What do personality defense mechanisms protect against?

The concept of defense mechanisms in the gestalt therapy paradigm and psychoanalytic approach.

13 September, 2023

The prevalence of the concept of defense mechanisms in psychology is difficult to underestimate. Defense mechanisms and mental strategies are a common topic of scientific research and inquiry. Furthermore, theoretical concepts and knowledge about them not only assist many psychologists in their everyday practical work but also benefit those interested in psychology who seek to enrich their lives through better self-awareness and understanding of their characteristics and inclinations.


At the core of the gestalt approach are two key concepts: contact and needs. A person has needs, and when these needs are not satisfied, they experience deficit, lack, hunger, and various other painful states. The organism (in the broadest sense) strives for homeostasis, but maintaining homeostasis requires satisfying many needs. Even if we consider the biological organism, it requires proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fluids, and much more.

The human psyche is an even more complex «organism» with diverse and complex psychological needs. To achieve and maintain a psychologically comfortable state, an individual needs to fulfill numerous specific psychological needs (and even before that, correctly recognize them). Almost all needs can only be satisfied through contact with the environment (which is broadly understood and primarily includes other people).

The environment is not only the primary resource or opportunity for satisfying various needs but also the main frustrator. Therefore, the defense mechanisms of the psyche protect a person from recognizing their own needs and «forbidden» desires, the satisfaction of which is not supported by the current environment (often experienced as external pressure and forces acting on the individual).

Defense mechanisms serve the purpose of mentally negating the awareness of a sharp need for something currently unavailable.


According to the psychoanalytic paradigm, defense mechanisms protect against psychological pain associated with experiencing loss and one's own helplessness (the shattering of the illusion of omnipotence). The loss of a valuable «object» and the acceptance of the fact of the fundamental uncontrollability of everything related to the non-Self (which, fortunately, does not negate the active role of the individual as the creator of their life and does not imply total helplessness) represent that painful experience that the psyche is willing to do much, sometimes even «everything», to avoid experiencing.

It is not a coincidence that almost all endogenous psychoses begin with a very specific «loss», which can often be identified in the patient's history. The death or departure of a loved one or a family member (parent, child) invariably precedes the manifestation of the illness. Of course, to manifest the illness, other predispositions are required (genetic features, a specific psychological organization, cognitive style, and much more). That is why not all mourners and abandoned individuals develop schizophrenia or clinical depression. However, this underscores the significance of significant losses and a person's ability to cope with them in their psychological well-being.

Defense mechanisms «erase» the awareness of the presence of loss from consciousness. The illusion of omnipotence is restored, along with fragile self-esteem and a sense of security in the surrounding reality. Depending on their «coarseness», defense mechanisms can be classified as primitive or mature. Primitive defense mechanisms achieve their goal by distorting perceptions of reality (half of the received information is forgotten, repressed, and not perceived when new experiences are encountered). Mature defense mechanisms do not aim to destroy the received image of reality. For example, sublimation involves achieving greater integration through creativity (writing poetry, composing music, painting pictures, creating stories for friends, or fairy tales for one's own children).

A criterion for personal maturity is the ability to experience loss without losing a sense of one's own significance and self-worth. One no longer needs to think and feel omnipotent to prove to oneself that they can influence something or that they are «good» despite being «abandoned». They know they are valuable and the authors of their own lives, regardless of something is beyond their control. Knowing that «the Other» is fundamentally uncontrollable helps them not invest excessive energy in things beyond their control and directs their efforts to where they can make a meaningful impact.

About me

Maria Dolgopolova – a certified clinical and a jungian psychologist (Moscow Association of Analytical Psychology, an IAAP training candidate studying in CGJung Institute in Zurich) with a background in gestalt therapy (Moscow Institute of Gestalt and Psychodrama, Gestalt Associates Training Los Angeles) and in psychoanalysis of object relations.


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