In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind to protect the mind/self/ego from anxiety and social sanctions and to provide a refuge from a situation with which one cannot currently cope. They are referred to as Ego defense mechanisms, and can be categorized as occurring when the Id impulses are in conflict with each other or with Superego values and beliefs, and when an external threat is posed to the Ego.
George Vaillant categorized defense mechanisms into four levels in 1977:
Level 1: Pathological: “psychotic” defenses permit one to effectively rearrange external experiences and eliminate the need to cope with reality. They are: delusional projection, conversion, denial, splitting and distortion.
Level 2: Immature: “immature” defenses lessen distress and anxiety provoked by threatening people or by an uncomfortable reality. They include: acting out, fantasy, idealization, passive aggression, projection and somatization.
Level 3: Neurotic: Such defences have short-term advantages in coping, but can often cause long-term problems in relationships, work and in enjoying life when used as one’s primary style of coping with the world. They are: displacement, hypocondriasis, dissociation, isolation, intellectualization, rationalization (making excuses), regression, repression and withdrawal.
Level 4: Mature: The use of these defenses enhances pleasure and feelings of control helping us to integrate conflicting emotions and thoughts, while still remaining effective. They include: altruism, anticipation, humour, identification, introjections, sublimation and thought suppression.