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We need our defense mechanisms, But we don’t need to be defensive

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 4.59.25 PMEveryone I counsel has defense mechanisms. We all do. It’s part of being human. They help us cope. Based on George Valliant’s work at Harvard, where he currently oversees the Grant Study, there are four different kinds of defense mechanisms.

Some are healthy, some are not. Which ones do you use?

The Grant Study has followed the lives of 268 Harvard students for over eight decades. It is a remarkable long-term study of human behavior and development. Valliant identified the following four defense mechanisms:


These are defense mechanisms that help a person tolerate reality, while appearing crazy to other people. They include paranoia, hallucinations and megalomania.


These are defense mechanisms that impede intimacy. They include things such as acting out, being passive aggressive, hypochondria and excessive fantasy or drama.


These are defense mechanism that are commonly used by so called “normal” people, and they are a way to numb ourselves. They include intellectualization, repression, and disconnecting from our feelings.


These are defense mechanisms that involve making conscious choices in how we behave. They include altruism, humor, anticipation (planning), suppression (a conscious decision to postpone action), and sublimation (finding healthy outlets for expressing our feelings).

We use defense mechanisms as a way to adapt to pain, conflict, or uncertainty. For the most part our defense mechanisms are unconscious, long standing habitual responses to what we perceive as difficult circumstances. But with awareness and practice we can develop mature defense mechanisms that are more conscious.

To read the full story about this, see our article, “What Is Your Style Of Adapting To Stress?”

So instead of trying to stop being defensive, what about defending ourselves in healthy, mature ways? If we use our defenses well, we will be deemed mentally healthy, conscientious, funny, creative, and altruistic.

Practically speaking what’s this look like? It involves letting go of my immature defense mechanisms which are designed primarily to push people away. And it involves giving up attempts to numb myself by intellectualizing or repressing.

So, where would that leave me? I would end up with people in my life and I would feel my feelings.

If that causes me to be uncomfortable, then I can rely on my mature defense mechanisms to make myself more comfortable. This means that instead of pushing people away, I can create the space I need for myself by establishing healthy emotional boundaries (this involves planning).

And if I am uncomfortable with my feelings I can use appropriate humor instead of numbing myself. I can also look for the appropriate times and places to express myself.

And I can use ReSpeak—something that they didn’t teach at Harvard, but should have—which allows me to express my emotions without fear of being judged by others.

Here’s the good news, “as adolescents, the Grant Study men were twice as likely to use immature defenses as mature ones, but in middle life they were four times as likely to use mature defenses—and the progress continued into old age. When they were between 50 and 75, Vaillant found, altruism and humor far more prevalent, while all the immature defenses grew more rare.”

You may read “the good news” to suggest that as we age we become more mature. But, remember, these were Harvard students. Not everyone matures just because they age, but here’s what matters—we can! With a little bit of effort and living our lives more consciously, we can find healthy ways to make ourselves feel safe and secure.

We need our defense mechanisms, But we don’t need to be defensive

Jake & Hannah Eagle

Jake & Hannah Eagle conduct small retreats at beautiful locations around the world for the purpose of encouraging people to live more consciously. They also provide coach and health consultations.

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APA Reference
, . (2015). We need our defense mechanisms, But we don’t need to be defensive. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 21, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/healthy-relationships/2015/02/we-need-our-defense-mechanisms-but-we-dont-need-to-be-defensive/


Last updated: 24 Feb 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 Feb 2015
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.