Vaillant’s classification of defense mechanisms

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Presented by BetterHelp.

As human beings, we often have the instinct or need to defend ourselves – whether that’s physically or mentally. On a macro level, when we find ourselves in a dangerous situation, we take action to keep ourselves safe. On a micro level, our immune systems have a huge range of defense mechanisms to fight off infection or physical ailments.

People deal with stress, anxiety, and unease in a huge range of different ways. When we find ourselves in situations that are mentally difficult, we sometimes feel a need to defend ourselves or to cope. Oftentimes this is a perfectly normal part of our emotional regulation. In fact, there’s nothing inherently ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about our defense mechanisms. As George Vaillant put it “A fever is a coping response, not a sign of illness.” And we should view our defense mechanisms in the same light. In addition, BetterHelp has a variety of helpful, medically-reviewed articles available so you can learn even more about defense mechanisms.

Vaillant’s Four Categories of Defense Mechanisms

When it comes to defense mechanisms, one of the most influential voices of the modern era has been the psychiatrist George Vaillant, who established a four-level system to classify different behaviors based on an ongoing longitudinal study. According to Vaillant, defense mechanisms fall into one of four different groups – pathological, immature, neurotic, and mature. Each of these levels shows a different degree of acceptance for confronting or working through difficult emotions.

It’s important to remember that we all have defense mechanisms to some degree. These behaviors arise when we’re feeling stressed, uncomfortable, or in need of something. And by looking at defense mechanisms through this lens, we can get a better understanding of our own behaviors.

Level 1 – Pathological Defense

Defense mechanisms at the pathological level are the most intense. These behaviors often seek to rearrange, reshape, or entirely ignore events and experiences rather than confront them.

  • Denial – Refusing to acknowledge or accept an event or a reality
  • Distortion – Changing and reshaping an experience, event, or reality to something more palatable.
  • Delusional Projection – Displacing your emotions or discomfort onto someone or something else.

Level 2 – Immature Defense Mechanisms

Immature defense mechanisms can often be an unhealthy response to stressing or anxiety-inducing stimuli. These kinds of defense mechanisms are often exhibited by adults who are experiencing depression as well as personality disorders.

  • Acting out – Expressing unconscious desires or impulses without being conscious of their emotional cause
  • Passive-Aggressive behavior – Expressing hostility or animosity indirectly
  • Projection – Exhibiting paranoia/strong fear of external hostility or injustice

Level 3 – Neurotic Defense Mechanisms

Neurotic defensive behaviors are relatively common among adults. These can often be helpful in easing discomfort or emotional unease in the short term. However, because these defense mechanics allow someone to keep the root cause of their distress out of their awareness, they can often lead to long-term issues, when used as the only primary coping strategy.

  • Displacement – Shifting different impulses or redirecting emotions to a more acceptable target. Taking out one’s emotional distress on something else.
  • Intellectualization – Viewing something only through an intellectual lens as a means of distancing oneself from the topic on an emotional level.
  • Repression – Attempting to simply ‘push away’ uncomfortable feelings or emotions, without addressing them

Level 4 – Mature Defense Mechanisms

The common quality shared by level 4 defense mechanisms is that they are all conscious processes. The main goal of these is not to defer feelings but to work through conflicting emotional states and more directly address difficulties.

  • Altruism – acting in service of others to bring satisfaction to ourselves
  • Anticipation – planning consciously and realistically for future discomfort
  • Delay – choosing consciously to not give attention to an issue or emotion and waiting to address them at a more favorable time.
  • Humor – overtly addressing and expressing discomforting emotions while also trying to bring comfort to others
  • Sublimation – transforming or converting unhelpful emotions into healthy actions. E.g. Going for a run when feeling aggression

Finding Healthy Defense Mechanisms

We all experience anxiety-inducing situations, our defense mechanisms are simply how we deal with them. If you’re wondering about your own coping strategies or want to try sublimating some of your worries into something productive, consider beekeeping. BeeKeepClub provides loads of information for beginning about a hobby that helps keep us balanced and happier.

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