Mental Illness ‘Defences’

By Julie Le Franc, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist and Psychologist



       Defences may be seen as coping, ‘mechanisms of defence’ that are unconsciously determined, and often beyond our immediate awareness.  They are there to protect the ego from overwhelming affects, especially anxiety.  While we consciously choose and willingly implement the coping strategies, defences often have an involuntary quality.


       Some defences may include anxiety, phobias, denial, repression, regression, rationalisation, intellectualisation, displacement, projection, introjections, sublimation, reaction formation compensation or counter-dependency, obsessions, distortions, flight into health to name a few.

       Freud himself recognised the vital role of defences in maintaining psychological balance.  Anna Freud furthered the role of defences and showed that the processes of denial were effective in anxiety, superego demands, emotions and situations (LaPlanche & Pontalis, 1988).

       As conflict tends to be at the root of some form of neurosis, successful treatment depends upon clearly identifying the conflict and assisting the individual to find better solutions for them.  A psychosis results when the conflict becomes too great or long-lasting that the individual’s ways of coping with the problem goes beyond social reality.

       Psychic pain can activate mechanisms of defence that can threaten the integrity and stability of the bio-psychological individual and interfere with their daily functions of work, creativity, family and social relationships.

       In treating a person with habitual defences that are limiting an individual’s capacity to function effectively, psychotherapy aims to break through the barriers of defence and resistance and focus on the individual’s experience of painful and conflicting feelings as soon as the patient is ready.  The relationship between the patient and therapist is vital to assist the patient in dealing with difficulties and to gain freedom from suffering.

       It is in the direct experience of all these conflicted feelings in the transference, the relationship between the individual and the therapist that provides the key to unlock the unconscious system.




LaPlanche, J. & Pontalis, J.B. (1988).  ‘The language of psychoanalysis’, Kamac, London.


The Medical Link June/July 2007 – issue number 053