What exactly IS a defense mechanism? It seems pretty self-explanatory, but it is necessary to differentiate between the "commonplace" use of the term and the "clinical" one. Typically people view defense mechanisms as traits that one exhibits when they are facing a specific trauma or loss, and this wouldn't be completely inaccurate, but defense mechanisms can come into play at any point in our everyday lives when our egos generally feel threatened.
But before we get into specific mechanisms, let's do some quick Psychoanalysis 101 and review Freud's structural model of the human psyche. There are three parts to it: the id, the ego, and the superego.
The id is basically your inner-child. It operates under what is known as "the pleasure principle." It is completely subconscious, and it is a selfish, petulant little shit who doesn't put up with any delay in gratification. Think of your average 3 year old. Or Paris Hilton. The id is generally an alcoholic and likes to come out and play after the fourth or fifth shot of tequila. The id is what likes to remove your clothes in public, drunk text all of your friends at 3 in the morning, and pee on the side of a building whenever a bathroom is not available and/or desirable.
The superego is your subconscious inner-parent, assuming your inner-parent is the type who doesn't let you smoke pot and have sex in his/her house. Otherwise that would be more like your id. But I'm not here to confuse you. Really, I'm not. Think of it more like your inner-priest. The non-molesting kind. The superego functions under the morality principle, and it teaches you the difference between right and wrong, etc. Generally, it tells you that killing the dumb motherfucker in front of you in the drive-thru (who ordered everything off the menu and paid in pennies) would be "wrong" because society generally frowns upon murder, no matter how much the ass-clown deserves it.
The ego is the fun little moderator between the id and the superego who rests just beneath your consciousness. It generally likes to seek compromise between the warring factions of "fun vs boring" in your subconscious. It likes to tell you: "I understand you're a hungover piece of crap today and all you want to do eat is an entire poundcake and watch re-runs of Mythbusters instead of cleaning your house and going for a jog, but perhaps you should limit yourself to one slice of poundcake, load your dishwasher, and maybe walk up the street to at least get your mail." Or maybe something like this: "Hey, you might be really pissed off at your husband for cheating on you and you really really want to put rat poison in his coffee and take his life insurance, but it might be better to just slash his tires and file for divorce instead." This is what we call the reality principle.
So defense mechanisms are what come into play when those above components of the human psyche come into conflict with one another. Your ego (i.e. your reality) feels threatened by some unpleasant bit of business, and your id or your superego decide to go to bat for you to make you feel better. There are a lot of defense mechanisms listed in various psychology textbooks, but I'm only going to highlight the more common ones. If you want to know more, take a freakin class.
1. Displacement -- This is a defense mechanism that you probably see more than any other (except maybe denial, which we'll get to in a sec). Anytime you've ever found yourself kicking a cat out of anger over something that had NOTHING AT ALL to do with said cat, you've exhibited the defense mechanism of displacement. But it doesn't even have to be something as vile as harming a defenseless, innocent animal. Your boss gives the hot babe in the office with the new rack a promotion instead of you (because you wear high collars and pants to work everyday, you prude), and you come home and chew out your significant other for the mere act of turning his eyes in your direction. That, kids, is displacement. You know it would be "wrong" to actually go and tell your boss to go take a long walk off a short pier, so you direct that ire toward something that is percieved as "safe." There you go, rankled ego. I kicked a cat! I feel better now!
2. Projection -- This one is actually my favorite, because when I see it happening, I feel smart; although, when I notice myself doing it, I feel stupid. It's interesting that way. Projection is when we see something ugly inside of ourselves that our ego just does not like (that stupid inner-moderator of ours has thrown up its hands in frustration yet again) and instead of actually dealing with and accepting it, we decide to attribute that ugliness (or flaw) onto someone else. Case in point, let's say that you are a giant whore. You may or may not have a raging case of syphllis (either way, it's irrelevant). So you're sitting at your local watering hole, scoping out some new prey for the night (the kind who won't care that you're a walking petrie dish) when you notice that your power play has been intercepted by a new lady on the scene. She's just sitting at the bar, but the guy you had your eye on showed some interest in her. To you, however, that beyotch just stole your man! So you slump off to all your friends, feeling all dejected, and you say: "Look how that girl is all over those guys like that! What a tramp!" You have effectively "projected" your slut-like behavior onto another girl in order to help your ego cope with the rejection. You go girl! I bet you feel better now!
3. Reaction Formation -- There are so many examples to illustrate this pretty little defense mechanism that is used when we're feeling particularly ashamed about something. The term "reaction formation" however, is confusing. In psychology class, we were told to put the word "opposite" in front of it to make it seem clearer. That is because when we engage in reaction formation, we cover up our shame for feeling one way about something by displaying the OPPOSITE of those internal feelings for everyone else to see. This, in effect, neutralizes our internal conflict. Using a real life example -- remember that famous televangelist last year who outed by a male prostitute? Remember how that televangelist made a regular habit of preaching about the evils of homosexuality, when the entire time he was, well, GAY? Actually, this is probably the primary defense mechanism used by those in the televangelist biz. I'd bet my house that Jerry Falwell's anus saw more play than a basketball court in South Central.
4. Denial -- this one is pretty self-explanatory. Besides, this blog is getting long enough. "I am NOT an alcoholic! I'll take another. What do you mean it's not even 9am?" Nuff said.
5. Regression -- This is perhaps the only defense mechanism that most makes me want to engage in ANOTHER defense mechanism when I see someone doing it (see: displacement and the kicking of cats). Have you ever seen an ordinarily normal, rational human adult get really upset and suddenly start talking like a baby, or maybe sucking his/her thumb? "Oh my boyfriend bwoke up wif me, I just wanna way in bed aw day wong. *sniffy sniffy*" If you are experiencing an internal conflict that makes you want to start literally acting like a baby, please just punch yourself in the face. Seriously.
6. Repression -- Another one that is pretty much self-explanatory, although it sounds a bit like denial, only the idea behind it is that something so bad and traumatic happened to you that your subconscious completely blocked that tidbit from entering your consciousness altogether. With denial, you are basically electing to ignore something. Repression is controversial. Remember back in the 90s when a bunch of people were hypnotized and then suddenly remembered being raped by their uncles? Let's just say that this is probably the most unproveable of all of these theories, and is pretty much crap. When it comes to complete ignorance, stick with denial.
7. Sublimation -- This one is basically the good twin to displacement's evil counterpart. When you sublimate, you're taking those dastardly lemons life threw at your ego and you're making lemonade! Instead of kicking a cat when your boss insults you, you decide to join a kickboxing class, where you can take out your frustrations and get in shape at the same time! Emo kids engage in sublimation all the time when they write really really bad poetry in order to cope with the miseries of an evil evil world (cue The Cure). Sublimation is our way of trying to make something positive out of something negative. It's actually the one that is most useful. It's a shame we can't use it more often.
I hope this helps shed some light on those annoying things that your friends and family (or even you) might do whenever their precious egos are feeling threatened. We human beings have most clever ways of not dealing with reality.
At the very least, it gives me something to write about.