unacceptable to you. For example, you’re impatient and angry with your elderly aunt who moves so slowly she makes you crazy, and you are sharp with her. You know you shouldn’t feel those things, and you know you should be kinder. So, you repress the fact that you felt the way you did, and that you were mean to her.


Repression is not to be confused with denial, which is the refusal to admit reality—something external. Repression relates to mental, internal feelings. Repression is also sometimes confused with distortion, which is recreating reality and shaping it to fit your needs. For example, if your aunt was convicted of embezzlement, and you prefer to characterize her as a good citizen who happened to have a bad judge, then you are distorting the facts.


Reaction Formation. This is when you take on emotions and ideas that are completely opposite to your own. You’ve seen this countless times in the news when a clergyman preaches against homosexuality and turns out to be gay himself. Or, the congressman who harangues against our drug-ridden society and turns out to be an addict. Or, your aunt insists on propriety and integrity, and all the while she’s embezzling funds.


Projection. This is when you attribute your own ideas and feelings, that you think are unacceptable, to someone else. Usually, the first step in projecting is repressing your own unacceptable thoughts, and then projecting them onto someone else. For example, a jealous lover thinks you are jealous of him. Or, he’s unfaithful but he is frantic with fear that you’re cheating on him.


We’ll talk more next time about how people deceive themselves, and what you can do to save yourself from self-deception.



Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: